I have to say, I hesitate to tackle this issue... this is a subject the importance of which is matched only by its sensitivity, and I'm no expert. I'm not a person of color (POC) myself and I don't have any formal education on race relations. But I do feel like I've been exploring this topic for the past many months with friends both online and IRL ("in real life") and I feel like I've learned a lot, and I also feel like some of what I've learned would be useful to share. And I also feel like part of the problem is white people aren't talking about this. We're not talking about it amongst ourselves, and key for me: We're not talking about it with our friends of color.
Why we're not talking about it.
- It goes without saying that a lot of white people aren't talking about it because they believe that race in the U.S. today is a non-issue. We have a black president after all, right? And it appears easier for (non-Asian) minorities to get into colleges and graduate programs. So if there is still an "issue" about race, it couldn't possibly be that big of one right? I'm ashamed to say that I used to think this way too, pretty much. Part of what's so hard about privilege is that the fact of privilege makes it very difficult to recognize privilege. We're blinded by our condition of being blind ... it's circular, and there aren't many paths out of a circle. And also -
- We're not asking our friends of color about their experiences and thoughts about racism - or white privilege. That means the only voices we're hearing - if we're even hearing any at all - are voices in the media, and media voices are easily discounted. They're politicians who are trying to garner votes, or they're politically extreme on a host of other issues as well. They're in the spotlight - if they're even there - and the spotlight doesn't often consciously filter into the everyday for us. Why aren't we asking our friends of color about their thoughts and experiences on race? Here are a few reasons I wasn't:
(1) I felt like it might be offensive to ask, and it wasn't my place to ask;
(2) I felt like people might think I was weird for asking;
(3) I still didn't *really* realize that race is still a big deal in the U.S.; and
- I do want to acknowledge that some white people aren't thinking about race (at least, not extensively) because they're wrapped up in their own extremely difficult lives. I'm privileged not just as a white person, but also as a person of means. Historically, social change is most likely to be achieved when economies are strong enough to support a "leisure" class - people who are (1) likely to be highly educated; and (2) have enough free time to articulate and advance their ideas.
- Finally, I think that some of us aren't talking about it because we fear rejection by our friends of color. We feel a confusing mix of regret, frustration, and defensiveness when we hear the phrase "white privilege" and we're worried that some people out there already dislike us because we're white ... so we just don't "go there" in our conversations. Better to keep pretending that race is nonexistent right? Because if "everything's fine" already, we could only possibly make it worse...
I continued on in the awkwardness of non-acknowledgement for many years, and through many friendships, for all of the above reasons. But eventually a host of factors and experiences pushed me toward the realization that everything isn't already fine. And honestly, I'm not even talking about shootings in the news (which themselves should probably be pretty sufficient!)... I'm talking about experiences I had "in real life."
What pushed me to talk about it.
Almost all of the things that pushed me to finally start talking about race stemmed from experiences with my real-life friends of color - which, in turn, made it genuinely important to me that my children experience diversity from a young age. The good news about the "circle" is that once you turn yourself around on it, it's still a circle - the more you talk, the more you know, the more you know, the more you talk, the more you know and talk, the more you act. Specifically:
- I got really sick of the "elephant in the room." I credit this to four black women, each of whom I was incredibly impressed with and wanted to be closer to. But in particular with the friend I saw regularly, it soon became clear that something was lacking in our friendship, and I couldn't be closer to her. The lack of something was introducing an ever-present feel of artificiality. It dawned on me that you can't really be close to someone if you can't talk about a major element of their life's experience.
- Regret. Another of the above-mentioned women one day gave me some medical advice on a health condition I have that was genius, and that no specialist had ever mentioned to me before. Because she herself wasn't a physician (or at all in the medical field), and because I come from a medical family and I have an undying respect for and admiration of physicians, I was totally impressed that this insight had come out of the mouth of a layperson. I looked at her in awe, from across a table of other almost-all white women, and said "I'm so amazed that you said that!" I instantly regretted my words as she bristled. Oh no, that's not at all what I meant! I wanted to say, but I really couldn't in this semi-formal mom-to-mom group.
