Introduction to Race in America for White People (by a white person)

As a new experiment, I'm providing Part 1 (i.e., this first page) in audio format as well if you'd prefer to learn that way:

Note: 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 American 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. 

If you grew up in America, 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 America 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.

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.

Finally, I want to name that I'm a white person writing about race. There's a lot of complexity there, but for now I'll just say this: I've tried to approach all this with humility and a beginner's mind to keep learning and to keep noticing my own blind spots. But, 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.

How to use this website:

Each of these sections contains a single idea.

The summary appears here in this highlighted box.

This area adds more detail. There's a lot to absorb on this site, so here's a suggestion: 

Start by reading the highlighted part of each box. 

If you firmly agree with that point already, move on to the next section.

But if you disagree or don't fully understand it, read through the non-highlighted part as well.

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

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 probably a good person.

Unfortunately, America 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).

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