Friday, August 11, 2017

How to engage in racial discourse when you’re white

First, rather than posit an authoritative stance on any sort of empirical truth about race and identity issues: don’t. Instead, listen and learn (primarily to people of color; not white males; I realize the hypocrisy of that statement and intend for this piece to be a starting point- an overview of things I have learned from people of color, with plenty of links for further learning). Amplify marginalized voices. But do not take credit for them or pat yourself on the back for being an ally - if you think about it, that is reinforcing a position of privilege and dominance, as it attempts to redirect the attention to a particular identity that is already hegemonic. I also understand that my views are imperfect. I will own the problematics of my arguments, and I will own my continual growth and understanding. That is my responsibility.
What I wish to confront is the discomfort associated with thinking deeply and frequently about these topics; they are messy and emotionally-charged-- but for some (namely, people whose identity is physically represented to the world as a person of color), the discomfort is ubiquitously present in their everyday experience as they are faced with constant reminders of how the world has been shaped around race. I also wish to avoid a dismissive attitude, as was described by an African-American college student who felt shut down when attempting to discuss race with both fellow students and professors who were white.
Race is both structural (i.e., woven into the institutions, policies, and practices that influence social behavior) and subjectively individual; especially with regard to the latter, it is impossible for a white person, especially a white male to truly empathize with the complex experience of others (I realize that even saying this is dangerously close to positioning “white male” as normal or default - that’s another pitfall to watch out for; see how it reinforces the dominance of a particular identity?).
Educate yourself about history not as some fixed series of separate events but as a continuum - a way of perpetuating and unraveling dominant ideologies. Try to truly understand privilege not in a personal sense, but in a historical and structural sense.
Understand the myth of meritocracy and the real phenomenon of unconscious bias if you find yourself trying to defend arguments that we live in a “post-racial” society or that access to opportunities and jobs, etc. are solely based on individual skills.
Ask why the frequency of missing children of color is disproportionately high and under-reported by media? Especially among Native American populations.
If you prefer to look at facts, there are plenty of rigorous studies that verify systemic racism; be careful not to cherry-pick data that is presented in a misleading or biased way if your goal is to challenge racist claims (and ask yourself why you think it is important for you to adopt a “devil’s advocate” position in the first place).
Defending things like free speech and open exchange of ideas is important, but recognize that these things are inherently influenced by ideological hegemonies which can be barely perceptible at times but which prevent speech from being truly free (free from false assumptions and values that are historically and socially reinforced), and that the recognition of such ideological hegemonies leads to the demand for things that may be seen as controversial in discussions of free speech, like safe spaces or trigger warnings. Just as society is not post-racial, in order to be “free,” free speech must be predicated on formats and language systems that are not infiltrated with hidden bias and taken-for-granted assumptions that were created and reinforced by dominant groups (often in the interest of self-interest). Interrogating the assumptions that preclude true freedom of speech or open dialogue is a project that should be taken up by white people; and it starts with listening and learning.

Other links to check out:
When you forget to whistle Vivaldi (and anything by Tressie McMillan Cottom):
Deray McKesson on Twitter
Indian Country Media Network
So many more. . . what resources or people do you follow?