Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women — in the face of tremendous resistance — as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival…
–Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”
Hi everyone. Hi, fellow American white people who want to resist racism starting with your own whiteness, to learn what that means. I’m not asking people of color who might be tired of hearing about whiteness to read this, though of course I welcome everyone to read and comment, and I welcome anyone to ask me to say what I mean more plainly. I am not writing this to imply that racism is the only oppression that matters. I won’t write about how fighting oppression benefits everyone, because it does in so many ways, but I’m not writing for people who want to make change only when they’re convinced it’s the best for them personally. In my experience, having too many selfish or self-centered people brings abuse into social justice movements.
This is written for white folks who know that racism still exists and pervades our society; who know, or are willing to try to understand, that in a society built on one race invading/killing another and kidnapping/enslaving a third, the status quo is still racist. Who get that many common threads of growing up perceived white in our society, with a white family, are different from the experiences of people of other races and mixed backgrounds. White folks who know, or will pay attention to, the ground rules:
to listen to people of color about race,
to be mindful of how white folks talk over people of color about anything at all, or act entitled to their space and time,
to acknowledge the impact of your actions even when you have good intent. Because if anyone’s criticizing you, it’s either a public call for help or they think you meant well.
So, this is an account of harder lessons I believe I have learned, that I don’t see written in racism 101 guides. I hope they are helpful. For some background to return to, here is a comprehensive resource for all the good white people. The intro is not nice and comfortable, but that makes sense, because a demand for “niceness” and “comfort” are subjective ways that many white people use to preserve the status quo.
Use your personality
Not all criticisms of white people are directed at you (and me). There, I said it: not all white people are the same. Many critiques will apply to you sometimes. But you are the one who needs to figure out how your personality contributes to a racist system, and how you can use the same traits to resist racism.
I am assertive, impatient and socially awkward, so I have often stepped on the toes of people of color, or ignored others while in a hurry; I am still struggling to unpack that, to pay people proper respect and to benefit from the contributions that I might not wait for. It also means too many people I respect or like will not be my friends, and that I’ve destroyed some relationships very early. Such work would be even harder for someone taller or more masculine than me, and I hope much easier for someone more patient or more aware of social cues. But assertiveness is a gift, and so is awkwardness (thanks Cameron). So for example it’s easy for me, around other white people who say racist shit, to refuse to play along. “I don’t get that joke”, “I don’t like that”, “what do you mean”, a blank stare, a drawn-out “if you REALLY want to put it that way…” may make white folks uncomfortable enough to think the thoughts they so often get away without, and maybe in future they’ll be more respectful of people of color whose lives they affect. Even if I just feel something is wrong and am not sure why, I express that hesitation while I think. I am used to making folks uncomfortable and not fitting in, so I use that. I am also willing to all-out yell at people unless I’m afraid for my job or safety, and sometimes I unwisely risk those.
Are you good at listening? Are you generous? Are you tough and stoic? Do you work alone, or connect to people? Use the gifts your personality gives you.
Assimilation is intolerance
To expect someone to assimilate to your culture means you don’t care about their well-being. To demand that someone take leadership in the same way you would, to fit in the way your organization is already set up, means you reject the strengths they bring to the table and the changes they could make. To educate someone and not to learn from them is to disrespect their mind and abilities, and to exert the power of a stagnant system over them.
I’m not saying be impractical or let people walk on you, but I cannot tell you the depths of my anger when I see someone fail to consider that when people don’t fit their system they might change the system. It happens anytime someone has privilege, but I do not know of anything that makes people do this more than American whiteness, or aligning one’s mind to white-dominated US norms.
I think about colonialist education when TAing for Math 51, where my job is literally to teach students to survive in a system of thought designed for them to submit to or leave. I know that all the time I spend trying to show students how they can take ownership of these math concepts, comes at the expense of teaching them how to simply do what is expected; that many students only want to do what is expected, so I have to do that too. But I’d much rather know them individually, find out how they think, and offer the chance to use and value their own thinking in the active use of mathematics. And in turn, my best students and friends respect or enjoy the way that logical systems, patterns and puzzles run through my mind all the time.
Yes, that does have something to do with racism, but at the systemic level. To quote an impressive article, “Why, instead, don’t we redesign our primary, secondary and tertiary schools to accommodate the specific, historic and present needs of these structurally oppressed groups?” I think we would, if we worked to understand those we seek to educate.
Art and Media
Art, writing and media are so important. If you think that all people are created equal, and you really want to believe it, then you need to counteract the culture that taught your subconscious otherwise. Rather than feeling guilty, seek out affirming art that will reach your subconscious. For example, if your internalized standards of beauty mean light skin, or body and hair types that mostly light-skinned people have, seek out art that portrays dark-skinned people in many kinds of beauty. Perhaps you’ll find new art forms you like, or better appreciate the dark-skinned people around you.
Seek also to prove to yourself that people of color truly deserve the respect they do not often get. Individually or as groups, they are so often distorted when they are represented by white artists and historians. So if you have not read many works by people of color, fix that right now. In fact if you are a white American who values gender and sexual justice and has not read an essay by Audre Lorde, fix that right now because she will tell you so much. If your ideas of people of color come from popular movies and history textbooks, learn more of their stories and their words.
I haven’t thought this up on my own; I learned it through a class on Native American history in college. I learned it through watching how people of color strive to heal themselves of racism against themselves and each other, to represent themselves in media that so often erases their contributions. I relate to that in a way, with my own frustration that I so rarely read a book or watch TV and find any strong queer characters, unless it is explicitly for queer folks. But mostly, I’m tired of art that claims to reflect life around me and doesn’t.
