Still have some objections, nagging doubts, or points of confusion? (cont'd)
"I understand that POC have had it hard, I really do. But I have white friends who grew up under very challenging circumstances as well."
- I cover this in part 3 in the section about "reverse racism"
- Bottom line: I hear you. There's a lot of pain in the world, and I'm not trying to discount the challenges that white people have experienced
- I'm just saying that people of color experience a unique set of challenges
- In other words, yes, many white people have a hard time too. And, the challenges that POC face have a unique flavor simply because they're deeply tied to historical events that shaped the country and infused hardship for POC into the structure of our institutions, media, and the way that we grow up seeing the world
- Yes, there are absolutely some areas of overlap. For example, one effect of structural racism is that a lot of POC live in poverty. There are many white people who live in poverty as well. And yes, there are also complex reasons why many of those white people have trouble getting out of poverty. But one of those reasons is not the color of their skin. Remember that POC were literally told they weren't allowed to live in certain neighborhoods with the sole reason being their race. That simply is not a reason that a white person would be given
- Yes, you can come up with rare exceptions. Maybe you know a white person who, say, grew up on the border of an Indian reservation and felt in the minority as a white person
- One response to that is that it's always possible to find exceptions, but in the vast majority of cases it's going to be more accurate to say that POC are the ones being discriminated against
- Another response is that even in that hypothetical case, the white person still has an advantage: They can move to a different city and be part of a white majority there. The Native Americans can't move somewhere where that will be the case for them because their civilization was largely destroyed by our ancestors. Again, I absolutely acknowledge that moving is not an easy solution for that white person, but it's at least a solution that is available to them that's not available to the indigenous people
- Why do POC have a unique set of challenges? Because our white ancestors specifically created those roadblocks for their ancestors. It wasn't an accident; it was an intentional set of actions taken to remove their power and keep them at the bottom of the hierarchy
- And no, that doesn't make us bad or responsible because our ancestors were in the wrong. But, it does mean that it's ethical for us to show some empathy here and recognize that people of color face some unique challenges in this country that we might be able to help with
- Again, I'm not claiming that all white people have things easy or that all people of color have horrible lives. However, this website is focused on race and racism
- There are many white people who are part of marginalized groups as well (such as LGBTQIA+), and there's very important work to be done there as well; but, our focus here is on the effects of race specifically
- And, it also makes sense to place extra attention on race-based marginalization for at least two important reasons:
- Race is the first thing we notice about people (before their LGBTQIA+ status, for example)
- Race is tied so closely to health, education, and economic outcomes due to the long history of structural and institutional racism we've explored on this website
- The good news though is that if we're successful in making our institutions and organizations more equitable and inclusive for people of color, then those same improvements (e.g., more objective hiring practices) will very likely benefit people who are part of other marginalized groups as well (e.g., white people who have grown up under challenging circumstances such as living with disabilities or mental health conditions)
"I get it, but it's unfair to say that I have white privilege and thus have no idea what racial hardship is like. I've lived or done work in other countries where I was in the minority or Americans were hated."
- Again, I cover some of this in part 3 in the section about "reverse racism"
- I do agree that some people in the social justice community can be a little too rigid with blanket statements like "no white person can come close to understanding what POC deal with"
- I think that does apply to most white people, and I do think it's true that the vast majority of white people can't appreciate the full range of hardships that POC deal with throughout their lives
- But, it does also seem fair to say that there might be a small subset of white people who are able to identify with some of the experiences POC in America go through: for example, white Americans who have done work in dangerous parts of the world where Americans in general are hated, outnumbered, and targeted
- Studying abroad in, say, South Korea probably doesn't count. But I'll admit that if you worked in, say, Iraq during the mid 2000s, you're probably coming a little closer
- Even still, it's closer but still not the same:
- (Note: Here, I'm not at all implying that all Iraqis hate Americans; I'm simply using this as an example that will likely make sense to most readers)
- In this example, the white American likely went to Iraq for some kind of military or humanitarian mission. That means they signed up for something that included inherent discomfort and sacrifice. A person of color born in America didn't sign up for anything like that. They simply want to live a normal life where they're respected and given the same opportunities as anyone else
- A white American can come home. If they return to America, they'll again be surrounded by white people, and they'll again find that most people in charge are white. African Americans and Native Americans can't "return home" to a place where they're in the majority and they're in charge. An African American whose family has been in America for generations might have never even been to Africa, so that wouldn't feel like home to them. And, a Native American's ancestral home isn't available to them because it's being occupied by the white people who colonized it
- Finally, even this act of trying to compare or rank experiences ("Is it worse to be a white American in Iraq or an African American in America?") is an act of whiteness (and again, that's common, but it's also worth examining)
- Where is that desire coming from to try to logically rank the experiences?
