Can We Talk?

Friends drinking coffee and having a serious chat

“Whiteness is the freedom not to see race most of the time; and it’s why when white people are asked to see it, we get so uncomfortable.”

Baynard Woods, Author of Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness, in an interview on the 08/31/22 episode of Code Switch, “What Does It Mean to Inherit ‘whiteness?'”

Why is it so darn hard for white people to talk about race? Why do we feel so uncomfortable? And why the heck do we get so defensive? I’ve been known to stammer incoherently as I attempt to explain what I meant to say, practically tripping over myself to clarify my intentions. Because of course I’m not racist!

From the time I was a young girl growing up in Nebraska until quite recently, I honestly never thought of myself in terms of race. I understood that I needed to mark “white” or “Caucasian” on forms and questionnaires, but I never really thought about my whiteness. I never worried that someone wouldn’t want to be my friend because of my race. I never had people wanting to touch my hair to see how it felt. No one ever suggested that I didn’t belong because of the color of my skin. 

Every local hairdresser had experience cutting hair like mine. If I fell, the Band Aids on my knees matched my skin. Peach-colored crayons (the go-to for coloring faces, arms, and legs) were the color of my skin. Barbies were white. Cosmetic companies catered to white women like my mom and “nude” nylons were the same tone as her bare legs. And honestly, with the exception of Gordon and Susan on Sesame Street, some college kids who played for our state’s beloved football team, and a couple of friends in high school, I had no exposure to Black people. My world was white. My blond hair and white skin were the norm.

Although racism may be the single most important thing to understand if one is to understand the United States of America, my friends and I never learned to talk about it. We didn’t think we needed to. If the topic of “race relations” was in the news, it didn’t feel necessary to spend much time contemplating or discussing it. I knew what it meant to be racist—at least I thought I did—and since I had been taught that “we’re all the same on the inside”, I honestly couldn’t imagine that I was capable of holding any racist thoughts or engaging in any racially problematic behavior. I was one of the good guys!

Robin Diangelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Race, posits that white people are the beneficiaries of an inequitable and segregated society, and because of that, we are ill prepared to talk about race in any meaningful way. Since we are not accustomed to experiencing “racial stress”, we feel tremendous discomfort and may even become a bit unhinged when challenged about racially problematic things we’ve said or views we hold (that’s where the word “fragility” comes in). Diangelo, who is white, cites four reasons why white people find it so hard to talk about race. There is much to learn and say about each point, but here’s a brief overview.

  1. “We don’t see ourselves in racial terms.” As I said, until recently I didn’t consider myself a member of a racial group. At least not really. White people were the norm in my school, my town, and in the media. They are the norm here in Newtown. Like all white people, I projected stereotypes onto the few BIPOC to whom I was exposed, but I didn’t think of myself as being part of a racial group with shared commonalities. I was part of the majority. “Minorities” might have been part of a racial group, but not white people! We were just….Americans.
  2. “Our opinions are uninformed.” My opinion on racial issues was totally uninformed—and not only because knowing so few people of color meant that I wasn’t exposed to experiences beyond the white experience. If memory serves me correctly, aside from units in Social Studies about slavery, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and ‘60’s, racism was never discussed in school. I was 100% clueless about the persistence of racism and social inequities.
  3. “We don’t understand socialization.” We love thinking we are special and devoid of racist tendencies that other white people might have. But in order to be effective allies, we must understand the social forces which form our world view. It’s impossible to escape the messages coming at us from every which way. To cite just one example, we watch movies and television shows portraying BIPOC as poor, addicted to drugs, violent, or involved in street gangs. White people are often portrayed as their victims–or their saviors. These messages (among others) are received day after day, year after year, ultimately becoming ingrained within us. And they are a big part of the person who we become. 
  4. “We have a simplistic understanding of racism.” Racism is not one individual hating or discriminating against another. It is not derogatory language or politically incorrect jokes. Those are examples of racist behavior, not defInitions of racism. In his book Portraits of White Racism, David T. Wellman defines racism as “a system of advantage based on race.” In this system, white people have the advantage, whether we’re talking about equal representation, housing segregation, educational opportunities, or the justice system. And so, while BIPOC can hold prejudices against white people or even discriminate against them, they cannot be racists. Diangelo describes racism as occurring when “a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control”. 

No wonder we’re so bad at talking about racism. We really are clueless.

I invite and encourage you to read White Fragility. It’s worthy of multiple readings and makes for an excellent reference book. It can be painfully hard for white people to talk about race. It makes us uncomfortable. It rocks the boat. It can make us feel icky. We get flustered and discombobulated looking for the right words, trying as hard as we can not to slip up and say something offensive. Ugh, it can be SO awkward and uncomfortable! But we must remember that the feeling of awkwardness that white people experience talking about racism doesn’t begin to compare to the harm that our neighbors of color experience as a result of racism. We can choose not to be so darn fragile. And a little bit of discomfort will go a long way in making our community a kinder, more inclusive place for all.