Introduction to Race in the United States for White People (by a white person)

What is this website, and who is it for?

Thanks for coming here. There's a lot going on right now, and I appreciate your desire to learn more.

  • This is not a political website. I’ve purposefully avoided mentioning anything about any political leaders or government administrations so that we can focus on the general principles that have applied throughout US history. People and politicians across the political spectrum have made mistakes, and the "callout culture" of publicly shaming people isn't helping. Bottom line: If you’re white, this is for you, no matter your political affiliation.
  • My goal is to guide you through the complex subject of race and racism with gentleness and without judgment. It's ok to have a lot of questions. It's ok to be confused about why this is all such a big deal for a lot of people. If you're looking for Race 101, this is a great place to start.
  • I created this site to be approachable, non-political, and grounded in logic, evidence, and rational thought. If you only feel able or willing to devote 5 minutes to this topic, start with Systemic Racism Explained. And if you're wanting more, you've come to the right place. The lists of resources out there can be overwhelming, so this site offers a step-by-step journey through each major topic related to race and racism—all in one place and starting at the very beginning.

Where should you start?

I've talked with a lot of people about this topic, and it's clear to me that many of us are coming from different places. I'd like to meet you where you are.

Which of these three descriptions best represents you?

Advocate

  • On board with the racial justice cause?
  • Need some quick tips on doing this work effectively?
  • Want to jump right into what's been happening over the past couple of months and learn how to take action?
Start Here

Skeptic

  • Frustrated by political correctness and identity politics?
  • Identify as conservative, or feel aligned with the IDW (e.g., Jordan Peterson)?
  • Want to address the larger issue of rational discourse and divisiveness in this country before diving into race and racism specifically?
Start Here

Learner

  • Just want to get to the race education piece (i.e., the bulk of this website)?
Start Here

May 31, 2020 Update (with additions on June 2): There's a lot to take in and process right now.  Reading this website won't be quick, but I urge you to take the time to dig deeper here to better understand all the complexity behind the protests and the public outcry after George Floyd's death. 

Here's what I'll briefly say about the protests themselves and the country's response to them:

  • It's hard to condone looting, burning police cars, and damaging property. Here's an excellent video by rapper Killer Mike about this. (He talks about the concept of systemic racism; if you don't fully understand what that means, I explain it on this website.)
  • Please recognize that the vast majority of protesters are non-violent. The looters don't represent everyone, and many of them are likely just people taking advantage of the situation rather than genuine protesters who believe in the anti-racism cause (in fact, I was at a protest last night, and I saw a group of actual activists stop a man who was trying to deface public property).
  • So yes, it's hard to condone violent protests, especially during a pandemic where social distancing is important. And. This isn't a response to one man's death. It's a response to a whole string of recent events as well as centuries of oppression. Martin Luther King Jr. said that a riot is the language of the unheard. Activists have tried kneeling, they've tried speaking up peacefully, but black people are still being disproportionately killed (they're three times more likely to be killed by police than white people are).
    • I appreciate this perspective from JoAnne Kao: "Words matter. You keep saying 'It’s horrible that an innocent black man was killed, but destroying property has to stop.' Try saying “It’s horrible that property is being destroyed, but killing innocent black men has to stop.'" I know that's simplified, but try sitting with it. This is a complex situation, and it's possible to have multiple feelings at the same time that might even feel in conflict.
  • Here's an excellent video by Trevor Noah that summarizes this whole situation. I highly recommend you watch it. But first, in case you're not aware, here are the key events he mentions:
    • Christian Cooper, a black man, was bird-watching in a park on Monday when he asked a white woman, Amy Cooper (no relation to the man), to leash her dog as per the rules of the park. She instead called the police in a frantic voice, lying that he was threatening her life. The whole thing was filmed. (If that doesn't seem like a big deal to you, please know that there's a long history in this country of white women holding the power to destroy a black man's life. For example, Emmett Till was a 14-year-old black child who was brutally murdered in 1955 after a white woman said he offended her. Decades later, that woman admitted that she'd fabricated key details of her claims against him.)
    • Ahmaud Arbery was a black man who was out jogging in February in a predominantly white neighborhood (less than two miles away from his home) when he was hunted down and killed by two white men with rifles in a truck (they claimed they thought he was a man who had trespassed on a neighbor's property, even though security camera footage shows that many people had passed through there). Very little action was taken by police until the video went viral.
    • Sandra Bland was a black woman who was arrested for a routine traffic stop (failing to signal a turn) that escalated when the white police officer dragged her out of her car after she declined to put out her cigarette. He refused to tell her why she was being arrested, and she was found dead in her jail cell three days later. This happened back in 2015, but new footage was released last year that cast a new light on the case.
  • Most importantly, please don't let the media change the focus here. They're in the business of boosting their ratings, so they focus on the sensational stories instead of the underlying causes. When you talk with friends and family about what's happening right now, don't talk about whether the protests are justified or how bad it is that people are looting. Talk about racism. Talk about how bad it is that black people are being murdered. Don't just shake your head that the world is falling apart. Ask yourself why so many people are so angry.
  • This website contains a lot of information, and I know that we're all dealing with different life circumstances right now (the pandemic, childcare, sick family members, etc.). So, if you feel overwhelmed and only have a little bandwidth right now, please just watch this excellent 4-minute video (by Alex Cequea of act.tv) that explains systemic, structural racism. Then, when you feel ready, I hope you'll come back here for more. If you keep reading beyond this first page, I'll walk you through the topic of race and racism in America step by step from the very beginning

