Part 4.2:
What can you do about all this?

Here are some ways you can help:

  • Continue educating yourself.
    • Keep reading the rest of this website and my recommended next steps.
  • Spread the word about what you've learned to other white people you know.
    • Share this website or the books and other resoures I recommend below.
  • Put in the effort to attend anti-racism/anti-oppression workshops and connect with like-minded people.
    • You could try meetup.com's list of anti-racism meetup groups or ask friends or co-workers who are interested in social justice if they have any recommendations in your area. If your company puts on DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) workshops, you might also ask whoever facilitates those.
    • Connecting with others in person can be huge, both so that you can ask questions and so that you can motivate each other and feel a sense of camaraderie, like you're not going through this hard work alone.
  • Listen to feedback from people of color.
    • Try not to be dismissive and resent the messenger. Thank them for trusting you enough to be real with you. They're being vulnerable by pointing out a blindspot of yours because they're risking you as a white person getting angry or crying and needing to be consoled.
    • Remember if they seem highly emotional or "easily offended" that they have very good reason to feel a lot of frustration and anger around race.
    • It might be uncomfortable to just say "thank you" when you get hard feedback rather than defending yourself, but please practice building resilience around being uncomfortable.
  • Support DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion, or sometimes called "I&D") efforts at work, as well as affinity groups for people of color.
    • If your organization isn’t working on any initiatives like that, could you start one?
  • Don’t laugh at racist jokes (even "casual" or "minor" ones since that can be what enables larger ones).
    • If a white person makes a joke involving race or talks badly about a person of color in your presence, let them know that you don’t feel comfortable. A good trick to avoid alienating them is to frame it in terms of you rather than explicitly calling them out. In other words, rather than saying, "hey, that's racist, you shouldn't make jokes like that," you might say, "hey, I appreciate a lot of your humor, but that joke made me feel a bit uncomfortable."
  • Be careful not to tell a person of color (or anyone, really) what they're feeling based on your assumptions.
    • For example, I've heard a number of stories like this: A room full of people of various races will be loudly brainstorming or debating, and the white people will be called "passionate." But then a black person will be asked, "Why are you so angry?" This often starts in school when black kids are more likely to be labeled "angry" and suspended for being troublemakers. Bottom line: Please be careful of your assumptions, and if you guess something incorrectly, apologize.
  • Be on the lookout for key phrases that might indicate racist beliefs.
    • For example, if you hear someone (including yourself) start to say, "That's why people like you...," there's a pretty good chance that what's about to follow will be racist. Or, if you find yourself about to talk about the "bad part of town" or "good schools" versus "bad schools," check in with yourself about what you really mean.
    • First try to notice and address that behavior in yourself, and then you can work on helping others (ideally one-on-one in private).
    • "Dog whistles" refer to coded language that seems to mean something innocuous to the average person but means something very specific to a certain group of people, such as other racists. For example, the Southern Strategy used by Nixon to use racist fears to appeal to white voters by talking about "states' rights" or "forced busing" rather than coming right out and saying they were prioritizing the welfare of white Americans over that of black Americans.
  • Diversify the entertainment and educational content you consume (books, podcasts, movies, newsletters, etc.).
    • Many of us consume content predominantly produced by white people because that's what's most commonly advertised. A 2012 study found that 90% of the New York Times book reviews from 2011 were books written by white people.
    • One of the best things you can do to widen your viewpoint and better understand different ways of seeing the world is to read a non-white perspective.
      • I'll admit that when I first heard this, I couldn't help but think back to my senior year English literature class in high school when we were required to read a few challenging novels by people of color. They dealt with issues like the harsh realities of historical slavery, and I remember that they made me feel sadness and pity rather than the usual excitement I felt from reading novels I liked.
      • I do think that exposure to those kinds of works is important, but I think it's equally important to read authors of color in the genres you typically enjoy so that you normalize them as people in your mind and don't just associate them with works that make you feel down.
      • I've found it interesting to read the types of books that I would normally read for fun but from non-white authors. Then, I try to notice what's different about the world depicted, the type of language used, what's emphasized differently, etc. Personally, I'm a big sci-fi fan, so I'd highly recommend The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (about first contact with aliens, and endorsed by Barack Obama) and Nexus by Ramez Naam (about a nanotechnology-based computer operating system installed in the brain).
  • Vote for political candidates (at the local level too) with a track record of anti-racism behavior.
    • Remember that many policies such as gerrymandering (i.e., manipulating voting district boundaries) aren't overtly racist but will affect people of color a lot more severely. Others, such as the war on drugs, don't seem explicitly racist on the surface, but were actually driven by racism:
      • Here's a quote from John Ehrlichman, a top advisor to Richard Nixon: "The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
  • Use your power and privilege to make sure people of color have a chance to be heard. This can be challenging for many white people (myself included) who enjoy having their voice heard in groups, but it's an important way to be an ally.
    • If you’re in a meeting at work and you’ve been talking a lot, pause to give others a chance to speak. There’s a fine line here because you don’t want to make people of color in the room feel awkward by calling on them too much or making them feel like they have to speak if they don’t have anything to say at the moment. But, if a person of color is cut off by a white person, you might try coming back to them later in the meeting and saying something like, “I’m interested in hearing what else X had to say about that.”

