Dear White People Friends and Black People Friends

Does my addressing you as #blackpeople or #whitepeople start a conversation in a way that makes you feel welcomed by this and open to discussion? Do you wonder if I will give you a fair shake? Do you care?  Or does it inspire only enough curiosity to see how I will over-generalize, misperceive, slander you?  

I want to know how it makes you feel because I have this idea that racism is hard to write about in a way that doesn’t upset the people you’re trying to communicate with.

Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley from Flickr (Creative Commons)

I am troubled by recent writing which wants desperately to change the way things are but includes language choices that will turn people off.  The writing is littered with “black people” and “white people” and what they need to start doing or stop doing.  And I keep thinking as I read that they could achieve so much more if they were more solution-oriented.

Liz has helped me through multiple rewritings of this document and while we were walking this morning she observed that not all of the writers are interested in solutions.  She’s right.  Some are out to build themselves up.  Some are opportunistically taking a moment to attack white people because they sense they have a moral trump card.

I’m not interested to help the cause of anyone being a dick because they think they can get away with it.  In fact, that’s part of why I feel moved to write about this topic at all.

By sharing my words and ideas, I hope that the ones that are more focused on change than blame can find safe harbor.

I am neither white, nor black. Maybe this means I have less of a stake in this discussion but it also means that I can keep perspective.  

“Racist”: A Loaded Word.

John Metta reposted a sermon he delivered to a mostly-white audience at his church as a blog post, "I, Racist".  He shares a tale of an incident involving his white aunt’s sensitivities one that poignantly illustrates why he can’t talk to white people about racism:

White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals…
What they are affected by are attacks on their own character. To my aunt, the suggestion that “people in The North are racist” is an attack on her as a racist. She is unable to differentiate her participation within a racist system (upwardly mobile, not racially profiled, able to move to White suburbs, etc.) from an accusation that she, individually, is a racist. Without being able to make that differentiation, White people in general decide to vigorously defend their own personal non-racism, or point out that it doesn't exist because they don't see it.
The result of this is an incessantly repeating argument where a Black person says “Racism still exists. It is real,” and a white person argues “You're wrong, I'm not racist at all. I don't even see any racism.” My aunt’s immediate response is not “that is wrong, we should do better.” No, her response is self-protection: “That’s not my fault, I didn't do anything. You are wrong.”

The only thing I think is clearly illustrated by this story is how loaded the word racist is and how much harm is done to the possibility of discussion because they use the term without care.

  • “People in the North are racist”.  

  • Metta and family refer to his aunt’s “participation in a racist system”.

The words “racism” and “racist” are verbal battering rams with real emotional impact.  When we are confronted with a person describing aggregates of people resembling ourselves as “racist”, the words come across as blaming rebukes.

Racism is something we are all brought up to understand as an unspeakable evil.  The human tendency to defend our individual moral standing is so strong, I can’t blame a person for becoming enmeshed in a nonproductive and defensive discussion if they feel accused of racism.

Metta has no sympathy for this and I think I understand why.  Consider that he declares it character flaw on her part that she takes it personally rather than taking personal responsibility for racist outcomes.  

Blaming beliefs leave no room in the heart for sympathy.

Underlying Metta’s prescription that his aunt ought to have said, “that is wrong, we should do better,” is a blaming belief:  

Every single white person is responsible for black suffering. White people have NEVER taken responsibility for the situation. They all need to accept the blame so that we can get on with the conversation about what they owe us to fix it.

Metta can’t see it, but he is being a complete ass toward his “favorite aunt”.  I think the blaming belief is why.

If he didn’t give himself an option to stop talking about it, he could find a way to invite her to look at it from his individual perspective, which focuses on the grim systemic outcomes.  He’d gently explain to her that these are hard for white people to see.  

And he’d do it because he loves her like she’s his favorite.  

He says, she’s his favorite, but his actions say something else.

“White Feelings”: A Victim’s Privilege to Be Insolent

Let’s talk about “Black Lives” and “White Feelings”.  

The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings…
...This is the country we live in. Millions of Black lives are valued less than a single White person’s hurt feelings.

This a current trend:  Authors and tweeters are loudly telling the world they can no longer remain silent out of “concern for #whitefeelings”.  “#Blacklives > #Whitefeelings” says a number of tweeters.  

(They do not say whose choice it was to become silent in the first place.)