What can you do to help right now?

  • As a white person, please don't ask a person of color to explain this stuff to you. This is likely an incredibly challenging time for them and that request will probably drain them even more.
  • As a white person, please don't tell people of color that you understand what they're going through. Instead, tell them that you care about them and that you're here for them if they need anything. Also, recognize that they might be very angry right now, so please don't take it personally if they don't meet your offer with gentle thankfulness. Don't make this about you, and don't make them feel like they need to apologize to you or show up in a different way. Meet them where they are, and give them space if they ask for it.
  • Please also don't try to prove to them that you're a "good white person" because you donated to Black Lives Matter, etc. Racism is a sensitive and nuanced subject, so please be careful about sharing your opinion on what should be done here until you've educated yourself about the context behind what's happening. This website is a good place to start.
  • Be real that all this is happening and that it's a big deal. Be sensitive in your communications with people (it might feel tone deaf to end an email with "have a great day!"). At work, recognize that people's minds might be elsewhere (I've been opening all my meetings by naming that and admitting that I myself am feeling worn out).
  • Please be aware that saying "all lives matter" is offensive. My short explanation is this: Our society is organized such that it's already clear in many ways that white lives matter. In contrast, black people have been oppressed for hundreds of years in a wide variety of ways. Specifically, they're killed three times more often by police. So, "black lives matter" is a way of shining a light on that reality and saying that black people matter too as full humans who deserve respect, dignity, safety, and fair treatment. Saying "all lives matter" is a way of moving the focus away from their struggles and instead suggesting that all races face similar challenges. If this makes more sense to you now, please help explain it to other people too—because people of color (and white activists) are tired of hearing that phrase, and explaining why again and again can be exhausting.
  • If you're new to anti-racism work, I understand that those bullets above might seem harsh or challenging to fully understand. This is a tough time, and this is a lot of information. I added this section to offer some quick suggestions related to what's happening right now specifically, but please rest assured that the rest of this website will walk you through all of this more slowly so that it hopefully makes sense to you.
  • Vote, and at the local level too. I'm not being political here—I'm advocating for all Americans to vote for officials who will properly represent their values.
  • Donate:
    • Campaign Zero has laid out 10 policy solutions for reducing police violence. If you're wondering whether the protesters have any specific demands, that's a great place to start.
    • Reclaim the Block advocates for housing, violence reduction, and moving money allocated to the police department into other avenues promoting health and safety.
    • The Know Your Rights Legal Defense Fund is providing legal resources to protesters.
    • There are many more. I know it's easy to get overwhelmed here. So, if you can afford it, please just pick one and give what you can. Any donation is better than being caught in indecision and doing nothing.
  • Educate yourself (scroll down to the rest of this page). In my opinion, this is the most important step.

Thank you for coming here. I can empathize if you still find it hard to understand why all this is happening. That's why I made this website. There's a lot to learn, and I want to support you by walking you through it step by step.

This country is in a tough spot right now and it needs you. What can you do to support anti-racism in the longer-term? I list a variety of ways in sections 4 and 4.2 of this website. But you need the context first.