It's easy to feel confused about the preferred terms to use for each race.

Here is my best attempt to assemble them, so please try to use these when referring to each race (and recognize that these will likely continue to change over time).

This section also contains some thoughts around when to call attention to race.

  • Person of Color: The term "person of color" (or "POC," "women of color," "students of color," etc.) makes room for a variety of people from different lineages, and you avoid offending someone by incorrectly guessing their race
    • By the way, "person of color" is ok but "colored" is notit comes with very different historical baggage
  • Marginalized: This term can refer to any group of people that have been oppressed or who have received less privilege, access, opportunity, or power compared to the dominant group or group in power
    • For example, this could apply to people of color or to other groups such as trans people or people with disabilities
    • "Marginalized" is a better word than "minority" because the latter can sound more dismissive, and it implies a lower number when that might not be the case (e.g., in Detroit, people of color are not a minority but they're still marginalized because they live in America)
  • Below are more specific terms for various races. There might be some additional words that are ok to use as well, but I'd strongly suggest starting with these and doing your own research if you have other ones in mind (i.e., start by Googling it, but Wikipedia might be your best bet if you're not familiar with which websites are trustworthy and which are overly political)
    • One more thing: You might hear people of color refer to each other by other words, but please recognize that some of those are just off-limits to white people
  • Please also recognize that these terms keep evolving over time. If that seems frustrating to you, here are two things to remember:
    • Most of the older terms were created by white people, not people of the actual race in question. So, it makes sense that as those people of color feel more empowered they might want to pick a new term
    • Not all black people are the same, or all Asian people, etc. We're talking about millions of people here with a wide variety of life experiences, subcultures, sexual orientations, etc. Plus, as you've seen throughout this website, there's an immense amount of historical context and modern complexity around race. It wouldn't be fair to expect that choosing ideal terms would be easy and set in stone
  • Black: It's perfectly fine to use the term "black," and that can actually be better than "African-American" if you aren't sure that that person is in fact American (versus a citizen of an African country, or from Europe, or any number of other places). Feel free to ask each individual which term they prefer since some people might prefer "black" and some "African-American"
  • White: If you're going to use the term "black," you can also practice using the term "white" more often as well.
    • In other words, rather than just saying "person" when referring to a white person but "black person" when referring to a black person, it's more equalizing to say "white person" and "black person," especially if a person of color is in the room. Otherwise, it can feel like "person" (i.e., being white) is "normal" and "black person" is not and thus needs to be given special treatment. This might feel light a subtle distinction, but try to imagine what it might feel like as a person of color to be called out as an "exception" over and over again
    • Also, I recognize the mixed messages here—in some places on this website I've suggested that it's important to pay special attention to people of color, but in others I've warned against singling them out or putting pressure on them
      • There's no easy answer here because it's going to vary by situation; but, here's a thought experiment to try on: Imagine you're having an intense or challenging emotional experience at work or at a party. You're a complex person, and you're not going to want the same thing every time. Depending on the situation, your mood, and who's around, it might feel good to have someone come over and ask you about it or offer to support you; or, you might want to be left alone
