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I'm White. Let's Talk About Racism

Posted: 09/24/2013 8:48 pm

I'm embarrassed to admit that I'd never considered my privilege as a white person until about two years ago. Sure, I was aware of racism, but I didn't stop to connect it to me and the colour of my skin. I didn't take stock of all the ways I was benefiting from being white:

"As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege which puts me at an advantage." --Peggy McIntosh

This summer, women of colour started a conversation on Twitter about the imbalances in feminism with the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag. I watched that thread in an effort to learn more about my unearned privilege as a white female. I had some follow up chats, one in regards to this essay on interracial friendship:

We couldn't giggle about the same kinds of boys since our tastes fell along racial lines, couldn't trade makeup or hair products, or move through each other's social circles with ease any longer, because increasingly these things were defined by race. So I decided that I needed black girls for friends, girls who liked the boys I liked, who went to churches sort of like mine, where we didn't have "youth group" but youth either joined the choir or the usher board, girls whose cultural experiences were and would be closer to my own.

I shared the article on my Truthfully Facebook page. Although I grew up in Alberta where my exposure to different races was fairly limited, I wasn't surprised that many of the Vancouver-born women who responded were part of interracial friendships growing up.

What I was surprised to hear was that, unlike the essay's author, they felt their circumstances were ideal and race was a non-issue. This felt off to me and I questioned them:

For [those] of you saying you had interracial friendships and it wasn't an issue, I'd be interested to know if it was the same for the POC you were friends with. There was an imbalance that didn't demand your attention as the privileged. In retrospect, do you see any of that?

The denial continued. "I never cared about the colour of their skin," someone said. I understand that the essence of this comment was, "We're all just people man--that's what I see!" And I've said some version of this same thing until learning that Having A Color Blind Approach To Racism Is Actually Racist:

Color blindness thrives on the notion that racism isn't really a problem anymore, and that everyone and everything is judged purely on merit. The problem is that's a bunch of crap and isn't true whatsoever. Studies have shown that color blindness actually makes people more racist. Color blindness is really just an easy way for people who don't experience racism (i.e. generally white people) to feel a little less squirmy about the possibility that racism is still a problem. The best way to feel less squirmy is to ignore it, because we all know that the more you ignore something, the faster it'll go away, right?

A black friend of mine was among the women participating in the Facebook conversation about interracial friendships. I was giddy to have her there because I felt like she was giving us the gift of her perspective, time and insight. Unfortunately, feeling excluded and ignored by others' defensiveness, she eventually unfollowed our conversation. Opportunity. Lost.

In Derald Wing Sue's YouTube video on Overcoming Microaggressions in Everyday Life, he defines microaggressions as "unconscious manifestations of a world view of inclusion/exclusion, superiority/inferiority," and says "our major task is to make the invisible, visible."

He suggests five things we can do to overcome microaggressions:


  1. Learn from constant vigilance of your own biases and fears.

  2. Experiential reality is important in interacting with people who differ from you in terms of race, culture or ethnicity.

  3. Don't be defensive.

  4. Be open to discussing your own attitudes and biases and how they might have hurt others or in some sense reveal bias on your part.

  5. Be an ally. Stand personally against all forms of bias and discrimination.

In preparing to write this essay, I read back in the Facebook thread and noticed that I had ignorantly used the term "non-white."

As embarrassed as I was to find that, it was helpful. It exposed one of my biases. The thing is -- that wasn't the last misstep I'm going to make. And, you know what? I need to work on being okay with that because unlearning shitty thinking is messy and uncomfortable.

Let's bring ourselves along lovingly. Together. You in?

I love it when Christopher Bowers, in his 10 Ways to be an Ally essay says,

"We will mess up. Sometimes people will be kind in their response to our follies and sometimes they won't. However, we can be kind to ourselves by getting support from other people and by attending kindly to whatever emotions arise. We can be kind to others by not letting these mess ups lead to give ups. Anyone who has been involved in anti-oppression work probably has one or many stories of being called out on some unskillful behaviour. It is part of the process and something we can ultimately be grateful for, even if it is painful as hell in the moment."

The reason I have agency to talk about racism is not that I have being an ally figured out. I'm not better than my white peers who grapple with the idea of being privileged. I have agency to talk about racism because I want to do better, be better and surround myself with people heading in that same direction.

When you suggest that I'm judgemental and attempting to shame you by pointing out that we are blinded by privilege -- because hey! you work with minorities -- I'm going to hug you and say, "Dude, I know this is uncomfortable and tricky, but it's not about my feelings or yours."

White people walk through the world differently. We carry a privilege we have not earned and cannot unhave. I really hope one day that's not true. But, in the meantime, it's our job to use our privilege to educate and make right. This all starts with admitting that privilege is an actual thing and that it's problematic.

It's super fantastic that you are aware of racism, work with groups affected by it, fight to change it, have a black parent/sister/brother/friend/daughter, and live in neighbourhoods predominantly populated by people of colour. Those things don't wipe out our biases -- they make us responsible to be more vigilant.

"If you think that taking on the ally label automatically means that you can never say anything racist/sexist/homophobic, you are not an ally." --Leah Doolittle

As white people, we won't ever fully get it because we have not lived it. And this is what makes it so important for us to listen -- even when it's uncomfortable and maybe especially when it's uncomfortable -- and look for opportunities to expose the ways we contribute to racism (i.e. denying the existence of privilege within our circles/self).

This is difficult work and it requires a lot of humility and vulnerability. It is important to realize that we are asking ourselves to challenge things we've believed since we were children. We were brought up with a frame of reference that has inevitable blind spots. We are trying to change behaviors that are well ingrained. -Bowers

I wish that Facebook conversation could have gone something like this:

"Hey, interesting article. I grew up part of and surrounded by interracial friendships, and I couldn't relate to this author's experience at all. But I'd be interested to know if that's because I was the white, privileged party in said friendships. Maybe there were racist nuances I missed because I wasn't the target. I'd love to have a conversation with some of those childhood friends of colour and see what the experience was like from their point of view."


Important reading on white privilege:


  1. One Easy Thing All White People Could Do That Would Make The World A Better Place - Upworthy video

  2. AFTER #SOLIDARITYISFORWHITEWOMEN: SO YOU WANT TO BE AN ALLY, NOW WHAT? - Mikki Kendall

  3. Why saying "I don't see race/gender/etc." is offensive - Faruk Ateş

  4. On Silencing Anger to Silence Minority Voices - Jen McCreight

  5. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack - Peggy McIntosh (linked above and worth reading a million times)

  6. On Women's Equality Day, Which Women Do We Mean? - Shelby Knox

 

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