How Not To Sound Like An American Racist
Let me start with addressing the obvious: This is triggering for an awful lot of my fellow white people. So, up front I’m going ahead and simply acknowledging the fact that you will see proof of this, as it eventually plays out in the comments section at the bottom of this piece. (Just speaking from experience.)
In particular, angry, cishet, white males and their female counterparts (which includes me — a white, cishet female) will be the most likely demographic to leave the nastiest responses. For sake of ease, I’ll refer to my fellow cohorts throughout as WCHP (white, cisgender, heterosexual people).
Despite my mentioning this right now, up front, there are people who will not be able to resist leaving their most pissed off thoughts. And they’ll do this either via simple drive-by insults, with no justification or additional context:
or, through telling me how flat out wrong I am:
“You are bullshit… No one more is responsible for your own happiness than you are. Until Black folks stop beating up the kids who get A’s in school, stop fronting artistic genre that glorify violence, prostitution and drug dealing, and stop blaming white people for their personal problems and teach their children never to resist or run from cops, THEY WILL BE FUCKED!”
or, by turning the tables to accuse me of being the racist or bigoted one, for attempting to call out the perpetuation of actual racist comments (see above, or below):
“One of the worst forms of racism is condesencion [sic] racism. In its black/white form, it’s where you hold white people to a higher moral standard that you hold black people to, thereby insinuating that more can be expected out of white people. Like carrying on and on about white racism while ignoring or justifying black racism (or worse yet, defining it ut [sic] of existence, if you know what I mean.) It’ [sic] also called virtue signalling…”
Despite the fact that I acknowledge my white, cishet privilege all the time now (after feeling and seeing discrimination through the narrow lens in which I view my transgender teen’s life), and despite the fact that I also try to help educate my fellow WCHP on the core issue of systemic racism in America, it seems projection is more comortable than self-reflection for some of these folks.
Of course, I certainly fall short, but I try to continue learning from the rich well of amazing black writers and activists, from Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, to Alicia Garza and DeRay Mckesson, and so many, many others.
Still, I’ll go ahead and preemptively respond to the first upset accusation I’m likely to get, if the past is any indication:
Adam/Martin/Harold/Christopher/Kyle/Tom/etc: No, it’s not actually racist for me to call out white cishet men in particular as being the most probable group to leave hate-filled comments — it’s based on personal experience from writing on this topic, and statistics — not just mine, but of other white writers who attempt to chip away at this, what you call, “divisive” issue. My readers tend to be primarily white, cishet people. I tend to piss off men the most.
No, I don’t hate cishet men. I’m married to one and I love him (and like him) a whole lot. We just celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary! And believe it or not, I tend to get along great with men. It’s not that I hate any one subgroup; what I don’t like is when people are presented with a chance to grow and cultivate their empathy, particularly for marginalized or minority groups, but they instead choose to remain willfully ignorant.
There are a ton of things us white folks say to black folks that are problematic, usually, without even realizing they are problematic. Because it’s never the job of the oppressed to educate their oppressor(s) on the many ways they are experiencing oppression, likewise, it’s not fair to expect our black brothers and sisters to call us on the carpet every single time we say another asinine phrase we think sounds unifying, but in actuality is anything but.
Even if they did call us out, what would we say or do in response? Well, as they’ve been telling us we do, for a long, long time (and as I’ve witnessed more often than not, as soon as I understood I had unwillingly taken part myself) it’s highly likely we’d:
- get upset,
- dismiss their feelings of being offended,
- throw it back on them by saying they’re being “divisive,” or “not everything’s about race!” and,
- manipulate the situation such that the conversation is centered back where it belongs — on us, the white girls (especially) — and our black friends are then in the awkward position of having to console us with choruses of “Yes, honey, of course I know you’re not racist,” while wiping away our tears of unrealized white guilt.
So what’s the point? It makes me tired just thinking of being the black person in that scenario. I can’t imagine going through all of that (and much worse) on a daily basis. As a WCHP of privilege, I see it as my job to do the work of learning about systemic racism. It’s my job to read black writers — in their own words — and just absorb without knee-jerk defensively responding, “not all white people!” It’s my job, once I’ve learned a thing or two, to go back and teach my newfound knowledge to my fellow white people who are willing to listen.
On that note, I’m going to keep this short and only tackle two problematic things for now. Two is enough for starters, anyway.
So, my fellow white people, here they are — two phrases to quit saying immediately, if you haven’t yet already. Saying one of these two things guarantees that you not only show everyone how much unchecked privilege you have, but in 2019, it also just sounds ridiculous.
Stop saying, “I don’t see color.”