      • There could be a number of reasons you'd want to decline someone's help in that moment:
        • Maybe you don't feel safe to talk about what's wrong or you're embarrassed
        • Maybe you don't want to talk to that specific person about it
        • Maybe you like them but you don't feel like that type of person could understand what you're going through
        • Maybe the context is complicated and it would feel like too much work to have to explain in that moment
        • Etc.
      • There's more complexity here, but that's a starting point to consider why it's not a cut and dry answer of "always try to call attention to someone's race" or "never talk about someone's race"
    • "Caucasian" might feel more politically correct, but "white" is perfectly fine. Using the word "Caucasian" actually brings in some unnecessary historical baggage around outdated racial terminology from the 1800s (when the "three" races were said to be Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid)
  • Indigenous, Native American, or American Indian: For people indigenous to North America, you can use any of those three terms. Even better would be if you can find out what tribe they identify with such as Lakota or Chinook.
    • The most ideal term here is especially confusing because the name "Indian" was originally incorrectly assigned since Columbus thought he'd reached the Indian Ocean
    • But, because that term was used through centuries of major oppression, it's actually become preferred by many indiginous people as a way to bring together the wide variety of peoples under that umbrella (remember that we're talking about an entire continenent of diverse tribes)
    • Ultimately, the preferred term will depend on the region, age, and personal preference of whoever you ask in the indigenous community, but "Native American," "American Indian," or "Indigenous" are the safest terms to start with
  • Latinx: This is a good term to use for people from Latin America or the Spanish-speaking parts of the Caribbean.
    • Note that it's pronounced "Lateen-ex" and that term is used because it accounts for both the masculine "Latino" and the feminine "Latina" in Spanish
    • There are other terms as well such as "Hispanic," so feel free to ask each person what they prefer. Finally, here's a compelling argument in favor of a brand new term, "Latine," since it makes more sense in Spanish
  • Asian: This is a good term to use for people of Asian descent.
    • "Asian-American" is also a good choice if you're sure they're American
    • "APIA" (Asian and Pacific Islander American) is an even more inclusive term
  • Middle Eastern: Terminology here is more challenging for a number of reasons (e.g., some people from that region are told to classify themselves as "White" on the US Census), but "Middle Eastern" is probably the best term to use for people from that region (or, if you know someone's more specific origin, you could say something like "Iraqi American" or "Syrian American")
  • BIPOC: Another term that’s been gaining popularity is BIPOC, which stands for "Black, Indigenous, People of Color." Black and Indigenous are added in front to call special attention to those two groups
    • We do this because of the especially high amount of pain they’ve faced in America through slavery and other systemic injustices (compared to other non-white groups who experienced terrible racism but not quite to the same degree of institutionalized slavery and genocide)
    • If that distinction sounds like nitpicking, consider for example why we have different words for "homicide" (which means killing, whether legally or illegally), "murder" (which means homicide with malicious forethought), and "manslaughter" (which means killing as a result of recklessness)
    • Words matter, and they can convey a lot of nuance
      • If you're finding it annoying to have to remember all these new words, ask yourself if you as a white person are prioritizing your own ease and comfort at the expense of expressing empathy for these groups that have been so marginalized by other white people. Yes, it does take some effort to keep up with the preferred terms, but it's a small way of showing your care

Please try not to make assumptions about race.

And, check in with yourself about the race-related questions you want to ask. Why are you really asking?

