FOR WHITES (LIKE ME): CLARIFYING RACE TALK
Dear Parents and Non-Parents Who Also Happen to be White,
I need to clarify something in regard to my last letter (“Dear Parents with White Children”).
Do Latino/a people sometimes dislike white people because they’re white?
Do people of African descent sometimes perpetuate negative stereotypes about people of European descent?
In an argument, might an Asian American person ever say something like, “You white people! You’re all ____ [fill in the blank]!”?
Yep. Sure. It could happen.
Some of the responses to my letter made clear I needed to be specific about the difference between racism (which I was writing about) and prejudice (which I wasn’t). Actually, besides clarifying that letter, understanding this difference is another helpful piece in enabling those of us who are white to make sense of our own racial experience.
Let me turn to the world of gender to illustrate.
Imagine I say this (let’s call it statement #1): “One out of four women are sexually assaulted during their time in college. Men, most of whom do not sexually assault, have good reason to be outraged by this epidemic. Men can choose to learn about how sexism functions and how it impacts their own experience of gender in order to become allies in disrupting it.”
To this statement, someone responds (let’s call it statement #2): “But college women make assumptions about men too. Sometimes they make fun of men for having no emotional I.Q., for example.”
Statement #2 is a non sequitur. It introduces oranges as a comparison to apples. The first statement (the apples) points to a system—one where beliefs, actions, bureaucracies, gender cultures systemically harm women. Women must “be careful” at parties, worry about being believed, weigh the consequences of going public when assaulted, and on and on. Men who assault don’t have to worry about being believed (let alone shunned), fret about being punished (they rarely are), protect their reputation (women who whistle-blow are “sluts,” men who assault are “players”), and on and on. Men who don’t assault also don’t have to “be careful” at parties or worry in the way women do about being disbelieved if they are raped.
Now, statement #2 (the oranges) is true. And it’s also true that the stereotypes women sometimes lay on men oversimplify things, might hurt guys’ feelings, and generally don’t contribute to creating an environment that results in robust, productive communication across gender differences.
I’m not a fan of any kind of negative stereotyping.
But I am unapologetic in insisting that the reality pointed to in statement #1 (the epidemic of sexual assault) demands men’s attention and concern with an urgency statement #2 (the fact women sometimes negatively stereotype) does not. In fact, they’re not even in the same category.
Let’s take it a step further. Imagine a discussion about statement #1, where the factual truth of statement #2 is used to draw the following conclusion: “So, see? Really everyone has a gender problem with gender. Sexism goes both ways.”
We’ve now gone beyond comparing apples and oranges. We’ve now derailed attention from the urgent apple crisis by throwing oranges at the people talking about it!
So here’s the distinction I want to make:
1. Racism is a system in which individuals and groups experience advantages and disadvantages based on their race. (By definition, in the U.S. at present, people of color cannot “be racist.”)
2. Prejudice is the attitudes and assumptions people of one racial group make about individuals and groups of another race. (By definition, any person of any color can be prejudiced.)
Both are real phenomena. Both have to do with race. That’s about where the similarities end.
(These distinctions come from psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum. And, let me say this: if you have young people in your life “Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations on Race is a must read! Tatum cracks wide open the ways racial identity development plays out in our differently raced lives, and how it impacts both our interracial relationships and the ways we relate to racism.
The scenarios I started with are examples of prejudice. They may be painful or frustrating to the white person on the receiving end. They don’t contribute to creating an environment that results in robust, productive communication across racial differences.
But they aren’t racism.
So why is this distinction important?
First, it’s not because you have to agree with me about the depth and impact of racism—or the prevalence of prejudice. But, let’s at least be clear about what we’re disagreeing about. To give an example of prejudice, when I’m talking about racism, is to start a different conversation.
Second, it is because understanding the difference is critical for whites who do want meaningful dialogue about race. When we confuse a focus on the relationships of white people to racism with the existence or experience of any of the many different kinds of racial prejudice out there (an interesting, important conversation in its own right), a potentially constructive dialogue about race quickly turns to mush.
Third, it’s not because I don’t care about prejudice or because I think white folks are innately mean-spirited and people of color innately saint-like. That’s not my line.
So here is my line:
The prejudices people of color sometimes have almost never make it hard for a white person to secure employment. They never make it more likely a white child will live in poverty than do his/her classmates of color. They do not send whites to prison at rates astronomically higher than our representation in the general (or law-breaking) population. They do not make it difficult for a white child to learn because she attends a poorly funded, overcrowded school and is repeatedly exposed to images and messages (as, incidentally, are her teachers) that she is slower, lazier, more likely to misbehave, etc. than her peers.
Like sexism, I care about this system the most. Unapologetically. (By the way, there is overlap between racism and prejudice. It just so happens, for example, that white prejudices strengthen this system.)
So, while prejudice toward white people may not be particularly pleasant or constructive, I just don’t think it’s that toxic. Or encompassing. It’s certainly not the source of our race problem in the United States of America. (And I also have this crazy idea that it might decrease a hell of a lot if massive numbers of white folk got very serious about ending racism.)
But racism is all of these things: toxic, encompassing, the source of our race problem.
And, fourth, here’s the kicker.
Racism has made race a site of significant pain for white folks. This isn’t something we talk about much. It’s not something many of us even realize. But it’s true. Being intimately caught up in a system that unjustly privileges you at the direct expense of your fellow citizens, colleagues, peers, and friends; inheriting the history of racial violence we have inherited (for many of us, violence committed, or at least passively acquiesced to, by our ancestors) can really mess an equality-, justice-loving person up! Big time.
We need to start talking about this if we’re to untangle this whiteness mess. Though can I suggest we don’t start by looking to people of color for support and sympathy about it? They’ve kind of got their hands full.
Maybe we start by exploring this with other white folks.
And this is a last reason to get clear about the difference between racism and prejudice. Because we actually are in pain, a lot of times we direct our frustration about this legacy we did not choose—and our “stuckness” about what to do about it—towards people of color. Especially if they aren’t as nice to us as we think they should be or dare “make stereotyped assumptions” about all white people.
Our racial pain (which is real) should actually be directed at racism. Though in very, very different ways, racism has screwed all of us! Even white folks.
So, like men and sexual assault, white people have a huge stake in ending it. Outrage is a healthy response to a system that has compromised our morality, our relationships, our communities, our nation, and our very humanity. Outrage is strong ground from which to act.
I close with a confession. Some responses to my last letter accused me of hating white people. This strikes me as sad (more on that another time), but also as sort of funny. The funny part is this: I just can’t see it.
Being part of a movement trying to end racism is, at the end of the day, a profound act of self-love. Nothing represents greater self-regard than working to secure my own liberation. Nothing makes me feel better in my own white skin than when I risk speaking up, stand shoulder-to-shoulder at a protest or in some other posture of solidarity with my fellow citizens, act to make the institution in which I teach a safer environment for students of color. I admittedly have a long way to go in all of this work. But despite what lots of us white folk seem to think (I guess because talking about race and racism is scary as all get out), the bottom line is that it actually just plain feels good.
Yours in Search of Some White Outrage (well….as long as it’s directed at the right target),
A Fellow White Person