Let's begin.

If you'd prefer to learn via audio, you can listen to Part 1 (i.e., this first page below) here (9 minutes long, revised on June 9, 2020):

By the way, I'm still in the process of creating audio for each Part. So far, I've completed through Part 3.2, and I've been converting a new Part to audio every week or so. Thanks for your patience. 

 

If you grew up in the United States, you probably weren’t taught most of this.

I wasn't.

In my experience, history class was boring, focused more on memorizing dates than taking the time to sit with concepts and internalize what they meant. Looking back, I vaguely remember hearing a bit about how race played into early America. But it didn't stick with me because it seemed to be from another era that was no longer relevant. Sure, the past was hard, but things are different today. We had a black president, right?

A couple of years ago, I started paying closer attention to what's going on with race in the United States today. Why was "black lives matter" such a big thing, and why was "all lives matter" considered offensive to some? Why were so many black people being killed by police? Where did race even come from? As a white person, I hadn't ever had to give it much thought.

So, I started doing some research and realized there was an immense amount to learn. I also discovered that there were a whole lot of mistakes that were easy to make, and I sometimes felt shame at asking what seemed like stupid questions.

The social justice community can sometimes be hard on beginners because there's a lot of complexity to learn; and, activists can sometimes have limited patience when they've had to live with the stress of doing this emotionally challenging work and explaining the same concepts (and hearing the same disbelief) over and over again.

So, this project is my attempt to make that learning a little easier for other white people. I hope it helps you, and I'll keep updating as I continue to learn.

(P.S. If you're curious who I am and if I can be trusted, I answer that question in Part 0 here.)

This website is for you if you believe any of these:

  • The idea of race is rooted in science
  • You “don’t see color”
  • Only bad people have racist behaviors
  • Talking too much about racism simply divides us even further and doesn't help anything
  • Race applies to other people (as a white person, you’re just normal, and you don’t really have to worry about race)
  • You have black friends, so you can’t be racist
  • “Identity politics” and “political correctness” have gone too far (you can't say anything anymore without getting in trouble)
  • You're a liberal or progressive, so there's no way you could be racist
  • People play the "race card" too much, or people of color make "everything" about race
  • It doesn’t make sense to give reparations or special privilege to black people or indigenous people since slavery and genocide happened generations ago and don't affect the people alive today
  • We all have the same opportunities—if someone is willing to work hard, they can get to the same place as anyone else
  • Organizations are putting too much emphasis on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives (or, you hear some of your colleagues pushing for this stuff but you struggle to understand why it's so important to them)

If any of that applies to you, don’t worry: It’s not your fault.

Because racism is intertwined with so many other aspects of life in this country, it's become an incredibly complex and nuanced topic.

That means a few things:

  1. Most of us didn't learn about this in school. So, a lot of this information will be new to you unless you've already explored the topic on your own.
  2. It's very normal to have a strong initial reaction to what you're about to read. I did.
  3. As a white person, it's easy to be confused about why all this is a big deal. I can empathize. Many of the effects of modern racism are invisible to white people until you learn what to look for.

But, you’d want to know if you were inadvertently causing harm to your friends and colleagues, right? You'd want to know if there were a barrier keeping them from feeling safe and comfortable with you?

Reading this website can be your first step in figuring out if that might be true and, if so, how you can start to do better. I'll do my best to explain where the concept of race came from, why it’s so deeply ingrained in this country, how we’ve all been affected by it, and what you can do about it.

Later, we'll also explore how racism has negatively impacted white people as well. Doing this work might help you better understand parts of yourself and parts of American culture that have probably caused you stress throughout your life.

Part 1:
A few notes before we dive in:

It might be tempting to skip a lot of the history in here because it seems either obvious to you or irrelevant to modern race issues. But please try to stick with it.

I've only included the information that I felt was most important to know (i.e., the things that were not obvious to me as a college-educated American).

If you skip too much, you won't be able to fully appreciate the points later on about issues today that directly link back to historical events and policies.

Throughout this website, the term "person of color" or "POC" is used to refer to non-white people.

Using the term "person of color" makes room for a variety of people from different lineages. Similarly, you can use the "[noun] of color" format with a variety of words such as "students of color," "children of color," or "women of color."