- Curiosity. I will credit the media somewhat on this. Race becoming a bigger media focus over the past year made me really, really curious to know what my friends of color thought about it. This helped push me toward asking.
- Becoming a parent. For me personally, I found it much easier to live with my head in the sand before I had kids. I was in my own little bubble-world, and when I did interact with anyone other than my husband and close friends I was the lawyer; I was in charge, I was respected, and my only worry was that people would think I wasn't smart because I was young, female, and blonde (honestly - this does happen; a whole group of girls once asked me in college "How did you test into the higher level French classes?" I was like "uh... I went to a good high school?"). But then I had a baby boy... and parenthood thrust me into the spotlight in a very uncomfortable way. Public toddler tantrums, for example, had me feeling a way I had never before felt in public - insecure, humiliated, embarrassed, and judged. I found myself reaching to reassure myself and the reassurances made me ... uncomfortable. I found myself thinking "Surely they can see, though, that I'm pretty likely to be a good parent... after all, I am, I mean I look a certain, or at least I don't look a certain- " It was undeniable. I was relying on my physical appearance, and part of that was race. I was actually relying on my whiteness (and fitness ... and even my blondness). This did not sit well with me, and I felt awful for parents in my same situation who were judged even more harshly than I was sure I was being judged.
- Also on being a parent. I realized how every advantage and disadvantage my son had seemed pretty darn important! I worried a great deal about even the little "bad" things - his slightly delayed language as a toddler, his dad being super busy... and I also found myself inundated with legitimate information about how the little good things really do add up. Once you're cognizant of the impact that even small things have on children, it becomes impossible to deny the impact of something big, like race ... and that means that kids do not start out on equal ground, which means that some children are disadvantaged, which means that others are privileged in comparison. Not only are non-white children viewed by others through a lens of race and treated accordingly, but many minority groups are less likely to have access to any of the "little" good things that do add up, due to being economically behind after decades of (and continued) economic disenfranchisement. One thing I do for my son (and will do for my daughter) at age 5 is I send him once a week to a private "science explorers" class where the teacher has him completely convinced that science is fun. My hope is that this lengthy "first impression" will give him an advantage someday when he starts science in school. But this program is not cheap. The sad reality is that money *can* buy success on a myriad of levels, so the idea that race "doesn't matter" in our nation is a simple fallacy.
- Finally, on being a parent. I realized for the first time just how horrific slavery was and why it was so wrong and why and how it did so much damage. Imagine that every child you bore, you bore with the knowledge that he or she could be taken away from you at a moment's notice and sold to some far-off plantation, never to be seen again. Just imagine what that would do to you as a parent - to your ability to bond with your child! And what it would do to the child!! The horror and psychological destruction is unthinkable. I've long been fascinated with the coal mines and I'm familiar with the misery and early death that was typical of a coal miner's life. But the thing is that even that still wasn't slavery. Not by a long shot.
- Being part of an online doctor-wife group. All of the above still didn't give me the actual courage to ask my IRL friends of color about race. It had just always seemed taboo, and who was I to stir the pot on this subject?? But thankfully I was part of a Facebook group that provided me a unique social dynamic of closeness and distance such that the topic of race was discussed several times among people of varying ethnicities and opinions. Closeness because being a medical spouse gives you significant common ground with someone; distance because it was online. It was through these discussions and through some reading materials provided to me that I finally got up the courage to talk to my IRL friends of color about race.
I was so glad I finally asked about race - and I want other white people to know that they, too, can ask about it.
Here's what I learned when I finally broke the ice:
- Race is absolutely still an issue! Your friends of color are thinking about it and they are experiencing disparate treatment all the time! Continuing to pretend it doesn't exist not only doesn't avoid a possible problem, but it perpetuates the problem. It's already not "fine" anyway, so you don't have to be worried about messing up the status quo.