Learn what you can and can’t do well
I can’t control the fact that many of you will not heed my advice in the section above. That so many white people consistently hear my white voice better than a person of color’s, unless you dismiss me as too shrill, too weird, too idealistic or misguided, too feminine or young, too whiny, too elitist or just plain small. I can keep that in mind and try to amplify and reinforce others’ voices. But I can’t force you to respect the people whose leadership I am following. All I can do is remind you that these ideas are not just mine, that this is informed by many people of color and a few white allies, to point to some writers and speakers (as I have) and hope that you will learn from this.
Also, it makes little sense for me to go around explaining racism to people of color who ignore or deny it. It has (rarely) been necessary to point out that many disagree with them. But I remember it was an unpleasant series of shocks for me to stop denying the prevalence of sexism and to learn how to see it, and I certainly wouldn’t have appreciated the condescension of a more masculine person telling me that my life was hard. It was in my interest to learn about sexism and femmephobia from others on the receiving end, learn to combat it and to heal from the self-doubt it had implanted over a long time; I do not think I needed overbearing masculine allies to start that process. So, I do respect my own judgment and the knowledge of things I have witnessed, but not everything is for me to say.
Find resources that work well for you
I’ve read angry stuff on the Internet, comprehensive books such as “Courageous Conversations about Race” and “Queer (In)justice”, and people telling their own stories. I used to read internet comment threads, and absorb the patterns of exchanges so I could recognize them in my own life. I learn well from people of color expressing their frustration, not necessarily at me; from seeking to understand why a person of color I already know and respect may be angry at something that seemed small to me at the time. I learn from direct criticism, logic and hard truths, not from gentle persuasion. In fact if people give me very gentle feedback, I am unsure what it means or how badly I’ve screwed up. This is the advantage of the Internet, because I don’t have to ask friends of color to spend time educating me, nor do I have to wait until someone feels safe or pressured enough to tell me what I did wrong.
I remember I head to read a guide to hipster anti-racism twice: the first time my insecurities and defensiveness got in the way, and I worried that it meant I wasn’t doing anything meaningful by educating myself. The second time, I understood that there are (usually) white people who like to pretend they care about racism, talk an impressive game around anti-racists, but have no commitment to the conversations that may help. I understood that my role as an ally sometimes comes when white people let their politically correct guard down, when people of color aren’t around. Or when they are, I notice when others are being disrespectful, or not listening enough, and back people up.
Later, I read white silence and its follow-up which are excellent pieces on how white folks can participate in anti-racism. I read brown silence and thought more on how to prioritize the mental health of people of color when there’s racism at work or in the conversation; and realized that hipster anti-racism is all the worse because talking to people of color about your white anti-racism may be draining on their time. I consistently sought out writing about anti-racism written in terms I could understand, such as Ian Cromwell who likes to talk science, patterns and statistics. Especially his series on system justification theory.
But it hasn’t all been learning online or in mostly-white spaces since I left my service program. Once I learned that I had been a useful presence because I let my temper go and scolded another white person on multiple occasions. That same week I learned that I’d been unhelpful in another context where people did not know me; among my other mistakes was being a silent newbie, failing to interfere when I knew there were problems, not trusting my gut feelings. To be accountable for other white folks’ behavior I cannot just remain silent because “I might be white-knighting” or “another white voice will make it even worse”. I learned that I could be both problematic and helpful at the same time, so in different contexts, around different people the choice to speak up, the question of how much to say to clear space for others, is rarely clear-cut. After all, people are different and the advice of anti-racist people of color as to what helps them is coherent but not unanimous.
Effects on me
I cannot deny that the anti-racist personal work I have done so far has had costs. First of all there is the sheer time commitment of learning, after a lifetime of not being forced to; but racism is complex and everyone needs to learn a lot to combat it. My sense of humor is much heavier, much more bitter, much more deliberate sarcasm designed to let me laugh and heal, than it once was. I’m still learning to navigate humor in a world where I am permanently uncomfortable with the cruelties that so many take for granted. I notice that some of my newer friends, even close ones, are surprised when I am light-heartedly sarcastic, and that surprise hurts a little because it shows a loss. My year of full-time community service was so draining and overwhelming, that I distinctly remember not feeling like myself again until two months after it ended. Yet when I came out as queer soon thereafter, it set me up to understand my disadvantages without shame and with attention to how queer injustice in the US and so much of the world is intertwined with racism and with colonial histories.
I have also paid a price in my friendships with others around me who have more of an entitled mindset, who once influenced me to enjoy the status quo. Growing up sheltered by my family and by my friends (including friends of color) into thinking racism was mostly gone now, and then doing service work that exposed me directly to inequalities in the system and how they are reinforced by people, meant a lot of shocks. It also meant a lot of missed opportunities to connect while I learned to change my attitudes. Much later, when I finally understood why so many of my white friends were resistant to things I was learning, and understood that I had to be on my guard against many white people I had trusted for years, I felt a profound isolation. It’s not that I’ve given up on those friends, many of whom have since made stronger commitments to learning anti-racism and, I hope, acting upon it; but I no longer trust friends to be “good people” by default. I have also found that some relationships with old friends of color have deepened, even though I see them rarely. I think my motivations have not been selfish, but it seems like my work has been paying off anyway. And all of that is still just the basics of behavior, that make it possible to work on a larger scale.
I hope this has been some help in how to learn from people of color, to keep carving out space so they are followed when they lead, so we can work effectively together to change society. Thanks for reading, and good luck.