You've just learned a lot. It's common to experience a range of feelings
After a white person learns all of this, I’ve seen three common reactions (you might experience a combination of several of these):
(1) You might feel horrible that you've gone through life without knowing these things. You might feel sad, angry, defensive, or powerless to fix these injustices.
That's totally normal.
Feelings like that are related to the concept of “white fragility”—the idea that people of color have had to build so much resilience around racial issues, but it can take very little to upset white people around that topic (for example, just telling many white people that they're racist can be enough to trigger major defensiveness).
White fragility is what we white people experience when we learn about the history and modern effects of racism. It can manifest as some combination of confusion, fear, guilt, anger, dismissiveness, frustration, and defensiveness.
It might feel like a strange mix of wanting to prove the new information wrong, wanting to prove that you're the exception (not actually racist), feeling a sense that you've been tricked or lied to, feeling that you don't deserve to feel bad, and feeling like you want to fight, run away, or defend yourself.
In short, it's a general sense of pushing back on the new information instead of welcoming it in and accepting it. It's a sense of wanting to go back to the status quo where you were safe (which could be by running away or by fighting the new information).
White fragility is also what holds many people of color back from telling us white people when we've done or said something offensive.
They worry we won't be able to handle that feedback, and they're usually right.
So, it's normal to feel some white fragility, especially if you've rarely had to think about race in your life before.
But there’s a great Maya Angelou quote that applies here: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” There’s a lot to learn, so please keep exploring these topics. You can start with the "Where to learn more" section further down the page.
It’s not your fault that you were indoctrinated in a white-centered world, but it is your responsibility to expand your view and spread the word to others once you realize what happened. If you don’t, then you become part of the problem. Remember that as a white person you inherently hold some power. It’s up to you if you want to use that power to focus on retaining the business as usual that you’ve benefited from or if you want to use your voice to help those whose power has been taken away for generations.
(2) You might agree with the general ideas here but nitpick the details. You might want to debate me on some of the pieces, or you might wonder about the intricacies of the studies I cited. Am I really sure that so much ties back to racism?
This was closer to my reaction.
Personally, I was able to get on board with some of this very quickly (for example, noticing that I did have implicit bias that caused me to think about people of color differently from white people—especially after I took the online tests).
But, other parts were much harder for me to get behind, largely because they were such big claims (like how the concept of race was invented, or how much white privilege I've experienced in my life).
I'm a very analytical person, so it was important for me to really break down such claims into their component pieces and work my way through item by item.
Because I'm an extrovert and I think out loud, it was also important for me to talk all of this out with others.
And, because I'm very focused on truth and accuracy, it was hard for me to take some of the arguments on faith. I had to do my own research.
If that sounds like you, I recommend you do the same. I encourage you to start with the resources I list in the "Where to learn more" section farther down the page.
By the way, it's important to realize that there's probably still an element of white fragility in this type of response as well. There's a lot of nuance here, and it's a fine line:
On one side of that line is pushing back on these facts out of defensiveness—for example, "All of this can't be true because I'm a good person," or "Sure, you might be right about a lot of this, but some of your claims sound a bit farfetched, and that throws your credibility into question."
On the other side of that line is genuine curiosity and a desire to prize real truth and accuracy. For me, once I discovered my passion for really diving into this work, it became very important to me to understand these topics not just at the surface level but strongly enough that I could defend them in debate with skeptics. Therefore, that required me to be critical of the facts to make sure that I could back them up.
The question to ask yourself is why you might be demanding more details in your head. Is it out of defensiveness or true curiosity?
The truth is likely somewhere in the middle for you as well.
(3) You might feel like you want to go talk to a person of color right away, either to apologize to them or to ask for their help in better understanding some of these concepts.
It’s a nice sentiment, but it can also be problematic if you don't approach it in the right way.
First, please notice how well-resourced or resilient you feel after learning all this information. Do you feel calm and grounded, or do you feel anxious and in a "fight or flight" state in your body? If the latter, you might not be in the best condition to approach a person of color about such a sensitive topic. Instead, you might give it some time for the new information to sink in for you.
Asking for help and support can be a great idea, but only from other white people.
Remember that this subject might be challenging for you right now, but it's been far more challenging for people of color throughout their lives. You might be feeling confused or uncomfortable, but asking a POC to help you is asking them to do real emotional labor that will likely bring to mind a variety of feelings for them and a reminder of injustices they've faced throughout their life (maybe even on that very day when you're asking for support).
This topic might be new for you, but it’s not an academic exercise for them—they’ve had to think about it potentially every day of their life, and they're probably tired of having to explain things to clueless white people.
