As a white person, sometimes it can feel awkward, uncomfortable, or taboo to talk about race. With the protests for Black Lives Matter going on around the world, including in our own Jackson County, it can feel even more precarious. I know I have shied away from the topic myself at times because I was worried about how to talk about race “the right way,” or been hesitant to bring it up with family or those I care about. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I’m called racist? It would be better to say nothing than to embarrass myself, right? And do I really need to call out that racist comment when it was only meant to be a joke?
Today I want to challenge this idea, and focus more in depth on those questions. What actually happens if you do accidentally say the wrong thing? You might be corrected, you might be ignored, or worst case, someone might laugh. All these outcomes might lead to a bit of embarrassment, but is that any worse than when you made an innocent mistake in any other setting? I know personally I was far more embarrassed the time I confidently gave the wrong answer to a question in a meeting than when I had good intentions but used the wrong term in a conversation about race and someone corrected me. We get embarrassed when we make mistakes, but it passes, and we can choose to learn from the experience.
What about if you’re called racist? What are the consequences? The answer to this question is mostly the same: embarrassment, and hopefully a lesson. Nobody likes being called racist, but it isn’t a death sentence or even necessarily a moral judgment about your character. Instead, it is a critique of your actions. We can deflect or deny the allegations, or we can use it as an opportunity to learn from our mistakes.
And most importantly, should I as a white person call out that racist joke? The answer is simple: yes! Whether it’s a racist joke or a policy at work with outcomes that disproportionately target Black people as an example, whether it is a coworker or your parent, and whether you are uncomfortable or not, it is important to bring up. Black lives matter, and their fair treatment is certainly more important than our temporary discomfort. Combating the normalization of racism is crucial for equity, and we must use our privilege as those who are not oppressed to defend the rights of those that are. When we don’t vocalize our opposition to racism, we are leaving minorities to defend themselves from their own oppression. And if I am uncomfortable as a white person bringing up another person’s racist actions, I can only imagine how uncomfortable (and potentially unsafe) that must feel for the Black person defending themselves.
With the extremely delayed punishment for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery as well as the recent murders of George Floyd, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police that have led to protests on every continent in over five hundred cities, being open to talking about race and racism is even more important. Racism is ingrained in our institutions, and having the courage to stand up to it wherever we can is a huge step towards creating change. It may make us uncomfortable, but it is a crucial part of working towards a society that is equal for all people. It’s time to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and push through that awkwardness to initiate those conversations anyway.
With that in mind, I wanted to end with some resources that might provide information about race and racism in America, as well as help people be more comfortable initiating these conversations. Check out this list here for recommendations on books about civil rights, racism, and talking about race as a white person.