By: Lisa M. Hayes – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.
This topic of race is challenging. Conversations about race are challenging. It’s painful to watch white people recoil into their shame when race enters a conversation, even when the topic isn’t about racism specifically. Race is a reality and we need to develop a vocabulary to talk about race with more fluency and curiosity and less blaming, denial, and gaslighting – and by we, I mean white people.
We must learn to ask the hard questions and hear the hard truth while owning our own blindspots without over personalizing. That is a hard thing to do. And sometimes when you do, you’re going to need to buckle up because the learning can feel very bumpy. But it’s time to get started.
Many white people don’t have a way of feeling through this topic without feeling defensive. At times it’s easy to feel attacked. I know this because I am a white woman and I have felt very defensive. If you want to lose a family member or a friend for good, call them out for being a racist. I know that from personal experience as well. No word in our vocabulary strikes rage in the heart of a white person as quickly as the word racist when it’s personal – and often even when it’s not.
I’ve been called a racist flat out and I didn’t like it at all. The problem with that word is racism is murky. If someone called me a serial killer, that would be pretty cut and dry. Nope. There are no bodies to be uncovered. I’m not a serial killer, plain and simple. However, if someone calls me a racist, I have to sit with that and sort through my shadow places to try make sure I’m not missing something someone else sees.
In order to work our way through this, as white people, we need to let go of the myths we cling to in an effort to distance ourselves from the discomfort of an uncomfortable conversation so that we can do that sorting – preferably before someone calls you a racist.
These myths are so stereotypical that they’ve almost become meme-like. However, these are still the lies we tell ourselves to soften the edges of our own guilt and shame. And for the record, no one is asking you to feel guilt or shame for being white. What we are being asked to do is to step out from behind the white picket fence and learn what we don’t know so we can be better.
It’s a process and we will make mistakes. However, we can start by dismantling this bullshit – and dismantling it is our responsibility.
1. Not all White People.
For some reason, white people are very uncomfortable with being referred to as white people. It’s ok to categorize and catalog other people, but white people feel a little or a lot shook when they are described by the color of their skin.
The universal refrain of “not all white people” can feel like an instinctive response when you hear a negative generalization about people who look like you. However, let me assure you we talk about black people and brown people in generalizations all day long, every day of the year.
The best explanation for why the “Not all white people” knee-jerk of self-preservation is tone deaf is eloquently laid out in this article from The Root. If someone was walking in the jungle and was killed by an elephant, you would describe that by saying, “She was killed by elephants.” Period – end of story. No one would say, “But not all elephants…”
I get it. You’re not a racist and you don’t want to be lumped into a generalization based on your skin color. However, here’s another generalization for you: Most black people will acknowledge it’s not ALL white people.
Additionally, a lot of black and brown people DO feel threatened by ALL white people, and for good reason. Even that doesn’t mean you are a racist. It just means they feel unsafe in a world that in so many ways singles them and hunts them based on how they look. I don’t have to get that to know it’s true and neither should you.
When the topic of racism comes up no one should have to talk about it but specifically exclude YOU from the narrative to make you feel better. It’s not practical, and frankly, it shouldn’t be necessary.
There is no merit badge or award for NOT being a racist. So, there’s no reason to feel the need to point out you’re not one. You don’t get extra credit points for being a decent human.
However, if the shoe fits…
2. I don’t see color.
You absolutely do see color and you make judgments about that. I’m not saying they are negative judgments. But you do have biases and you do make assumptions based on color – just the way to do notice gender and make assumptions about that.
What most well-meaning white people are trying to say is they value all people equally. They are trying to express their genuine heartfelt desire to embrace everyone despite their skin color. And while that might be true, by saying you do not see color, it might feel like you are trying to see people of color as being exactly like you see yourself to make them worthy. Homogenization or white-washing is not a good thing.
We are not all the same. We are certainly not all the same color. When a person of color hears the words, “I don’t see color” it feels like you’re saying you don’t see them. A person’s skin color is about race and heritage. Heritage and history matter. They play a big role in identity.
