If You’re White, Get It Right: Wendy Jane’s Primer For White People On How To Have Conversations About Race
With all the talk on race that is going on in this country after the Trayvon Martin verdict, I feel like I am peering into a looking glass, a looking glass that is revealing to me how we Americans handle the issue of race relations.
On Facebook and twitter, I saw many people, black and white, who were hugely disappointed with the acquittal, and, many who were satisfied with it. I also heard many black people proclaim their upset and anger over white people who had the point of view that Trayvon was responsible for his own death, that he could have run, or behaved differently to avoid confrontation with his stalker. I saw black people upset over white people who bought into the character assassination of Trayvon as gangster because of a few typical teenage selfies on the internet.
I saw with my own eyes on twitter, conservative, and I can’t help but use the word ignorant, white people stating things like there are statistics that show black men are more dangerous than white men, that black people are perpetuating racism by always “playing the race card,” making everything about race and racism when it’s not. And, why don’t black people just get over racism, that it’s not as bad as you make it out to be anymore, and why can’t we just be color blind, and on and on.
While President Obama called for us in his recent speech about the Trayvon Martin case to have conversations on race, that idea had been brewing in my mind for awhile now. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s with an innate desire, I am certain prodded by the civil rights era and the place I grew up in (Waterbury, Connecticut), to reach across color lines, to want to be around, include, and connect with black people.
In starting my blog, Wendy Jane’s Soul Shake a year-and-a-half ago, the question about how we have conversations on race has come into the forefront of my adult mind. I started to have more conscious thoughts about how we talk about such a loaded subject without white people getting defensive or guilty? How do we deal with the anger that could arise in such a conversation? I wonder how black people can engage in a conversation on race, say what they truly feel without worrying about the repercussions of their words on a white person’s ears, who might judge them as just some angry black person with a chip on their shoulder? How do black people say what they want to say and truly believe that white people will hear them, and not enter into the conversation thinking, “white people will never get it,” before the talk has even started?
I’ve been trying to listen and learn as I write and get comments and feedback on my blog. Not considering myself an activist or academic, I still try to absorb and learn about the construct of race and its impact on all of us. My most recent readings have included books like Baratunde Thurston’s How To Be Black, Tim Wise’s, White Like Me, and Harriet Jacob’s Diary of A Slave Girl. I spend time reading the blogs: The Root, Racialicious, Colorlines and Changelab. I seek out conversations and connections, not necessarily always on race, with people of color.
Yesterday, I had it on my calendar to write this post, but in the morning on twitter I stumbled upon and read writer, blogger on matters of race, politics and relationships, Jenee Desmond-Harris’s post on The Root, How Not to Derail the Dialogue on Race, I just now realized her article stemmed from additional thoughts she had after giving input to a blog post written by William Saletan on Slate , which I just now read after writing my post.
My heart sank a little. I thought, it’s been done. Desmond-Harris just wrote about this so my post will be redundant. Then I thought perhaps my post will be different enough because I am writing it from a white person’s perspective and Jenee Desmond-Harris wrote hers from the perspective of a bi-racial person. Salatan is white, but no matter, when I tweeted to Jenee yesterday that I might write an article similar to hers this is what she so generously replied:
” Of course. The more info out there the better, and I certainly don’t get the final word on this stuff. :)”
Being new to twitter and feeling sometimes like a wallflower at the school dance, it was like magic that she even responded. Jenee’s encouragement gave me the impetus to carry on and post.
I still feel like a toddler getting her walking legs when it comes to having conversations about race, but, nevertheless I’m going to be as bold to put forth Wendy Jane’s Primer For White People On How To Have Conversations on Race. It’s as much for me, as it is for you.
1. Listen. Really, really listen to everything that someone who is black tells you about their experience of living with brown skin. Don’t interject. Don’t try to compare it to something you as a white person experienced.
2. Don’t get defensive. I have been guilty of this so many times, even as recently as the other week when I posted What I Learned from Laura K. Warrell and Racialicious. My kind of defensiveness is the, ….”but I’m not like those other white people, who probably don’t get it..I grew up in Waterbury, a really diverse place….I’m down with you….” This is just about as bad as trotting out your “but I have black friends” card.
3. Believe what a black person* tells you about their experiences about how race factors into the fabric of their day-to-day life. Believe them when they tell you how the history of race and institution of racism has perpetuated stereotypes,internalized and externalized perceptions of inferiority, and continued barriers to equal opportunities for black people, even though this is probably mostly invisible to you, or surely not on your mind because if you’re white you don’t have to think about race.
*And, remember, one black person is not the spokesperson for the entire black race, just like when I answer a question about being Jewish, I don’t speak for all Jewish people.
4. Have many conversations with many black people. (See #3’s note above regarding the black spokesperson. Better yet, read Baratunde Thurston’s book, How To Be Black. Pay attention to the chapter titled, How To Speak For All Black People.) The conversations don’t always have to be about race. It can just make for a good life to talk to people who you might not ordinarily connect with. Be inclusive. Don’t stay in your white circle your entire life.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to stick your foot in your mouth, or worry about offending or making someone angry. If we are afraid of all that, we won’t say what we want to say. Our conversations might be polite, but they’ll also be guarded and superficial. Also, having a sense of humor can have its place in such a conversation, especially if we white people can laugh at ourselves. Just don’t try any Paula Deen humor or hipster racist jokes. Both could be fatal to the dialogue you are trying to create.
6. Come up with actions to move race relations forward to a better place. In the last chapter of Baratunde’s book he says he’s tired of doing all the work himself to battle racism and race-based stereotypes. He tells white people its our turn to do something about it.
We do need to have conversations about race so we can understand how racism has and continues to hurt black people. We need to educate ourselves, and truly be able to hear what black people have to say, and understand the larger systems in society that do the same damage. It is only then, when we understand things together, and not us on one side, them on the other, that we can begin to dismantle the harmful negative systems, perceptions and attitudes. We become conscious, active human beings working toward making our world a more inclusive place where every person matters.
In my own little Wendy Jane world I’ve been working on some personal goals and making weekly action plans. Perhaps, in every conversation that you have with someone about race, you together come up with an action plan–three things you will do that week to improve race relations.
Do it, and check in here and let me know how it’s going. Also, as you can see, I’ve only listed six points here. Most blog post have Top Ten tips. Black folks, White folks, all folks, please give me some more that I can add here. Thank you.