Why White People Can't Talk About Race
I grew up under the impression that “religion” and “politics” are the touchiest subjects to bring up in social settings, but I don’t think that’s true anymore.
If you want to get emotions riled up, simply bring up the topic of “race” in a room full of White Americans. Just make sure you are near an exit, or have a getaway car warmed up and running.
In my work on college campuses in New England, I regularly engage people from various perspectives in different controversial topics. And, truly, more so than politics, science, sex, and even religious convictions, White Americans (I'm generalizing here, of course) just don’t want to talk about race. It’s actually kind of astounding. Over and over again, when I ask White folks (young and old) about race and ethnicity, I get some variation on these responses:
“I’m not racist! Why are you bringing this up?” OR “This conversation was going fine before we started talking about ‘race.’ Can’t we just go back to that?” OR “I never owned slaves! I can’t do anything about the past, so what do you want from me?!”
In other words: “I would like nothing more than to shut down this conversation.”
This has happened over and over again, even with people that I know, from first-hand experience, can have honest, intelligent conversations about other touchy subjects. It’s happened way too many times for me to continue to pretend I don’t see a troubling pattern, and has caused me to ask, “Why can’t White people talk about this?”
In this series, I want to intentionally unpack a pattern that I’ve come to see in conversations about this topic with White people. Generally, when race comes up, the conversation can’t get anywhere because 1) we no idea what “race-ism” actually is 2) we have no idea what created race-ism in America (ie. our history) 3) and we have no idea what to do about it (ie. we feel overwhelmed and helpless).
As a brief aside, I have no desire to “beat up” White people in this conversation, and I certainly don’t make any pretensions to be an expert. My own journey in understanding my ethnicity, and how that impacts my life and those around me, is still ongoing. I want that to be clear. But I also can’t keep setting the topic aside to avoid discomfort. My goal here is simple - I want my fellow White Americans to be able to have less combative, less emotional, but more confident, honest and vulnerable conversations. So if you’re a White-American, and you’re still reading, I hope what follows will stretch your thinking in a loving way.
Race-ism is Bigger Than You*
The knee-jerk response I mentioned above, “I’m not a racist!” seems simple enough, but it actually presupposes a deeply flawed and unhelpful understanding of the term it’s leaning on, and if we can’t get on the same page with how this word actually functions, we have no hope of moving anywhere.
So, let’s break down the loaded term “racism.”
At the risk of simplifying too much, it helps to think of the suffix “ism” as “belief in.” So, to offer a few examples, “athe-ism” can be thought of as “belief in….no god.” Or, “human-ism” as the “belief in….the capability of humans to organize and advance society.” Or, “scient-ism” as the “belief in...science as the only basis for knowledge.” Or, “capital-ism” as the “belief in...capital as an effective organizing principle for an economic system.”
“Race-ism,” then, in these terms, is the “belief in….race as a valid indicator of the intelligence, physical capabilities, or otherwise social-contributing-potential of an individual or group of people.”
So, to preemptively attribute any characteristic, or any social role, to a person or group by virtue of their racial category is, by definition, “race-ist.”
In light of all of this, when I’m talking to a White person about these issues, and they quickly retort, “But I’m not racist!” they are probably, technically correct. In general, most people, in my experience, are not textbook “race-ists,” in the sense that they, individually, truly don’t believe race is a valid way to categorize people.
But most people who respond this way don't realize they have assumed we are talking about individual commitments. To approach this from another angle, imagine the following conversation happening in the area of economics:
Sam, is a politically-moderate American hasn't really given much thought to economics. He is a comfortable, middle-class guy who gets into a conversation with Bill, a Canadian Economics professor who leans more Socialist. Bill begins to point out what he sees as the flaws of capitalism in America - the ways it encourages consumerism (another ism!) as a way of life, or the wealth inequality it can produce - and while he is railing against American economics, Sam gets increasingly frustrated and shouts a simple rebuttal: “But I’m not a capitalist!”
Bill pauses, scratches his heads and says, “Ok....I thought we were talking about the economics of your whole country. Come to think of it, I never even asked about your individual thoughts on economics, so why are you getting so defensive?"
“Well you're obviously trying to make me feel bad for things I can't control! It's not my fault the 'rich get richer' or that corporations call the shots here!” replies Sam.
Bill pauses again, considering how to proceed. "Ok, I do agree that it certainly isn't 'your fault' that it all works this way, but at the same time, you do live in America, right? You do have a job and take compensation for it? You do pay taxes, right? Buy groceries? Rent or own a home?”
“So, what then?! Am I supposed to stop taking money?? Should I live on the street?! It's not my fault I was born here! I'm just trying to live my life! Stop making me feel so bad!!" Sam is getting pretty upset at this point.
Bill puts up his hands. "Whoa, whoa, I never said I'm blaming you. You keep jumping to that. I'm just trying to help you understand that your life is tied up in something bigger than you. I'm not saying you need to move to Russia, become homeless, or something like that. But wouldn't you rather be more aware of your part in the economics of your country, so you can make better choices about things like jobs, homes, and what to do with your resources?"
"Actually, no, this is all too overwhelming. I felt a lot better before we talked. I'd rather go back to that." Sam replies honestly.
Take out "economics" and insert "race," and you have a template for how most of these conversations go.
My core argument here is actually pretty simple: any productive conversations about race in America are going to by-definition be about social forces that are bigger than you. Jumping immediately to your individual commitments about race actually keeps you from seeing the very thing we all need to talk about. We White folks are so culturally conditioned to make that individualistic-jump that we frequently don't even realize it, and it derails the whole thing. So stop doing that.
In other words: you (individually) probably aren’t “race-ist.”
But that's not the point.
But this is just the first step. To have better conversations about this, I now need to make the case that "bigger social forces" do actually exist to perpetuate "race-ism" on a large scale in America.
To do that we basically need to "un-learn" what we were taught in high school history class. More on that in the next post.
*Space doesn’t allow for a discussion on the term of "race" itself, which is actually extremely recent. See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a helpful, brief overview of the historical development of the idea.