  • Remember that race isn't always obvious (e.g., they might look white to you), so it can be helpful to ask whether someone identifies as a person of color
    • If you find yourself about to say something in a group like, "Since we're all white people here...," you might try something instead like, "I could certainly be wrong, but this seems to me like a predominantly white group..."
    • You might hear the term "white-passing," which refers to someone who might identify as a person of color but can move through the world sometimes or most of the time without people realizing that they're not white
    • People of mixed race (e.g., one white parent) can experience additional challenges as well—for example, they might feel from the black side of their family that they're not "black enough" and from the white side that they're not "white enough"
  • While we're talking about racialized language, please be careful as a white person about asking a person of color "where they're from"
    • If you know they're from another country, it might be ok to ask where specifically. But, if there's a good chance they were born in America, asking where they're from can sometimes be offensive—it might imply that they're less of an American than you are just because they're non-white. That might not have been your intention, but imagine being a POC who was born in America and still being asked all the time where you're from (as if this couldn't possibly be your home)
  • Similarly, before asking what ethnicity someone is (e.g., whether an Asian person is ethnically Japanese or Chinese), stop and ask yourself why you really need to know
    • If you're just trying to make smalltalk, you might consider a different topic
    • Certainly, asking someone where they're from or asking about their ethnic heritage isn't horrible in the grand scheme of things if you're genuinely just trying to get to know them better. But again, think about how often as a white person you're asked these questions, and imagine how different a POC's experience likely is
    • Then, check in with yourself about why, for example, you're so curious to ask an Asian person who was born and lived their whole life in Los Angeles whether their family lineage dates back to China or Korea. I don't say that to be combative but to invite you to really be introspective for a moment and look inside yourself to see why that question matters.
    • Would you ask your white American friend if five generations ago their family was from Ireland or France?

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

Back at the beginning of part 1, I explained that this website might be for you if you believed anything in the list below. Now that we've explored so much around race, let's revisit that list. This time, I'll add in some short responses to each in case they're still not quite clear:

