Note to my white self…
You need to listen.
I know you don’t want to hear this, but – when it comes to discussions of racism with people of color – you have difficulty listening. You have convinced yourself that you are color blind, that you treat everyone equally regardless of the color of their skin and that any criticism you make of people of color is based on their behavior or attitudes and not their race. So when a person of color says something about white people, you stop listening. You don’t think they are talking about you.
They probably are.
You need to listen to people of color. They are experts when it comes to white people. They have spent their entire lives surrounded by white people. They don’t have to befriend a white person to understand them. White people have been their teachers and their bosses. They’ve watched us in movies and on television. Since we are usually in the majority, we seldom even realize they are watching and listening to us, that we repeatedly reveal ourselves to them in how we act and what we say. When they speak about white people, it comes from years of experience. They may know us better than we know ourselves.
You, on the other hand, know very little about people of color. You’ve seldom been in situations where you were surrounded by people of color, where they were talking openly about racism with each other. You have very few friends who are people of color and have politely avoided conversations about race with them. People of color have not been your teachers or bosses. The little you’ve seen in the movies and on television about people of color has often reinforced negative stereotypes. You don’t really know how people of color act, what they say and what they really think when white people aren’t around. When you speak about people of color, you speak out of ignorance.
I know you don’t want to accept this, but – when it comes to discussions of racism with people of color – you don’t have much to offer to the conversation.
So you need to listen. You need to acknowledge that their description of the state of racial relations in America is based on years of experience and yours is based on wishful thinking. You need to accept that their critique of white society is based on a thousand observations and that you are seldom even critical. When people of color find the courage to speak to you – a white person – about racism, you need to assume they’re trying to tell you something you don’t understand. Maybe even something you can’t understand.
I know listening to people of color is difficult. They often say things you don’t want to hear or believe. They sometimes accuse you of having attitudes you don’t think you have. Having to sit and listen to a person of color is uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable precisely because you are white. Black people have not been your teachers and bosses. You have not sat under their tutelage. You are not accustomed to listening to them, to having a black person in a position of expertise. Much of your resistance – whether you realize it or not – is not to what they are saying, but to their audacity in saying it. Your discomfort is racist.
You need to stop talking. You need to resist your tendency to justify your opinions or defend your actions. Whatever justifications or defenses you give them, they have heard them a thousand times. They know your side of the conversation. After all, white people have been spouting their opinions on race for centuries.
It takes courage for any person of color to speak up and offer a different perspective, especially when they can expect to be attacked. So demonstrate your respect for their courage by listening to them. You don’t have to accept their point of view. Indeed, you probably won’t the first time you hear it.
Just resist your racist tendency to put them in their place.