Ask ARP: How can white people join the anti-racist discussion?

Dear Anti-Racist Parent,

I need some help.  I am a white mother of white children.  But having been raised in a community that was predominantly minority and largely economically disadvantaged, I’ve always been concerned about race issues in our country.  I’ve been a long-time reader of ARP and I am committed to raising my two girls (and any other children we may have) to be anti-racist.  I posted ARP’s widget on my blog as soon as you developed it, and around that same time I began a category about race issues.

Many people are confused (and sometimes angered) by my decision to discuss race.  They assume that because I am white, married to a white man (a fact that surprised even me, given my dating history), and have white children, I have no stake in the matter.  They seem to think that unless I am raising children of a different race or am married to someone of a different race, my opinion does not and should not count. (In fact, when I added your widget to my blog, I received an e-mail thanking me for posting it even though you weren’t sure why I did.)

I could not feel more strongly that it does.

I recognize, as fully as I can, that my life has been blessed with a level of privilege simply by being white that people of other races will never have.  I also recognize that I surely have my own biases and prejudices that color the way I see other races.  I fight daily to overcome those and to recognize them for what they are.  But I am human, and flawed, and I make mistakes and speak out of turn.

That being said, many, many white people in the United States have strong feelings about eliminating racism, or eliminating as much of it as they can.  I believe that an open discussion of the myriad issues that face us is absolutely crucial to our success. 

I have tried to open that discussion on my blog, using the same tactics (namely, dry humor) I routinely use to discuss other aspects of my life.  Inevitably, I anger some.  Even when I am discussing the behavior of my own race.  I can understand if some people don’t like or agree with my humor, and I’m not above being called out if I’ve overstepped good taste.  I’ve even been known to rethink and argument and change my mind, hopefully for the better.

What I don’t understand is the condemnation of a white woman speaking about race, period.  I do have a stake in this world of ours, where race is such a factor.  So my question is this:

How do white people enter the discussion?  Can it be done without angering people?  Or is that too optimistic and unrealistic?

Thanks in advance for any feedback,

Julia

 

From the Editor:

It sounds like you are already part of the discussion. So, welcome and thank you. In order to decrease racism, we need ALL voices.

Now…

If I may be honest, and I assume honesty is what you want, because…y’know…you asked…There are three major missteps I see white members of the anti-racist movement make again and again.

The first mistake is thinking that talking about racism is easy. It’s not. You say that you get angry responses from some people when you discuss race on your blog. So do I. So do my many blog sisters and brothers of color. Oh, your angry e-mails may say slightly different things than ours, but fundamentally the hate mail is born of the fact that Americans are just plain uncomfortable about race discussions. They don’t want you to talk about racism as a white woman. They don’t want me to talk about racism as a black woman. They just don’t want to talk about it. The mainstream prefers to think of racism as a thing of the past. The topic stirs up too much guilt and anger and demands. And admittedly some people of color can’t get past anger at white people to be able to trust them as allies. I hope that you will continue to write about racism, but to answer your question: No, white people cannot enter the race discussion without angering people. But then, No one can enter the race discussion without angering people.

The second misstep is expecting to be greeted with flowers and hosannas, just for entering the conversation, and becoming offended when things get hot. As a citizen of the world, you are supposed to work to combat racism. It is simply the right thing to do. That most people in the mainstream don’t give two figs about anti-racism is a damned abomination. But as Chris Rock says, you don’t get a cookie for doing something you are supposed to do. You’re here; let’s get to work. Oh, and while we’re working, expect to get called on your own prejudice and privilege, and expect the culture of which you are a part to get called out, too. No one is saying that white people in the anti-racist movement need to sign up for abuse, or that you don’t have a right to challenge unfair accusations and assumptions. But your role as a member of a privileged race that has routinely oppressed other races in this country, puts you in a unique position in the cause. Any white person who is serious about the anti-racism movement must realize this.

I recognize, as fully as I can, that my life has been blessed with a level of privilege simply by being white that people of other races will never have.  I also recognize that I surely have my own biases and prejudices that color the way I see other races.  I fight daily to overcome those and to recognize them for what they are.  But I am human, and flawed, and I make mistakes and speak out of turn.

I was glad to read that after reading this:

I am a white mother of white children.  But having been raised in a community that was predominantly minority and largely economically disadvantaged, I’ve always been concerned about race issues in our country.

Misstep number three is believing that studying, sleeping with, befriending, adopting, marrying or living next door to people of color allows a white person to become an expert on Asianness or blackness or Native Americanness. I am a black woman and I have been lectured more than once about black people by white people. Apparently in all their studying and PCness, these folks hadn’t gotten the memo that most black people would find this sort of lecturing arrogant and offensive. No matter how long you are a part of the anti-racist movement, don’t think that your involvement trumps the real life experience of people of color.

I’m not saying that you have made these missteps, but it may be worth examining whether you have. It may be worth examining whether there is something in your well-meaning humor that is offensive. It may be worth examining whether the way you are using your voice in the anti-racism movement drowns out those who are victims of racism.

But, it could simply be that you are a victim of racial prejudice–of people who think that a white woman can’t possibly care or think about racism. That sucks. The best thing you can do about this type of racial prejudice is call it what it is and move on. You should not let it stop you from doing something you think is worthwhile. Racial prejudice too often limits the lives of its victims.

My advice: Keep working against racism, make sure you are keeping your privilege in check and ignore the haters.

Tami

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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