Finally, please remember that, no matter how much you educate yourself on these topics, a person of color still might not feel fully safe talking about race with a white person. Here are two reasons:
(1)They might be worried about you experiencing white fragility and then having to care for you.
This might not seem like a big deal, but try to imagine how it would feel to experience pain for years and years that a friend can't fully empathize with, and then one day having that friend come to you asking you for emotional support after finally experiencing just a sliver of that pain themselves.
(2) They might not want to have to explain how different their life experience has been from yours, or have to convince you that their life experiences are valid and true.
The POC will have had to face endless struggles throughout their life that will be hard for you to understand. Maybe they won't want to have to lay all that out for you. Or maybe some of their experiences would seem so crazy to you that you'd have trouble believing them. You probably wouldn't think they were lying, but you might wonder if they were being a bit paranoid or exaggerating. You might try to help them feel better by providing an alternative explanation so they can stop having to worry so much.
For example, if a person of color complains that a security guard in a store was following them as they shopped, it can be easy for a white person to say something like, "Are you sure? That guard is probably just an especially thorough person, so they probably follow all shoppers that way. It's probably nothing to do with you personally."
No harm was meant in that statement, but imagine how frustrating it could be for this person of color if they had that kind of shopping experience often. They'd probably be pretty sick of having their perception called into question by white people who don't have to deal with such things. And yet, that example of POC being followed by security guards more often is well-documented (in 2014, Macy's paid out nearly a million dollars to settle allegations of racially profiling customers in its stores).
As for any impulse you have to apologize to a POC, first consider how well you know them. Are you wanting to apologize to a good friend?
If so, it might be perfectly fine to let them know that you've been learning about things like implicit bias and structural racism, and you've been realizing that you might have inadvertently caused them harm in the past and you're sincerely sorry for that.
But please don't just apologize to the first person of color you meet, or even to an aquaintance you barely know. Remember that they're a whole person and their race is only one part of who they are (and, they certainly aren't the representative of their entire race who has the power to absolve you of your mistakes).
You're also probably going to mess up at some point. That's ok. Here's what to do about it.
As a white person, when it comes to issues around race, the impact of your words and behavior matters more than your intention. In other words, it's important that what you were trying to say or do was coming from a good place, but, it's even more important to recognize what impact you had on marginalized people, even if it wasn't an impact you'd intended.
It’s very likely that you will accidentally offend a person of color at some point. So a big part of anti-racism work for white people is first learning to recognize when that has happened, and then to develop internal resilience so that you can own your mistake instead of becoming defensive and potentially causing even more harm.
Let's say you meet a dark-skinned person and you feel some sense that they must be from Africa. You might feel genuinely curious, and so—with the best of intentions in trying to build a connection with them—you ask where in Africa they're from.
It turns out that they were born in New York and have never even been outside America.
They get angry.
If that had been the first time someone had made that mistake, they might have laughed it off. But because it happens to them so often, they find themselves frustrated. What they hear in your question is an implication that they're not a "real" American simply because they're black, even though America is the only home they've ever known and they have as much connection to it as you do.
Maybe they'd already been having a bad day completely unrelated to race, but this interaction piles on yet another stressful element for them to deal with. They yell at you and call you a racist.
In that moment, you have a choice: to focus on the intention you'd had with your question, or on the impact your question ended up having on that person.
Here's what each of those might look like:
DON'T DO THIS:
Intention focus, version 1 (transferring blame to them): "That's unfair to call me racist. You're just being overly sensitive. I'm sorry if I made you feel bad, but you probably do have ancestors from Africa, right?"
Intention focus, version 2 (being defensive, focusing on you): "You don't understand! I was just trying to start a conversation and show interest in you. I'm sorry that I made that mistake, but I didn't mean to say anything racist."
Impact focus (focusing on them and on what actually happened): "I'm sorry. I can see why that was inappropriate for me to ask that and I sincerely apologize. Would you be open to me asking you a different question instead, or would you prefer that I leave you alone for now?"
If you've read this far, there's a good chance that you're a highly empathetic person.
It's probably important to you that this person of color sees you as safe and kind, so you'll likely have a genuine desire to explain that you meant no harm. But by continuing to focus on yourself, you're placing them in the awkward position of either (a) having to admit that they were wrong in some way, or (b) feeling like they have to console you and tell you it's ok even though they were the one who was hurt.
Instead, what's called for in moments like that is space. Stop talking, pause, and take a deep breath.
Apologize, then leave it alone. It might be ok to bring up this incident again in the future to explain what your intention had been, but you'll need to wait until you've repaired the relationship in this moment and taken some time for any anxiety to fade in each of you.
