Every time a white person asks me a question about racism, I tense up. I know fuckery is probably following because rarely does that person come from a place of sincerely wanting to learn about it. Let me get this out of the way first: People of color don’t owe you any type of conversation about race. But if you find someone actually willing to discuss race and white supremacy, make sure you’re entering that conversation with the real intention of being a less racist, better white person.
Don’t question our experiences. You’ll never understand them because you don’t walk through the world with black or brown skin. Just sit there and listen. Don’t walk up to some random POC and ask them about race. Burdening them with a barrage of questions like you’re friends isn’t going to make them want to open up to you. The same goes for your coworkers. You’re not friends just because you occasionally go to lunch together.
Keep in mind that some of us just don’t want to talk to you. We don’t trust you with our stories. We don’t trust you with our emotions. We don’t trust you with our truths. Those feelings are coming from a lifetime of experiencing racism and white supremacy firsthand. It comes from being angry at having to work harder than our white counterparts for even a portion of what they get. It comes from being disgusted with experiencing the painful stings of either being invisible or too visible to white people. Both are exhausting and — at times — even terrifying.
We don’t owe you friendship, loyalty or respect. We damn sure don’t owe you what little energy we have leftover from fighting a system designed to keep us oppressed.
If you have any black or brown friends and you’re thinking about asking them to educate you about race, don’t. They don’t owe you anything either. Besides, it’s insulting to think that one person speaks for an entire race. Ask yourself how good of a friend you’ve been if you haven’t noticed how your friend is treated when you’re together in white spaces. Also, if you think that we exaggerate our experiences of racism and white supremacy, don’t ask any of us to help you. Do your own work. Don’t ask us to help you if you believe that we’re lying.
Before you start trying to educate yourself, know that you’ve done real harm to us. Every white person has, and the sooner you realize this, the better. We’ll give you a few examples:
- You told a POC you understand racism because you’ve experienced it too. This is bullshit. You haven’t.
- You questioned a POC’s story of racism. Why would we lie? These stories are painful enough without white people thinking we’re not being honest about what’s happened to us.
- You assumed you knew how a POC felt because you have a spouse or a friend of the same race. You can’t understand racism by association. You must experience it firsthand.
- You believe that a coworker got a job or promotion over you simply because of their race. Check your ego. They probably got it because they’re more qualified than you are.
- You’ve asked one of us why we’re so angry. We regularly experience racism. So you’re damn right we’re angry. We have a right to be.
If we don’t want to talk to you about racism, respect our decision not to have that conversation with you. Don’t try to manipulate us into talking to you by asking us why we wouldn’t want to help you to not be a racist. Look, if we knew that every soul-sucking conversation we had with white people about race resulted in one less racist, then we might be more inclined to talk to you. But the reality is, after most of these conversations, we want to scream in frustration when you don’t even try to hear us. We come away feeling like we’ve wasted precious energy that we didn’t even have to spare in the first place. These experiences are just tiring. Yes. We are tired. Exhausted in fact. We’re dealing with racism and white supremacy on a regular basis. It sucks the life out of us, and we still have responsibilities to take care of — families, jobs… hell, just taking care of our damn selves.
What makes you think that one conversation about race will cure you? It doesn’t work like that. Racism has been a part of this country since the beginning. So for you to assume you can unlearn a system that’s entrenched in our everyday lives and makes your life easier and ours harder — and that you probably don’t even believe exists — that’s insulting. Your racism will take a lifetime to unlearn. So no, there aren’t any crib notes or 5-minute YouTube videos to fix you. If you’re really determined to do better, know that this journey will take the rest of your life. Think of it as continuing education or an independent studies class where you need to proactively seek out the content. Don’t ask us to provide the information for you. Instead, participate in your own education. We’ve already given you enough of our free labor. Don’t ask us for anymore.
Besides, plenty of white folks have stepped up to help you acknowledge your racism so you can become less racist. We don’t need to do the work for you. It took me about a minute to find John Greenberg’s website “Citizenship and Social Justice” and then this: “Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism–from Ferguson to Charleston.” So why can’t y’all do that? If you want to learn Spanish, do you walk up to an Hispanic person and ask them to teach you? No. You take a class. Do the same thing here. (Side note: Don’t assume that person speaks Spanish in the first place, but that’s another article). Read John Metta’s “When you walk into the valley: On allies asking to be taught about race” so you fully understand what you need to know about race and why you’ll never learn it all.
Those of us who live in this desert already know this. There are no black and white answers. There is just a long, hard, emotionally exhausting journey of self-evaluation, critical thinking, and cultural study.
There is a lot of reading and a lot of research and a probably lot of trying to understand what it’s like to live in snow when you’ve only heard people talk about it and maybe don’t even believe it exists. It’s hard. It’s damn hard. It’s so damn hard that before you even understand the basics of the issue, you are an emotional catastrophe and have probably lost most of your ability to even understand yourself.
No-one can teach you this, no-one can show you what to do. You have to walk into the valley of the shadow of death, you have to walk into it alone and you have to know that there is no other side that you will ever reach.
You will die in this place.
So if you want to stop being a racist, take it seriously. Don’t try to cut corners and don’t ask people of color to do the heavy lifting for you. We’ve done that our entire lives. It’s time for you to shoulder that burden so we can catch our breath for once.
*This is the collective product of women of color and allies, and this piece specifically comes from an African American voice.