I’m not white but I can smell a not-so-subtle and opportunistic attack all the same.  “White feelings” strikes me as an elaborate way to insult white people. If someone told me I owed them help and they made it clear they don't give a damn about my “Asian feelings” I would find a polite way to tell them where they can stick their expectations and their cheap insults.

The victim mindset is the foundation for the resentful insolence of publicly declaring your disregard for “white feelings”.  The victim mindset’s primary mode and ultimate purpose is blame.  The goal is not understanding.  It has no concern for different perspectives or context.  It doesn’t care that there is more than one party in the conversation.

The victim mindset justifies hurtful actions by the victim so long as the target is the object of their blame: their “oppressors”.  

I don’t think action toward fundamental change will start from blame.  It will start from agreement, which can only be achieved through empathy and understanding.

Communication can only begin by abandoning the victim mindset.

Slow Down Before You Grind To A Halt

Practice Empathy by Quinn Dombrowski - Flickr (Creative Commons)

Practice Empathy by Quinn Dombrowski - Flickr (Creative Commons)

I want to tell the authors and tweeters talking about “White feelings” and calling people “racists” to slow down a bit and think about what they are saying.  They risk making the only potential allies for their cause so defensive that the discussion grinds to a halt.  

In addition to a huge attitude change, we need better way to think and communicate about the hard things. Can we apply personal relationship communication techniques to talking about racism?  So much of what is said about racism violates basic principles for talking about things that hurt:

  • Don’t start with blame or use attacking language
  • All-or-nothing words (e.g. always/never) usually indicate bad thinking
  • Beware of unspoken expectations and judgments
  • Ask yourself if you’re being fully rational
  • Make sure you agree on fundamental definitions

If these guidelines help us to have discussions about sticky topics in personal relationships, how could they transform the way we take on a charged topic such as racism?  

Time to Get Honest

In my relationships I have gotten myself hooked by disputes where I got so focused on who was right and who was wrong, I wasn’t listening or coming up with a plan of action.  Inevitably, the pain lasts about as long as my focus was misplaced.  

We need to pause and get honest about our motivations.  

  • Do we want to get the “northern white liberal” to finally accept his/her guilt? Or do we want to create radical change in the systemic outcomes?  

  • Are we out to damage the dignity of anyone who is white, or are we out to do our part to ensure dignity for all?

  • Are we more interested in “being right”, or are we more interested in making things right?

  • Do we want to spend our time blaming, or do we want to get to work?

If the goal is to change a system going horribly wrong, then we need a collaborative model.  

Contrary to what Metta says, ALL people are capable of thinking in terms of WE.  But we think in terms of WE best when we can agree on a well-defined goal, meaning that the conditions for success are itemized and attainable.  It also helps if it is clear how each individual can contribute toward the goal immediately.

With that in mind, I have a declaration of my own that I propose as a necessary starting point:

  • We are not interested in who is responsible for things being the way they are so long as we agree they need to be changed.
  • We are not interested in being right, and proving others wrong.
  • We are interested only in correcting systemic patterns that result in injustice.

We have to move past blame.  Blame is corrosive to collaboration. So is insult.  White people, especially the young ones, don’t deserve blame for the way things are.  As far as I can tell, they just got here and calling them racist doesn’t help anyone become more “aware” and it doesn’t win more allies for the cause.

My declaration is a commitment to stop fucking around and get serious about what we can do. My declaration is about priorities.  Whatever it is we think other people may owe us, however we think they benefit from oppressing us, I believe that these are not productive conversations to have.  These points are debatable and do not need to be settled before we can work toward making things better.

Hurt feelings are an enormous distraction that we don't have time for.  And hurt feelings or anger are both appropriate responses to spiteful, abusive bullshit.

Winning Requires Evangelists

If this conversation is important enough to be had right now… if #BlackLivesMatter to you, then it’s time to get clean on attitudes and the way we communicate by climbing the ladder of clean communication.  We don’t just want allies...

We want EVANGELISTS.  Evangelists are people who actively apply their best efforts and ideas toward a vision of a beautiful world.  They also believe in the vision so much that they go about inspiring and recruiting others to the cause.

We can’t win evangelists through guilt or shame.  These things make a person feel smaller, not bigger.  Small people achieve small things.

One final observation.

Guilt and shame and outrage were not the primary motivators in: “I have a dream…”

"I have a dream…” gave us a vision that won evangelists from all cultures. It wasn't a message of blame, it was a vision of interracial harmony that can only be built with a spirit of collaboration.  

(Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley, Photo Credit: Quinn Dombrowski)