It’s bullshit. Of course you see color. I mean, everyone gets what you’re trying to say. You’re trying to be progressive and unifying, to say that a person’s skin color doesn’t make a difference in the way you interact with and treat others. And that may well be true. But if you simply listen to black folks, you’ll quickly learn that in saying “I don’t see color,” you’re also participating in the systematic erasure of them, and you’re denying an important, deep-rooted, foundational part of their very being.
For one thing, they don’t need this. Our white ancestors and our history books have, for the most part, already erased black people and their many unique contributions through calculated efforts to whitewash our public school education and our understanding of American history.
In general, people of color want you to see their color; it’s not something we need to assume they’re ashamed of. Uttering “I don’t see color” (or its many variations) isn’t a magical power that somehow absolves us from the scourge of racism or the responsibilities of having white privilege. That white privilege is the very reason why we even have the choice to pretend not to see color — to ignore it. Race has an incredible amount of social power, and ignoring the visibility of it is just another way of ignoring the racial inequalities that still very much exist today.
Yes, we all know that progress has been made — as Mitch McConnell recently boasted without a hint of irony, on the topic of reparations, “We elected an African American president,” as if that was the moment the walls of systemic racism came crumbling down— but this type of progress doesn’t begin to take the place of hundreds of years of systematic dehumanization, torture, denial, and erasure. Yes, we had a black-ish president, but people were so angry over that, that we ended up with the current, openly racist White House occupant (I believe as a direct result, as punishment, for eight years under a black president with a “foreign-sounding” name).
Of course, trump may or may not inherently be a racist, but he absolutely uses his powerful platform to suggest and perpetuate a slew of racist myths and tropes, and roughly half of America eats it up. That’s proof enough that we haven’t yet made the kind of progress where we can allow majority white folks to downplay, dismiss, or outright deny the significance the role racism plays within our social hierarchy.
Stop using the phrase “playing the race card”
This is a misconception that needs to just die. White people use this phrase when they perceive that black people are receiving some type of privilege or advantage, at the expense of white people, or that black people are getting some kind of special VIP pass without even having to try, or rather, when all else fails. But, indeed there is no “race card.”
As Celeste Scott perfectly puts it:
She continues by saying that for both people of color and women, race and gender are not commodities that are used as excuses to get out of sticky situations. Rather, she states, “race and gender should be seen as an umbrella under which the entirety of a person’s experience is affected — including people who live at intersections of identity that have not traditionally been considered marginalized.”
Who else but white folks could lessen the real, lived experiences of black people on the receiving end of racism as “players” in some sort of game? You’ll notice no person of color ever enjoys this hypothetical game, nor do they accuse white people of playing it. That’s because white people in America have always been, and continue to be the rulemakers of this hypothetical game, and therefore don’t need to play at all. And even if they did play the game, you know, just for shits and giggles, the deck is already stacked in their favor.
In other words, the playing field is not level. White folks have the advantage, black folks have to try and level the field before they can even catch up. The “playing the race card” phrase exists for one purpose, and that is for white people to conjure it up at will and play with it, because it softens the harsh, inconvenient realities of racial disparity. (But more importantly, it also protects us from all those bogus allegations of racism, right?!)
In a NYT article, Charles Blow pointed the “game” out this way:
The truth is that the people who accuse others — without a shred of evidence — of “playing the race card,” claiming that the accusations of racism are so exaggerated as to dull the meaning of the term, are themselves playing a card. It is a privileged attempt at dismissal. They seek to do the very thing they condemn: shut down the debate with a scalding-hot charge.
Unfortunately, our true story isn’t pretty. White violence is fully central to our nation’s history — just as it’s fully central to our nation’s current story. Whether it’s corrupt, white police officers with unchecked bias who are quick to kill black males in disproportionate numbers, or the sickeningly large, escalating number of public mass shootings perpetrated by white men, the ensuing hand wringing and pearl clutching that happens among whites in every single aftermath reveals how blindly defiant we still are to this day.
We know this is the truth, yet somehow, we’ve managed to conveniently forget, downplay, and whitewash our history textbooks and our current narratives. This way, younger generations can be handed a tidied-up and neatly packaged version of Americana. Because white Americans are uncomfortable with our original sin. They always will be. And we don’t need to make them feel any worse than they already do, bless their hearts.
Martie sir-ROY (she/her) writes a variety of social commentary. She’s a top writer in Culture and LGBTQ for Medium, editor of Gender From the Trenches, and has been a featured contributor for HuffPost, Scary Mommy, NPR affiliates, and SiriusXM Insight, among others. Martie is the founder of S.E.A.R.CH., a program of her local LGBT Center, for trans youth and their parents. Connect with Martie on Twitter, Facebook, or follow her website & blog.