I'm still early in my own education on these topics, so I might will probably get some things wrong.

But, I’ve done my best to synthesize my notes from a variety of sources into what I believe are the most important points for a white person to know about race. This is the first version, and I intend to update as I continue to learn more.

I also borrowed a lot of these ideas from excellent sources like the Seeing White podcast, the book White Fragility, and many other resources created by people more knowledgeable than I am. I've included a suggested reading/listening/watching list later on that I highly recommend you check out first hand if you find these ideas engaging.

"There are a lot of conflicting messages in this movement.

And, wait, you're a white guy. Is it ok for you to be writing all this?

Aren't you being hypocritical by not letting people of color lead all this work?"

  • Is it ok for me to be educating other white people and leading anti-racism workshops as a white person? And, more broadly, what role should we white people be playing in anti-racism work?

    • There's a lot of complexity here, and these are important questions to answer

  • Especially if you're new to this work, it might feel like you're getting very conflicting messages: 

    • This movement needs to be led by people of color! 
      • But white people aren't doing enough!
      • You're scaring white people away!
    • We want to promote equity, and we want all voices to be heard! 
      • But not white voices, especially not white men!
    • We should be asking people of color what they want! 
      • No, we shouldn't be bothering them since it places an emotional burden on them!
    • We want everyone to be treated like equals!
      • But be careful what you say around people of color!
    • We want you to join this cause! 
      • But you’re ignorant, so we don't actually want you to say anything!
    • We don't want to censor people! 
      • But you better not say anything controversial!
  • This stuff is hard on new people (which is why I made this website). One challenge here is how we're taught in school that there's only one correct answer to every problem. We'll explore that type of thinking later on in Part 5, but for now please know this: 

    • The subject of race is complex, and there’s a lot of nuance. We’re talking about 400 years of history and a vast web of connections spanning our education system, our prison system, our healthcare system, and so much more

    • So yes, this will probably feel uncomfortable, but the truth is that there are going to be several things that are true at the same time, and at this point they might seem in conflict with one another. Hopefully if you continue reading through this website, the nuances will become more apparent and all this will make more sense

  • In the meantime, I'll outline below why I believe it’s ok—and even encouraged—for white people to teach anti-racism work (many scholars and experts agree too)

  • Yes, we should absolutely elevate and amplify voices of color—for a few reasons (among many others):
    • Because they haven't been heard enough over the past 400 years, and all humans deserve a voice
    • Because it’s ethically the right thing to do after so much oppression and silencing
    • Because leaders of color can improve the workplace and the country for other people of color (and, that’s certainly not all they can do)
    • Because if we believe in dignity for all, people of color should be allowed to ask for what they want rather than being told by white people what they’re getting
  • Yes, please do hire leaders of color as managers, and please do bring in experts of color to lead trainings at your workplace if they're offering and available
  • And, we can’t just leave the work of anti-racism to people of color—it's time for us white people to step up and do our part (with humility and a willingness to accept feedback about any unintentional impact we're having)
    • As an analogy, leaving anti-racism work up to people of color would be like leaving sexual violence (e.g., rape) prevention to women to solve
    • Yes, it's important for women to be strongly heard and empowered in those conversations, and real change won't happen unless men step up to help—and that includes men who have never committed any kind of sexual violence
    • Similarly, you might not be a bigoted white person, and you of course weren't around when many of this country's systems of oppression began. But, by being white you're involved (more on this in later sections), and the cause needs you
  • It requires a lot of emotional labor for people of color to educate white people because it means dealing with the same questions and push-back over and over again
    • I say "emotional labor" because discussing traumatic race-related events takes much more of a toll on people who are closer to it (either because they can easily imagine "that could be me being killed" or because they have friends and family who actually have been harmed)
    • People of color who show up to teach us despite all that should be properly compensated. We should not be expecting them to do that kind of labor for free
  • Some white people (particularly men) are more likely to listen to a fellow white man
    • You might appreciate how I as a white guy can more easily empathize with your discomfort here since I had to go through something similar myself
    • And, although that's likely true, let's also be careful to avoid assigning more credibility to a white person simply because we're used to seeing white people in positions of power and authority
    • And, it's been a harmful pattern in this country's history that many white people are only willing to listen to other white people. We need to practice listening to other voices too
    • All of that's true at once. So again, this is a time to sit in the soup of complexity and know that there's not one easy perfect answer here
  • Regardless of my race, one of my greatest talents is explaining complexity. I'm passionate about the anti-racism cause, so I want to offer my service here
    • That said, I’ve also considered it important to share my work with people of color wherever possible to request critical feedback (if they feel open to providing it, and that requires earning trust and doing my own research and personal growth work first). It's important to name that these are people I have relationships with (i.e., I didn't just approach a person of color and ask them to do work for me)
    • I've also found it important to spend a lot of time discussing all these topics in white-only affinity groups to avoid causing unintentional harm to people of color as I continue my learning and continue making mistakes. So that's an important service we white people can offer each other: make the common mistakes around each other first to reduce the harm that we cause to people of color
  • Finally, please don't let mine be the only voice you read here. There are a lot of important books written by amazing people of color, and I highly suggest you read their perspectives as well. Here are a few: So You Want to Talk About RaceMy Grandmother's Hands, and How to Be an Antiracist
    • And, I know books are a big commitment. So, throughout this site, many of the links embedded in the educational bullet points will also point to shorter articles and videos written and produced by people of color

