So You Have A Question About Racism: What To Do Instead of Turning to the Nearest Person of Color
By Allie Kruk
It was Friday. I was grocery shopping and in a great mood since my favorite brand of hummus was on sale when I got a text from a friend.
“I can’t with white people sometimes. Can you talk?”
I answered the phone and heard an all-to-common story about a white woman asking him (he’s Black) a question about race; getting - to put it mildly - disappointed by his answer; and throwing what can only be described as an epic, hour-long white lady temper tantrum.
I was exhausted just listening to what occurred, so I can only imagine how exhausting it must have been for him to try to get this white woman to calm down long enough to recognize her racial privilege in a white supremacist society.
As is the case with most white lady temper tantrums, this particular white woman did not end up having such a “coming to Jesus” moment and instead, ended the conversation in a huff because her (white) feelings did not get automatically validated.
When he finished the story, I’m pretty sure the first words out of my mouth were “Oy vey.”
It’s an iteration of a narrative I’ve been hearing a lot over the past couple of years. A white woman has a question about race, and instead of turning to Google/her local library/another white person/Siri/whatever god she believes in, she asks her one Black friend (or if she doesn’t have any Black friends, any Black person within a 10-block radius).
Because apparently, it’s Black people’s job to:
1) teach us about the racist society we (white people) created
2) coddle us and our (white) feelings in the process and
3) speak on behalf of all people of color. *Sigh*
To be clear, I didn’t write this because I think I’m any better than the white woman my friend encountered on this particular Friday afternoon - far from it. I’ve had several (I hope milder) white lady temper tantrums with this same friend.
There was the time I spent a full 15 minutes in my feelings before acknowledging that it was dangerous (and intellectually lazy) to insinuate that racism directed at Black men is the same as sexism directed at white women. For the record, though both are forms of oppression, equating the two not only ignores the unique brutality people of color face but also advances a reductionist framework that overlooks intersectionality and difference.
Or the time I (mistakenly and insultingly) assumed he was being a mouthpiece for another white woman and then instead of apologizing, centered my feelings about the entire situation. It wasn’t my finest moment.
Clearly, I’m not perfect. And part of overriding white supremacist indoctrination means owning up to the ways in which I fall short of my values. (Astoundingly, this particular friend continues to hold me to higher moral standards than the white supremacist culture I fall back upon, which I’m very grateful for).
However, as someone who has engaged in the same racist white lady behavior, I’d like to think I’m in a unique position to help educate us (white women) on how we can be better. Because people of color have been doing (unpaid) emotional and intellectual labor for us for far too long. (Not to mention the unpaid physical labor we derive from slavery and mass incarceration).
So, let’s say you (white woman) have a question about race. Instead of automatically turning to the nearest person of color (which white supremacy teaches us is the correct response), let’s pause.
White supremacy says that your question deserves to be answered immediately. But instead of subscribing to the “need it now” logic of capitalist society (which is inextricable from the logic of white supremacist society), let’s take a second. Breathe. Be mindful of the emotions you’re experiencing and disentangle them from the facts you’re seeking. Breathe again.
Then ask yourself whether you need information or validation. If it’s the latter, ask yourself whether validation is: 1) truly warranted in this situation (or - more than likely - just something that our whiteness teaches us is warranted) 2) whether that validation needs to come from a person of color (in nearly all cases, the answer is no).
If it’s the former, let’s talk about places where you can get information on race and racism (that aren’t your nearest Black friend or acquaintance).
As activist and writer Rachel Cargle has pointed out time and again, Google is free. Use it. Many questions you have about race and racism can be answered in an Internet search, rather than relying on the person of color who happens to be closest to you.
Your local library
If my African American studies classes in college are a good barometer (and I think they are), there are literally thousands of books out there about race and racism (both fiction and non-fiction). Libraries, like Google, are also free.
The many authors and content-creators of color who have made their work free/low-cost and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.
A (certainly non-exhaustive) list of these resources includes: the aforementioned Rachel Cargle; George Yancy’s “Dear White America”; Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility”; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations”; Leslie Mac’s “When Allies Fuck Up”; Ezinne Ukoha; The Body Is Not An Apology; Black Girl Dangerous; Crunk Feminist Collective; Charles Blow; Morgan Jerkins; and Imani Perry.
Your “woke” white friend/relative/acquaintance
They definitely don’t want to see you put (unnecessary) emotional/intellectual labor on people of color. So go tap into the knowledge they’ve gained from anti-racist organizing/reading bell hooks/actually listening to people of color.
Intersectional feminist publications and/or publications who center people of color
People of color
If you absolutely must consult the nearest person of color, please for the love of all things just in this world, compensate them for the labor it takes to educate us (white people) about the racist realities that we (white people) created. Do not treat the labor of people of color as a certainty to which we (white people) are entitled. Instead, dismantle the capitalist underpinnings of our racist society and compensate people of color accordingly for the work that (white supremacist) capitalism devalues, disregards, or otherwise erases.
What does this look like in practice? Well first, it means asking said person of color if they want to discuss racism with you in the first place. If they don’t, that is their right. Respect it.
If they agree to discuss racism with you, listen mindfully and actively. Take their experiences seriously. They have lived white supremacy - we (white people) haven’t; they are the experts here. Don’t interrupt them. Don’t listen for the purpose of having your feelings or experience validated. Don’t listen for the purpose of sharing; listen for the purpose of learning and supporting.
Then, compensate them for the time and labor it took to explain the racism that white people created. If you’re talking over coffee or dinner, offer to buy them a drink or pay for their meal. If they have a Patreon, support it.
Writer and activist Rachel Cargle has popularized the idea of sending a friend $5 to $10 on Friday morning as a way of showing your investment in their health and humanity. Consider doing this for the person of color who educated you with a note attached about why you value them as a person (not just as a resource for white people or as a repository of knowledge about race).
Compensation also doesn’t have to be monetary. It can mean reciprocating emotional labor or investing your time in their passions, creative pursuits, experiences, and interests. It can mean a genuine expression of gratitude.
The point is to acknowledge that this human being took time out of their day to explain the violence they are subjected to because of us (white people) and that their effort deserves to be recognized, appreciated, and returned in kind.
People of color aren’t our own personal encyclopedias on all things racism. Their time is valuable - don’t waste it by assuming they exist solely to educate us, validate us, or otherwise indulge our every white person whim.
Then maybe my friend (and other people of color) can enjoy a peaceful Friday afternoon filled with a little less white lady tantrums and a little more #BlackJoy. I think the world could use it.