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.”

What?!?

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

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Comments
15 Responses to “FOR WHITES (LIKE ME): CLARIFYING RACE TALK”
  1. Ms.Nitpick says:

    There is one point which, while not “the point”, is important. If a man were raped, he WOULD have to worry about being believed. There persists the notion that because he is male, he must have wanted it (because we apparently believe that men always want sex and don’t care with whom). He doesn’t worry about not being believed because he doesn’t worry about being raped.

    • Thanks. I certainly don’t mean to minimize the trauma that men who are victimized go through. Although, in my somewhat limited experience with this kind of scenario on a college campus it seems that the assumption is men would be so embarrassed to be raped, that they would only be public about it if it were true. In any case, that’s neither here nor there. I take from your comment (gratefully) that a more carefully nuancing of that example would be wise.

  2. cglover25 says:

    After the Trayvon Martin verdict I became convinced that dialogue was pointless. That decision came after watching people drag Trayvon’s name, image and legacy through the mud. What could have been a discussion about guns in America, or disparity in the justice system, one bad law or even one good man’s lapse in judgement (I’m trying to be objective. My personal feelings about Zimmerman are less charitable.) became a concerted effort to posthumously turn a young man into a criminal.
    The verdict hurt. The fact that his memory was smeared in order to fit into a certain narrative hurt more. At least the verdict could only be blamed on a few people in one room in Florida. This made the entire country look unwelcome to me and people like me.
    I’m glad your taking this on. It gives me faith. The racial dialogue is lopsided at best right now, with Black people being accused of being racist for pointing out someone else’s racist behavior. It’s cheap and calculated, but very efficient at making sure that things stay comfortable for white people. Of course, very little happens within our comfort zones.

  3. R says:

    I really appreciate your clarification about the distinctions between racism and prejudice – I think many of the comments on the first blog were a direct result of confusing those terms. However I think you’re example about how the prejudices that white people have to face doesn’t mean that they will attend poorer funded schools etc. firmly illustrates that this is more a class issue than a race issue (although I fully acknowledge that the class divide has been driven by racism). Minority individuals raised in families of a higher socioeconomic class have a number of distinctive advantages over individuals of their own race raised in poorer neighbourhoods. Likewise, white children raised in squalor have a much higher incidence of drug use and arrest than other children of comparable race. It’s called hopelessness, and it can be a plague on any race.

    Perhaps I am used to a more multi-cultural perspective, but on the very rare occasion that one of my two white children (age 7 and 3) asks me why someone has a different skin colour I have always simply given them the factual response – because their parents or maybe grandparents came from a fascinating country that’s different from ours. If they ask me why someone of any colour does something illegal, I tell them that we need to try and understand what their life is like and the challenges they face every day. And when they see examples of racism in the world, I explain that everyone in the world needs understanding, even those that have had the wrong ideas put in their head and don’t know how to treat people with respect. I don’t know if this fully prepares them for understanding the challenges that their colleagues with visible minorities will face, but I don’t see the point in filling their heads with prejudices that may or may not apply to any particular individual they meet.

    • cglover25 says:

      Hey R, as a Black man, the class distinction comes up a lot. For some people, classism is a much more palatable malady than racism. But as you pointed out, the two are intertwined.
      To put it simply, Blacks in this country are always assumed to be of the lower class, until they can prove otherwise.
      It doesn’t matter what we wear or the type of car we drive, most Black men have experienced being pulled over for absolutely no reason.
      Recently, a Georgia man was pulled over while test driving a BMW because they suspected him of having stolen it. He was wearing khakis and a polo shirt. He was clean shaven and what people would call respectable. He was also middle aged. The Police wouldn’t take his word for it, even after they called the dealership. He ended up spending a night in jail.
      Yes, minorities with money have an advantage. In a capitalist country, that should go without saying. Money always equals an advantage. But even in privileged schools, people of color are more likely to be tracked into special ed classes. More likely to be suspended and expelled for infractions that their white classmates would only receive a slap on the wrist. And once they leave the school, more likely to get pulled over, more likely to get harsh treatment by the police, etc…
      Finally, study after study has proven that once that young man or woman transitions into the workplace, all things being equal, he is less likely to get a job than a young white man or woman.
      You can’t separate race from class. Not when one race is always assumed to be a member of a certain class. And not when there are barriers to class mobility based on race.

      • R says:

        Hi cglover25 – Thanks for sharing your point of view. I do recognize that these types of shameful displays still occur and that as adults we all need to do our part to step up when we see this type of injustice. However, if the question is “what should we be teaching our children?” then I think we need to teach them not to put people in those boxes to start with. “Black” or “white” gives no distinctive information about an individual. When my child and I discuss race, we discuss it as a country or a region and a part of that person’s heritage, traditions and family structure. An individual’s colour does not determine their abilities or tendencies, and I wouldn’t want to even put that suggestion in the back of their minds. So to use your example of the gentleman having to spend a night in jail over the BMW, I’m suggesting that if we tell our kids that this happened because “some whites don’t trust blacks’ or something similar then we continue to perpetrate those false prejudices. I would instead tell them that the officer made an assumption about the man driving that was unfair and that they need to be aware that some people will choose to believe something even if it isn’t true. This is important for them to understand as well since they will also be under extra suspicion when they become teenage boys. I don’t know that it helps their situation to explain that their black friend is likely to be bothered by police etc. more frequently than they are, or if that just makes it sound like they should expect it and therefore not think it’s wrong when it happens. I want them to know what is right and stand by it, and to stand up for anyone who is being treated unfairly.