- Your friends of color will not be upset that you asked about it; they will be glad! And you will be too! You will gain not only invaluable knowledge about the world you live in but you will also gain a friend. Because again - you can't really be friends with someone if you're not talking about all of the important things. I am overwhelmed thinking about the warmth, sensitivity, and insight that my asking has been met with from several people now. Also, on that note: Their friendship is worth the risk.
- At the same time, if you're willing to take this step, be sure you're willing to keep an open mind. I don't know where you, as a reader, are coming from on this issue but I do think it's important to keep in mind that our ideas about what someone else's life must be like are just that: ideas, based on preconceived notions. We really just have a very, very blank slate but they've lived that life and so we're just guessing at what they know. And I'm still learning myself. Case in point: I was having lunch with an Asian friend and she mentioned that after the South Carolina massacre she had some anxiety herself, as an Asian. My initial, without-thinking reaction was Huh? But you're Asian, and we're in the Northeast, what are the chances that you're going to be killed for being Asian up here? But ask yourself - do you feel less secure in the U.S. after the terrorist attacks in Europe? Clearly a lot of us do; it's all over the news.
- Race is not just an issue for black people. Being married to a half-Asian man whose personal opinion is that race has in no way affected his life, and having myself never experienced any static for marrying a half-Japanese man (not even from my WWII veteran grandfather, who adored my husband), I definitely thought Asians were "totally fine" in the U.S. I also defensively felt that if there was any racism, it was in the opposite direction ... in law school, for example, an Asian classmate once asked me (mistakenly assuming that Mark was fully Asian himself) "How I had gotten my husband's family to accept the fact that I was white," which was a question I simply couldn't imagine anyone asking about someone having married a person of any non-white race. Well... imagine it. Because you know what? It is definitely happening. Again, part of what I learned through talking to my friends of color was that I truly don't know the extent to which other races are treated differently because I'm white, and I can only know my own experiences (unless... I ask). And I know that some of you are thinking "See, that's why I can't be bothered to care about race; they don't like us either, and I haven't myself personally done anything to deserve that." No, sorry, we cannot take that way out of this. If some minorities don't like white people, and don't like you because you're white... again: There are a lot of white people who don't like minorities. If we can so easily be tempted to abandon this cause because of some people's opinions, just imagine what we're asking them to do, when you consider that a white man just massacred 9 black people!!
A note on "White Privilege"
I want to end this by talking about "white privilege" because as a term, it doesn't sit well with a lot of white people and there is really no need for that. If you're one of those people, please hear me out:
Privilege is a necessary corollary to disenfranchisement. It is simply not possible for any group of people to be disenfranchised without that disenfranchisement being measured against a "norm." The white experience is that norm, and it is not possible to fully understand the extent of minority disenfranchisement without also thinking about that norm. The term "white privilege" is the most sensical way of calling to mind not only the stark, but also the often very subtle differences in the treatment and experiences of people of different races. It is not meant to shame you, as a white person, or to guilt you for things that are are likely to be either entirely or almost entirely out of your own personal control ... at least, I really don't think it is. Those feelings of shame and guilt are natural responses to the term because we wish the world was fair, and thinking about it being rigged in our favor is a really uncomfortable thought whether and to whatever, if any, extent we personally rigged it that way or not. But we have to prioritize working toward justice over (white) feelings of discomfort. So ... we need to get comfortable with talking about white privilege. To not do so would be ... completely racist, really.
A few Resources
A few Resources
- If you still don't believe me, please watch this video. Watch it all the way through - it's heartbreaking.
- If you still can't yet come to terms with the phrase "white privilege," consider replacing it with the phrase "racial privilege." The TED talk I'm linking to here is really informative.
- This article was an important read for me - it makes several good points I would never have been able to conceptualize because again, I've only walked in my own shoes.
- Finally, this article discusses "9 Annoying Things White Men Say On Dates With Black Women" but most of the points made apply pretty universally to black/white relations. On that note, be prepared that some of your friends of color won't want to talk about race, and as individuals they're all going to differ in their thoughts on the subject. My overall takeaway is that if it's someone you're close to and you're respectful about it, curious, and open-minded, it's still always going to be a good thing to ask - and to learn.