  • The idea of race is rooted in science
    • All humans are 99.9% genetically the same. There's no single genetic variant that people of European descent have that people of African descent don't have, etc. Many white supremacists have been trying for hundreds of years to prove that other races are scientifically inferior, but nothing has stood up under scientific scrutiny. Race is a social construct that was invented as a way to morally justify slavery.
  • You “don’t see color”
    • I appreciate that you're probably trying to show that you support diversity and that you aren't bigoted. But, please understand that saying you don’t see color can feel hurtful to people who have faced real adversity in their lives because of the color of their skin. It’s been a real part of their experience and their identity, and saying you don’t see color can imply that you think their struggles weren't real.
    • We all see skin color, and we all have unconscious biases, and if we want to have an equitable world then we need to first recognize that real differences exist. The goal is not to be color-blind but to treat people equitably and give them the same opportunities.
    • We've all had very different life experiences, and saying that you don't see color can sound like you're implying that we've all had the same access and privileges. That's simply not true. Because of the history of institutional racism in America, people of color have not had the same opportunities or power as white people, and it's important to recognize that fact if we want to support them as allies.
  • Only bad people have racist behaviors
    • Simply by growing up in America, you've been exposed to so many stereotypes and messages through the media and other sources that it's almost impossible for you to not have developed a variety of unconscious biases related to race.
    • That doesn't make you a bad person, but it's important to slow down to recognize what stories you have in your head and what judgments you're making about other people that are based on guesses or assumptions rather than facts.
  • Talking too much about racism simply divides us even further and doesn't help anything
    • Ignoring racism means continuing on with a system that's fundamentally unfair and harmful. It's easy as a white person to believe that everything's fine and things will sort themselves out, but it's only easy to have that viewpoint because we're the ones who have traditionally had the power and privilege in this society.
    • Talking about race means talking about the elephant in the room, showing that we actually care, and taking it seriously. It means demonstrating that we want things to change.
  • Race applies to other people (as a white person, you’re just normal, and you don’t really have to worry about race)
    • Race might have been socially constructed, but it's been made real over time. That means we're all affected by it. Part 5 goes into more detail about what whiteness means and how we as white people have very much been affected by the creation of race and white supremacy culture.
  • You have black friends, so you can’t be racist
    • The less charitable response here is that a lot of people use an excuse like this to publicly proclaim that they're not at all racist and thus don't need to do any more work or learning on the topic. I used to think I wasn't racist either. There's always more to learn.
    • The  more charitable response is this: Unfortunately, it's possible to deeply care about people of color while still having unconscious bias related to their race. It can be very subtle, but it's likely for there to be some very deep-seated beliefs in there accumulated from a lifetime of experiences. Or, it's also possible that you might view your friends as exceptions and have more unconscious or conscious biased beliefs about other people of color.
  • “Identity politics” and “political correctness” have gone too far (you can't say anything anymore without getting in trouble)
    • I agree that callout culture is not helping anything. Publicly shaming people for making unintentional mistakes rarely leads to positive change. (If they're intentionally being bigoted to vilify or dehumanize a certain race, that's a whole different story.)
    • I also agree that saying something for the sake of "political correctness" isn't helpful because, to me, those words carry the implication that you're only saying something that way so that you don't get in trouble—i.e., to protect yourself, not that you really care about anyone who was negatively affected.
    • As for identity politics, that's a very challenging and politically-charged term. Let's say this: It's best to treat everyone with respect, with equity, and as they would like to be treated. We're all individuals with complex life experiences, so we need to recognize that our individual identities are important.
    • As we discussed earlier, equity is not the same as equality, since some groups will need more support than others due to historical oppression. Bottom line: Don't be kind, empathetic, and inclusive to make yourself look good; do it to help the people who have not had the same privileges that you've enjoyed, and do it to make the world a better place for everyone.
  • You're a liberal or progressive, so there's no way you could be racist
    • It's especially dangerous to believe that you're so perfect that you have no more learning to do. It's so important to keep an open mind (meaning you're willing to admit you're wrong) and a beginner's mind (meaning you realize that there's a lot you still don't know). I can appreciate that calling yourself a progressive means that you probably deeply care about fairness and equitable opportunities for all, so please follow through on those values by recognizing that unconscious bias is a real thing that's probably happening inside you too.
  • People play the "race card" too much, or people of color make "everything" about race
    • Remember all the examples of people of color being followed in stores by security guards, stopped more often by traffic police, arrested more often for drug possession, reported to police for hanging around outside their own home or university, etc. Unfortunately, for people of color in America, so much is about race. Being a good ally means supporting them and recognizing that they're not making this stuff up. They're not crazy.
  • 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
    • Yes, in some ways things are improving. But people of color are still very much affected by the past in a wide variety of ways. Remember all the facts around wealth being passed down in white families because they were given better mortgages and opportunities than families of color—and how that translates into the quality of education for their kids and the quality of their healthcare.
    • Remember how, because of unconscious bias based on historical events, people of color today still face a variety of barriers in the workplace. Resumes with "black-sounding" names get fewer interview calls, and people of color are often paid less and promoted less often.
    • And all of this is because our white ancestors forcibly enslaved people of color, stole their land, and removed their power. So, it's morally wrong to just shrug our shoulders and say that they should just work harder when America has had so many structural and institutional forces and policies actively working against them to prevent them from having the same opportunities as white people.
  • We all have the same opportunities—if someone is willing to work hard, they can get to the same place as anyone else
    • This is simply not true, and it's a very dangerous myth because it allows white people to avoid feeling guilt or taking action by imagining that people of color must just be lazy or less intelligent if they're not being promoted or not making as much money. Often, they're actually working a lot harder because of all the barriers set before them.
  • 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)
    • Hopefully it's becoming clearer to you why your colleagues might see this work as so important. If not, it might be valuable for you to look into some workshops or meetups in person to try discussing these topics with others face-to-face. 
    • The bottom line is that there's an immense amount to learn here, and there are many mistakes that are easy for white people to make, especially if they haven't been educated on this topic. If businesses truly care about their employees, one of the most important steps that leaders can take is proving to their people that they're taking racial injustice seriously and that they want to create a space where employees feel like they'll be treated with fairness and humanity.