Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism

George J. Ziogas

“Our lack of understanding about implicit bias leads to aversive racism.” — Robin DiAngelo

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by WikiImages/Pixabay

I. Introduction

It’s no longer enough for white people to simply say they’re not racist, we have to be actively anti-racist. That’s the aspect of this that many white people overlook in their rush to be defensive about how they are not racist. Maybe you aren’t, but it’s time to confront racism in America. A problem that has been baked into the foundation of the country.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of talking about racism for white people is the two-way street that conversation is. It’s easy to talk, it’s not as easy to listen. That’s where we start to trip up. We want to speak and have our opinion heard and respected, but we aren’t as quick to extend that same grace to others. It’s something that we’re all guilty of. When you hear someone sharing their experience and it being so alien to your own experiences, it’s easy to dismiss them out of hand.

Look, we had a black President so, America can’t be a racist country.

Wrong.

II. This Is America

While the conversation had been bubbling for a long time, it feels as though we reached a turning point. When the video of the murder of George Floyd was posted on the internet, everyone took notice. Maybe it’s because everyone was at home, locked down due to coronavirus, so more eyes were on the internet.

Maybe it’s because a police offer knelt his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for almost 9 minutes and killed him while everyone around shouted at him to get up. It was impossible to look away. It is impossible to look away and it was impossible to not react with anger.

It had finally shifted the conversation. Still, some people resist. Let’s talk about that.

A lot of white people performatively posted a black square one Tuesday in June 2020. It was supposed to be in solidarity with the black community. For a lot of people, it showed growth. For others, though, it was a box-ticking exercise to show they’re woke. They didn’t really get it. Just like white folks co-opted the BLM hashtag and drowned out the important voices talking about the black experience.

It all comes back to listening.

If you’ve ever said “Oh, I wouldn’t live there it’s a bad neighborhood” when it’s simply because it’s predominantly black, then you have work to do. It’s okay if you have work to do, provided you’re prepared to listen.

III. Now Is the Time to Listen

White people love to claim they’re color blind, that they don’t care if you’re black, white, purple, or even polka-dotted. White people love to claim they have a black friend, so they can’t be racist. This stems from a fundamental misunderstanding about what racism is. You can be racist while married to a black person. You can be racist while having a black best friend or black children.

There’s this idea that racism is overt, that it’s someone attacking someone for the color of their skin or hurling racial slurs. It goes beyond that, like the insidious habit of defending a police officer for shooting an unarmed black man. Or, the claim that they treat everyone the same because that’s how they were raised.

IV. White Fragility

The term white fragility was coined in 2011 by Robin DiAngelo, who has written a phenomenal book by the same name. It’s a resource that every white person should invest in today, whether they’re certain they’re not racist or not.

At the base level, we struggle to talk about racism because every white person in America has benefited from white supremacy. It’s been ever-present since the inception of the country. That’s a difficult thing to hear. No one is saying you haven’t worked hard to achieve what you have. Nor is anyone saying you should feel guilty for being white. Those are merely distractions from the conversation.

There’s a really great quote, from an unknown author, that sums it up best:

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

White people have been in the ascendency from the beginning, and as we fight for equality for everyone, white people feel under attack. Because of that, for many years and still, to this day, many black people stay quiet in the face of discrimination because they already know the response.

Whether you’re a dyed in the wool Republican, a right-wing leaning Libertarian or a liberal Democrat, you have a blindspot. We all do. Even the most progressive white people can inflict pain on communities of color. We overlook our role, we’re blind to our complicity, and we behave in self-serving ways to show we’re woke. We benefit from the system as is, white people are the economic victors and we have to confront that. It’s difficult to discuss racism because we’re complicit in it as long as we don’t actively challenge racist ideas and systems.

Racism won’t just go away because we suddenly recognize that it’s played a massive role in the founding of the country. Nor will it disappear because you post a black square on your social media sites. You should actively challenge racism when you see it, but you also must understand that it won’t simply disappear because it’s been challenged. Instead, it will adapt and racists use coded language and they find other ways to hide their bigotry. The system is broken.

Racism isn’t just someone consciously disliking someone because of their race. However, even if you’re not racist and you’re actively against racism, there’s more to do.

We all believe ourselves to be exempt from racism, but the reality is that each of us has lived a life where we’ve been conditioned to be racist. It’s time for white people to center the voices of people of color. It’s time to combat your inner-voice of prejudice and listen to the black community.

Bonus: Additional Resources

If you’d like to read more about race, there are a variety of resources available. These books, in particular, are a great place to get started in your anti-racist education.

[1] White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Of course, this should be the first book on your list. While it was written by a white woman, she is well-versed in white fragility. DiAngelo is an author and sociologist who spent two decades leading racial justice training for government agencies, educators, corporations, and nonprofits.

She knows the pushback that comes from conversations about race because she has experienced them with every training session she handles. This is what led her to coin the term and that’s what led her to write the book.

[2] Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge is a wonderful book from a British perspective. Eddo-Lodge highlights the civil rights movement in the United Kingdom while highlighting the fact that she learned about it after school because British history books highlight the US civil rights movement while overlooking their own racial disparity.

[3] The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Legal scholar and civil rights litigator Michelle Alexander discusses America’s version of the caste system which has seen millions of black men locked in prison and relegated to second-class citizen status.

[4] How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. If you want to learn how to recognize all different forms of racism, understand the consequences of racism, and fight the system, then consider starting with this book.

[5] White Rage by Professor Carol Anderson, Ph.D. The history of black Americans since the reconstruction period. According to Wikipedia, “Anderson details her thesis of white backlash in the United States, stating that structural racism has brought about white anger and resentment. According to her analysis of American history, whenever African Americans gained social power, there was considerable backlash.”

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