If you feel emotional after apologizing, please excuse yourself and find a white friend to talk with rather than asking that person of color to make you feel better by telling you everything is ok now.
One more point about learning all this information: big emotions might come up for you
And, please also be mindful of the impact you're having on others if you find yourself experiencing a highly-visible emotion like wanting to sob, scream, or shake.
For example, if you're in a mixed-race workshop, please be aware that—if you as a white person have a big reaction like bursting into tears—it's likely that other people might come over to comfort you, or that the facilitator might pause the lesson to make sure you're ok. This can be referred to as "centering" your experience (i.e., putting the focus on you rather than on any POC in the room or on the information being taught).
In an all-white space, that might be perfectly fine, and even welcome. But if there are people of color present, they might find it challenging to see all the care you're getting as a white person if they've felt like they've had to deal with issues of race their whole lives without that same kind of loving support.
It can also feel frustrating to POC because they've likely had to deal with a lot of uncomfortableness throughout their life, and they might perceive that the white person who's crying here is set off by just a small amount of it—in other words, that white people are so used to feeling comfortable that they complain or fall apart at the first hint of feeling challenged. This can be compounded if the POC has been in many situations before where a white person has made a mistake around race, then felt bad about it, and the POC has ended up having to comfort them.
As white people, we need to practice putting ourselves in situations where we don't feel as comfortable, in control, or in our power. If we're wanting to really make an impact in anti-racism work, it shouldn't always feel easy for us.
This is a difficult topic because I very much want to advocate for vulnerability, caring for trauma, and being able to fully feel your authentic experience without having to hide it. But this is also a case where your intent might be to be authentic with your experience but your impact might be inadvertently causing harm to the POC in the room.
You'll have to find the right balance between those two goals. But, one effective tactic I've seen in workshops is for a few white people to volunteer as support assistants beforehand. That way, they can leave the room for a while with any white person who's experiencing big emotions and help support them until they're ready to re-join the group.
The bottom line with all of this is to do your own hard work to educate yourself, and avoid asking people of color to do emotional labor for you.
If you want to become a better ally, ask other white people for educational resources.
Check out my "where to learn more" section below. Read some books, listen to some podcasts, and attend some workshops or study groups.
Once you've done all that, you might be able to begin talking with people of color about racism with less risk of accidentally saying something harmful. But until then, asking them to help you would be prioritizing your learning and comfort over being sensitive toward their trauma and well-being.
And, before you start trying to "correct" other white people, please do your own work. So much of this needs to start with deep introspection and self-awareness. Slow down, and start to notice what types of unconscious or implicit bias you have inside yourself.
It's not easy. It's going to take a while. Please don't rush it, and please try to help boost other potential white allies up by inspiring them to want to learn more rather than bringing them down by shaming them.
Where to learn more
Below are some of the resources I've found most valuable in my own education on these topics.
Here's the rough order I would recommend for people new to this work:
- 20-minute video by Dr. Robin DiAngelo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwIx3KQer54
- Seeing White podcast: https://www.sceneonradio.org/seeing-white/
- White Fragility book, by Dr. Robin DiAngelo: https://smile.amazon.com/White-Fragility-People-About-Racism/dp/0807047414/ref=sr_1_1
- Joining a local in-person affinity group around anti-racism discussion and activism (try meetup.com: https://www.meetup.com/topics/anti-racism/). I've found it very helpful to meet bi-weekly with a local group of like-minded white people to talk through many of these concepts
- The Privilege Walk group exercise: https://edge.psu.edu/workshops/mc/power/privilegewalk.shtml
- White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack PDF, by Peggy McIntosh: https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf
- 1619 podcast: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/23/podcasts/the-daily/1619-project.html
- So You Want to Talk About Race book, by Ijeoma Oluo: https://smile.amazon.com/You-Want-Talk-About-Race/dp/1580058825/ref=sr_1_1
- The workshops and talks of Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams (one of the first Zen teachers of African descent): https://angelkyodowilliams.com
Here are some other books that I haven't yet read but that have been recommended to me by people I trust:
- My Grandmother's Hands, by Resmaa Menakem: https://smile.amazon.com/gp/product/1942094477/ref=x_gr_w_bb_glide_sin
- How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi: https://smile.amazon.com/gp/product/0525509283/ref=x_gr_w_bb_glide_sin
- White Like Me, by Tim Wise: https://smile.amazon.com/White-Like-Me-Reflections-Privileged/dp/1593764251
- Me and White Supremacy, by Layla Saad: https://smile.amazon.com/Me-White-Supremacy-Combat-Ancestor/dp/1728209803