As a white liberal – and I mean whiiiiiiiiite some lily white shit white – I never intend to be racist. As a white, lower-middle-class, cis-gendered woman, I have been marinated in white privilege since I was born. Squaring these two opposites – not wanting to be a racist but having white privilege in a decidedly racist society – is challenging. When swimming upstream against cultural conditioning that reinforces colorblind racism and actively works to keep white privilege invisible, knowing what to do and say can be difficult for ordinary white folks.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of room white us white people to offend people of color because we are all too often ignorant of their sub-cultural realities, values, and experiences. White privilege means we don’t have to learn about people of color to survive, at least not in the way that children of color must learn to deal with white society on its terms or be crushed under its boot heel.[i]
Some of the things on this list come from my own personal experience, and some from listening to people of color talk about their experiences with white people who are often well meaning but say or do incredibly stupid racist shit that gets old, especially because it is the same thing all the time. Although I have not made all of the mistakes on this list, I have certainly made some of them. Because I live in Atlanta and hang out with mostly white or Black people, this list emphasizes racism towards Black people a bit more than others. Also, racism towards Black folks has a special kind of uber-virulence that shapes other forms of racism in the US. I hope this list proves useful to you in avoiding these common mistakes.
Yo White People, Avoid Doing This
- Turn down the music
If you are hanging out with people of color and the music is too loud for you, suck it up. Do not touch the dial. Do not ask for the music to be turned down. You are not the queen or king of this domain to demand that it be changed to suit your needs. You can move away from the speaker and/or just develop some tolerance for louder music. If it really becomes an issue, get some cool earplugs that look like ear buds to wear when you in that situation.
- Explain to a person of color (POC) how what just happened or that thing that person said was not racist
Whitesplaining, according to Maisha Johnson, is a form of privileged explaining (like mansplaining) in which white folks believe that they are “somehow more qualified to speak about a marginalized group than a person who belongs to that group.” Johnson identifies the signs of whitesplaining as “ a condescending tone and paternalistic assumption that a person of color doesn’t know enough to accurately articulate their own experience.“
We white people are not the arbiters of what is racist and what is not racist. If you have whitesplained, most likely you did not mean it as racist, but that does not mean it was not racist in its outcome. If it is racist to a person of color, then it is legit racist whether you meant it to be so or not. All sorts of things that white people do not see as racist have a racist impact on people of color. We are shielded from knowing that by white privilege, which allows us to focus on our intent rather than the impact.
For instance, when my son called my girlfriend-at-the-time/now wife (who is Black) a “big dyke” in jest, I thought I could make it all better by saying “He didn’t mean it that way,” meaning that he did not intend it as racism. While I had the best of intentions to explain that he was raised hippie and we joked about things like that to destigmatize language, the impact was to prioritize what he meant over what she experienced. Saying he doesn’t mean it that way is white privilege saying I want to define the situation, and I say that intent is what really matters. So as long as I don’t mean it to be racist, then it’s not racist. Right? Not really, it is still racist because it lands as racist with POC. To ignore the impact or expect it to simply shift as soon as the person of color comes to understand how you meant it is an expression of white privilege.
Instead – listen to what the other person is saying, ask them questions about how they feel and what they mean, and apologize.
- Assume it is this person’s job to be your personal Black History Month dictionary
People of color are not obligated to educate us white folks on their ways, thoughts, history, language, music, or traditions. Take it upon yourself to actively broaden your horizons instead of passively expecting POC to interpret for you. See a movie, read a book, attend a lecture – work to expand your understanding of the lives of POC as they experience things. The Internet reigns — use it to educate yourself with search terms like:
- color-blind racism
- history, culture, or language + (insert diverse groups here)
- white-privilege (which also shows the white supremacists sometimes, for another view on white privilege as something to be preserved and reinforced),
- Tell other people that you are broke if you have cash in your pocket, money in savings, investments, own a home, etc.
White people broke is not the same thing as POC broke, and saying you are broke when you actually have money is obnoxious. It is even worse when you do so in the presence of people who know a whole different level of brokenness.
- Ask “Where are you really from?”
When you are chatting with someone and ask them where they are from, believe their answer. If they tell you they are from Cleveland and they look like an Asian Pacific Islander, believe them. There are people of Asian descent living in Cleveland, who are from Cleveland in the sense that they live there, grew up there, and might have been born there. Asking where someone is really from implies that they are not to be trusted when they offer their first response and that they do not really belong here, they are not one of “us.”
- Use the N word
Under no circumstances can white people use the n word. Not in song titles, not in song lyrics, not in conversation, not in jest, and not in irony. Simply do not say it. Ever.
- Assume that all POC know each other just because they are of the same race or ethnicity
POC are as diverse and widespread as anyone else, and they are not all members of the same club. While they may all experience various levels of racism, that is where the similarity ends. By assuming that all Black people know each other, you are putting them all in the same box and applying a false homogeneity. This erases that person’s individuality and makes them just a member of a group based on their race.
- Remain in a cocoon of whiteness
If you are white and living in the United States, chances are very high that you can choose to spend most of your time with other white people, eating white food, and watching white tv in your white neighborhood in a house that you got because your family was not redlined from that neighborhood. Whiteness is so pervasive in many ways that you have to actively choose to broaden your horizons. Go to new places where you are not in the majority, and see how other people live and how it feels to be a minority in that space.
- Talk so much
Be quiet and listen, especially if you are nervous. White privilege makes it seem natural for white people to constantly want to tell other people about their ideas, experiences, perceptions, and values. The thing is, POC have also been marinated in white culture so they know all about us. We white folks are not a mystery to POC, and we need to stop talking so much because it keeps us from listening.
- Ask to touch a Black person’s hair
White people are fascinated with the various textures that Black hair can achieve. Asking to touch their hair may seem innocuous or even a sign of interest in attempting to get to know about POC, but it does not come across that way to the majority of Black folks – especially Black women. Instead, it is objectifying and rude. How would you feel if your ears stuck out more than the dominant cultural images, and people you did not even know whose ears were close to their heads constantly asked to touch your ears? Chances are good that you would feel objectified or irritated, and that the constancy of the interaction would reinforce for you just how much you differ from the dominant cultural expectations.
[i] Social class obviously makes a big difference, and rich people always have more choices than poor folks. Even so, wealthy people of color still experience racism, and poor white people still have white privilege.