How to use this website:

Table of Contents

Here are the major topics that will be covered on this website.

You can jump ahead to topics that interest you, but I highly encourage you to start at the beginning and work your way through everything.

Again, I thought I knew a lot of this stuff, but it turned out that I'd been greatly misinformed. For example, it will be hard to fully appreciate why the modern police force operates like it does unless you first learn about early America.

"Race 101":

  • Part 0 (Preface): Why it's so hard for us to talk with each other nowadays—political correctness, identity politics, public shaming, SJWs, and finding common ground
    • (Note: I had originally written Part 0 as a letter to people who identify as conservative or otherwise "non-progressive." But, I actually think it's important for everyone to read so that we can approach challenging topics from a place of empathy and curiosity rather than shame and judgment. However, since Part 0 is less about race specifically and more about the meta topic of discourse, I've left it as "optional" here rather than putting it into the main flow of learning.)
  • Part 1 (this page): A few notes before we dive in
  • Part 2: Where race comes from (how the concept of race was created and why, slavery in early America, the Civil War, Jim Crow and lynchings)
  • Part 3: How that history impacts the world today: structural racism (the Declaration of Independence, the "good old days," implicit bias, definitions of key terms, white privilege, "reverse racism")
  • Part 3.2: How that history impacts the world today: policing (racial profiling, where the institution of policing came from, police militarization, police violence, "black-on-white crime," solutions, the call to defund the police)
  • Part 3.3: How that history impacts the world today: wealth, education, and neighborhoods (lineages of wealth, white vs. segregated neighborhoods, redlining, life expectancy and health outcomes, "bad neighborhoods," preferential treatment and affirmative action
  • Part 4: You've just learned a lot. It's common to experience a range of feelings (common reactions, what to do when you mess up, what to do with big emotions, emotional labor, where to learn more)
  • Part 4.2: What can you do about all this? (ways you can help, preferred terms to use for each race, assumptions and race-related questions, revisiting the "this website is for you if you believe..." section from Part 1)

"Race 201":

Here's the format I'll be presenting the information in:

Each of these sections contains a single idea.

The summary appears here in this highlighted box.

This area adds more detail.

Really important ideas will also be called out separately with exclamation marks like in the box below.

On the right (or at the bottom of the page on mobile), you'll a sidebar that shows how this website is divided into 7 major sections. I encourage you to try to make it through at least section 4.2, which marks the end of what I think of as "race 101."

This is a lot of information, so it's also perfectly ok to read through in multiple sittings.

Let's get started.

The #1 problem with talking to white people about race is that most of us believe that only bad people are racist. We hear "racist" and think of obvious bigots—people making overtly racist jokes or joining the KKK.

It’s natural as a white person to feel defensive if I tell you that you’re probably racist too, because you're likely a good person.

Unfortunately, the United States was founded on deeply racist divisions. It's not your fault, but if you grew up here, you almost certainly internalized some racist beliefs without conscious awareness (no matter how well your parents raised you).

I know I did, but I didn't realize the extent of it until a few years ago.

So, as you read on, notice if you find yourself thinking that this doesn't apply to you. What if it did?