        I always tell them that you can’t win an argument by continuing to argue. I see this in a similar manner. By using prejudices to explain the wrong behaviour, we unwittingly continue those assumptions. We instead have to change the discussion. Based on what they’ve been taught so far, I can say with certainty that each of my boys would stand up for a black classmate who was being wrongly accused at school – but not because he was black, only because they knew he hadn’t done anything wrong. It’s only a small step, but if every class is filled with kids who know what’s right then these barriers will start to dissolve.

      • I think I want to add to this discussion. I certainly think class and race are intertwined and, on some matters, poor or low-income whites experience some kind of challenges that middle-class people of color do not. But in the broad sweep poverty is always overrepresented among Blacks, Native Americans and Latinos (another reason NOT to separate race/class). Also, a recent study found that a white male with a FELONY conviction, was more than 10x as likely to land a job, for which he had exact same requirements, than an African American man with no criminal record at all. So, race is still (even among the middle-class HUGE). And, even among the middle class wealth disparities between Blacks and whites are massive, even when income is the same (which means that you can easily lose your class status during a rough period, whereas whites can weather unemployment or other economic challenges longer). (Or, think about Henry Louise Gates getting arrested at his own home because it was assumed he was breaking in. That’s RACE and what people assume about class perhaps when they see it.)

        The last thing I want to add, is that while I’m really glad to hear that your children would stand up for a Black classmate being bullied, I’m confused why you think it’s a benefit to them or that classmate (or the person doing the bullying) to not name it and understand it as racial if it is racial. As a lesbian woman, I would appreciate it if a straight person stood up for me if I was being harassed for my orientation. But, I would not feel safe or truly seen by that person if they didn’t get that I was specifically being targeted for that (because harassment in regard to various identity categories has a different kind of feel to it than just being treated poorly because we do that sometimes).

        So to me, while I hear what you’re saying, it’s really hard for me to understand why we would intentional not engage with our kids what is actually going on, help them understand. That to me seems to active way to help end it, rather than just not speaking directly about what is going on in a given situation. That is also what equips them to navigate truly racial encounters when they happen and equips them to actively be allies in challenging racism.

  4. Pat says:

    IMO – “R”, the previous writer, is steering this discussion toward a solution. It is quite simple: Values determine a persons actions and their quality of life. Values are passed on to our children, not by what we say, but by what we do.

  5. cglover25 says:

    R, I was trying to point out that racism is built into the system. It is part of the bones of this country. There are millions of people whose lives are silently altered because of the color of their skin. A lot of people benefit, and I’m not just talking about white privilege.
    Not to beat a point, but being passive and talking around the issues will not change things. This country has a long history of racism. Not prejudice but racism. I’m not talking about men hurling the n word out of a pickup truck. I’m talking about all of the white people in New York, many of them liberals with good intentions, sitting by while literally (almost) every person of color is stopped and frisked. Shaken down on the street because they happen to be the wrong color. By the way, a lot of the officers doing the stopping and frisking are also Black. They are acting as agents of a flawed system. I point that out because this isn’t about a bunch of isolated incidents. It’s about the systems that encourage them.
    It seems like you want to end racism by ignoring it to death. We tried that already. It doesn’t work. And honestly, I don’t think you need to worry so much about raising racist children. You seem to be pretty astute. Anyway, children model what they see. But by trying so hard to reframe this dialogue I feel as if you run into the danger of raising kids that grow into adults like the good people of New York, who have been largely silent about Stop and Frisk. Or, at the very least, children that lack the underpinning and context necessary to engage in a dialogue about race.
    Btw. I would rather have a racist friend, who has an open mind and is capable of compassion, than a friend who is so afraid of leaving their comfort zone that they flinch at the first mention of the R word.
    R, I’ve read your post a few times. I’m sure you have a good heart, but something about the conventional dialogue concerning race makes you feel uncomfortable. My point is bigoted white people are bad, but ultimately, if they were the greatest challenge that my kids had to face, I would sleep well at night. Racism in this country is silent, systemic, and in order to put the brakes on it we need a generation of warriors. Black people can’t do it without white people. If that is your goal, then please call things what they are. Don’t worry. Your children won’t wake up bigoted if you use the wrong words.

  6. nia says:

    wow, such a great article and equally thoughtful comments and discussion! while i do understand and admire what R is doing with her family, trying to encourage fairness and mindfulness when dealing with and seeking to understand individuals; i also have to agree with cglover25 and jennifer harvey that it is to also important be able to recognize and name racism when you see it. because it isn’t just a case of individuals being unfair to one another, it is also, as others have pointed out, a case of that unfairness being connected to a system of oppression. and if the system isn’t even recognized how could one know to fight against it or change it? it makes me think of putting a bandaid on a broken leg, it might help heal a small cut on the surface but would do nothing to address the larger problem, which if left untreated and unrecognized would only get worse. thanks so much for these discussions everyone, it really helps me figure out my own thoughts on this subject, looking forward to the next installment!

  7. justinwoo says:

    Great article. I want to also point out, for other PoC, the WORST thing you can do when talking about race is say “I can’t be racist! I’m X!” (where X is Asian, Indian, Latino, etc.) While we know that racism refers to systems of violence and bias, most white people will only hear “ONLY WHITE PEOPLE CAN BE PREJUDICED AND CRUEL!” which of course isn’t true. Also, if you need to justify some statement you said with “I can’t be racist! I’m X!” you probably just said something offensive and messed up. That being said, this isn’t a huge issue that deeply affects white people in the same way that systemic racism does. But when dealing with these issues, I feel like a lot of work can get done on a face to face level.

    • cglover25 says:

      Justin. Should POC not say that they can’t be racist only because white people may misinterpret it or feel uncomfortable with it? Does it really always precede or follow a messed up comment? When it does, then that person is an asshole, and deserves to be called on being an asshole, but that doesn’t change the dynamic of race in this country. A fact is a fact.

  8. Kara says:

    A year later, appreciating your post. Thank you.

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