It’s ok to notice that someone is black or brown because you can’t help it. I’m pretty sure they notice we are white and that’s ok too. It is not ok to think sameness is the standard by which we measure equality.
3. All lives matter.
Imagine a street with many houses on it and one house is on fire. So, the fire trucks pull up and start using their hoses to put the fire out. Then imagine a neighbor down the street comes out and starts yelling, “MY HOUSE MATTERS TOO!”
Yes, all lives matter. No shit. Except it’s not exactly that simple, is it? The very fact that anyone has to say “Black Lives Matter”, means not all lives are valued equally. Until black and brown lives are equally valued, not all lives matter.
Black people don’t think your life doesn’t matter when they say, “Black Lives Matter.” You don’t need to bubble-wrap your ego and be included everywhere when we’re talking about a society that systematically excludes a lot of people, specifically people of color.
Until all lives matter equally, we simply can’t say all lives matter.
So, yes, your life matters, but if you’re white, that goes without saying. If you’re not white, you might need the t-shirt or a sign to remind some people.
Do not even get me started with “Blue Lives Matter.” That would be a whole different article…
4. I’m a broke white person living in a trailer down by the river in the flood zone – how am I privileged?
Being white doesn’t prevent poverty.
I’m white and when I was a kid we were poor living in a trailer down by the river in a flood zone. So, yeah, I get it. But…
Hearing the word, “privilege” is often interpreted as having more than others, specifically materially or financially. However, there is a distinction between class-privilege and race-privilege. The words, white privilege don’t have anything to do with socio-economic class.
White people enjoy many privileges that people of color do not and white people are rarely able to notice it. That doesn’t make them bad. It just makes them unaware. You don’t notice the air you breathe. It’s very difficult to recognize a system that oppresses when it’s not oppressing you.
People of color are not fairly or accurately represented in entertainment or government.
History, as it’s taught in schools, is slanted to elevate a white-centric narrative.
When applying for jobs whites receive on average 36 percent more callbacks than blacks and 24 percent more callbacks than Latinos.
A wealthy successful black person who earns three times more than you do isn’t exempt from being looked at suspiciously or harassed by the cops when walking through a predominantly white neighborhood – even when they live there.
There are too many examples of white privilege to illustrate any of them and do them justice.
Just because you have white privilege doesn’t mean you haven’t worked hard for what you have. No one is assuming you have a trust fund.
If someone points out that you have white privilege it doesn’t mean they are calling you racist.
White privilege simply means the starting line isn’t the same for everyone and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. In fact, there will be no such thing as equality until we do.
5. I never owned slaves.
Neither did I.
However, all white people in the U.S. do have advantages that were built into a system constructed with slave labor living on land that was stolen from indigenous people. Colonization is a thing. It’s a plague. And while it might be awesome for a while if you’re the colonizer, it leaves in its wake systems of inequality that live for generations, many, many generations.
You may not have owned slaves. However, many white people have grandparents who knew people who did. That doesn’t mean your grandparents were bad people. It doesn’t even mean you’re a horrible human if your great-grandparents were slave owners. It simply means generationally the effects of slavery will live on longer than we will. You can’t wipe that slate clean in one or maybe even ten generations.
White wealth was built on the backs of people of color. No one wants to hear that – especially people of color who are still living in a system that doesn’t acknowledge it. However, just because it’s dirty doesn’t make it less true.
Additionally, you are still benefiting from the cheap labor of people of color. The migrant farm worker who picks your kale, the undocumented nanny, any number of the black women in the workforce who make 17% less on average than their white counterparts in any job are all still funding your white dream.
People of color do jobs most white people won’t do for the kind of money many of us wouldn’t walk across the street for. That is not even taking into consideration the prison workforce who’s currently putting out forest fires getting paid a couple of dollars a day. That’s a whole other conversation.
I know you never owned slaves. Everyone knows you never owned slaves.
That doesn’t mean you don’t, directly and indirectly, benefit from a system created by slave labor every single day.
You are the only one talking about whether or not you owned slaves.
Let that go.
More by Lisa:
Lisa M. Hayes, Senior Editor of Confluence Daily.
Confluence Daily is the one place where everything comes together. The one-stop for daily news for women.