Note to my white self…
You need people of color.
Admit it. You are more relaxed in situations where you are among other white people. Having grown up in white America, you are uncomfortable in places, gatherings or meetings where there is a diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds. It is especially unsettling when you are the minority. You are not as certain of how to act and what to say. You can’t trust your assumptions. You have to listen more carefully. You’re surprised more often. You are aware of your otherness. Being in a diverse setting can be exhausting.
Think about that. What you experience occasionally is what people of color experience continually. They have no choice. They too live in white America and are required to engage white people in a myriad of ways. In addition, while you may be uncomfortable around people of color, you are seldom the target of hostility. They, on the other hand, must be on constant guard. One of the more insidious aspects of white privilege is that you can easily escape the discomfort of diverse situations. They cannot.
Admit it. It is often easier for you to talk about racial justice and equality than to actually engage with people of color. Fighting for racial justice and equality – though admirable – does not require you to address your unease in being with people of color. Indeed, it is completely possible to love justice and equality and have little affection or respect for people of color. In so doing, you recognize their rights without appreciating their attributes.
Be careful. This kind of thinking allows you to continue to see white as normative and preferable. You only see that which people of color lack. You only see the inequities and injustices they face. You only see their weaknesses. They are people in need of what you have. They are recipients of your generosity. When you think this way, the only difference between you and the white supremacist is one of attitude. You both agree about the neediness of people of color. You’re simply more benevolent.
I know this is painful to hear, but as long as you only see the deficiencies of people of color, you will never appreciate all they have to offer. The marginalization of people of color is not simply about their losses. It is also about your personal loss. It is about the diminishment of your life. They – by virtue of their different cultural history and life experience – have assets to offer. They see and know the world in ways that you cannot. You need them.
Everyone needs them. Studies have shown that homogenous groups are less creative, insightful and open minded. A diverse group of people outperforms a uniform group of people in most tasks. Indeed, it could be argued the very genius of the American experiment has been our unique willingness to welcome and accept people from a great number of cultures and experiences. This has given our society an advantage over societies of similarly colored people.
This explains why you often feel anxious and unsettled when in the presence of people of color. You are experiencing the energy produced by a diverse group. That you are not certain how to act and what to say is a good thing. That you can’t trust your assumptions forces you to listen more carefully. That you’re surprised more often means you’re experiencing new ideas. By engaging with people of color, your mind and heart are expanded in ways impossible when you are with people who look and think more like you. Being in a diverse setting can be energizing.
I am glad you are seeking ways to be an ally with people of color, but don’t objectify them as people who need you. They are also people you need. Start putting yourself in more situations where you are uncomfortable, where you are the minority. Understand these moments as opportunities to grow. Approach people of color as potential friends and collaborators and not as evidence of your benevolence.
This is vital if you really hope to end systemic racism. It is not enough to change laws or reform institutions. At its core, systemic racism is an attitude. It allows one group – white people – to benefit from the subjection of another group – people of color. Unfortunately, until white people see the costs of systemic racism, it will be difficult for them to abandon its perceived benefits.
This was at the core of this past election. Donald Trump convinced many white people that people of color were costing them important benefits, that American society was a zero sum endeavor where there are only winners if there are also losers. As with much of his rhetoric, this was a lie. The truth is more hopeful. When we respect and value all people, everyone benefits.
We need each other.