- At best, it's a desire to have a concrete objective answer to what's ultimately a complex and subjective question. At worst, it's a desire to deflect the issue instead of simply acknowledging that no, sorry, you just don't know what it's like to be a POC in America
- I invite you to consider why it's so important to you to be able to claim that you do.
- Really stop to check in with yourself: What would it do for you if I told you, "Congratulations, I've determined that you understand exactly what it's like for POC"?
- Would you be more credible? What would you do with that credibility?
- Would it minimize the urgency of anti-racism work in your eyes? Personally, I think that's more likely. It feels to me a bit like an accident scene. Imagine that you saw a car crash and you were the only person around. You'd probably run up to try to help them. Now imagine instead if, just as you were about to approach the car, an ambulance arrived. In that case, you'd probably feel like they had it covered and you could stay back
- Could it be a bit like that here? If I tell you that POC have a fundamentally different experience than you can imagine, you might feel some nagging voice inside you saying that you should explore this topic more to figure out what you're missing. But if I tell you that the POC experience is pretty much the same as what you went through in your life, it's probably a lot easier for you to think, "Oh, ok. I get it, so there's no need for me to keep looking into this"
- What would happen if you simply admitted, "You're right, people of color in America have a unique experience that I can't fully understand as a white person"? True, you can't know for 100% sure if that's the case, but what if you operated as if it were? What if you focused your attention not on determining exactly how correct that statement is but instead directed your energy toward what you would do if you knew it were true?
"I'm willing to read books too, but it's much more impactful if I can hear about a real person's experience.
I just want to learn and get better at all this, but I hear you telling me that I'm not allowed to ask a person of color to help me? That's not fair."
- I cover this in part 4 in the section about "wanting to ask a person of color for help"
- If it's still hard to understand, here's an analogy:
- Have you ever seen one of those news broadcasts where the TV reporter is in an area that was just devastated by a natural disaster, and the reporter goes up to people who are literally watching their homes fall apart, and the reporter shoves the microphone into the person's face and demands that they explain what their experience is like?
- "How does it feel to watch everything you've ever owned collapsing in front of you right now? Is it hard? I know it might be difficult to speak right now, but please think of our viewers who just want to better understand your experience"
- Now, let's imagine that the reporter also looks a lot like the group of people who somehow created that natural disaster that destroyed the person's house. Is it fair that maybe that person finds it frustrating to have to tell the report about their experience?
- Now, what if this is the tenth reporter who's asked that person the very same question? What if that person actually gave a heartfelt answer the first few times but now they're getting tired of having to be the one to experience the emotional toll of giving that same answer every time?
- Now, what if the reporter is actually so moved by the person's story that they start crying themselves, and the person now feels like they have to comfort the reporter, otherwise they'll be seen as cold and unlikable?
Let's say you learn all this and you tell your colleagues or friends of color:
"I want you to know that I'm completely open to feedback. I truly care, and I go out of my way to treat everyone equally. If there’s something I’m doing wrong please let me know."
...But then, later on, one of those people gives you some harsh feedback because you inadvertently said something that made them feel bad.
Now, you find yourself blaming them because you're just trying your best but they're making you feel like a bad person. They're treating you unfairly!
- I appreciate the intent behind saying that you're extremely open to feedback. It's excellent to ask for people's help in noticing aspects of your behavior that might be problematic
- Also, getting that constructive feedback might be harder than you anticipate. Here are a few different things that can happen that might lead to your feelings being hurt:
- (1) Perhaps you didn't realize the depth of your ignorance, or maybe you felt more shame or embarrassment than you imagined you would, especially if you were called out or cut off in front of a group (for example, if you used the N-word, even just to repeat something you heard someone else say)
- (2) Especially if you're a heterosexual white man, you might be used to a certain level of comfort at work or in your social circles. Maybe you're used to being a manager or leader. You might be used to feeling pretty in-control and respected, so maybe it surprised you how difficult it was to be given deep feedback that really hurt—especially if it was coming from someone with an identity that you unconsciously label as less powerful, such as a woman of color
- (3) Ask yourself what you truly meant when you originally said that you're very open to feedback. What were you imagining that feedback would look and feel like? One guess I have is that you imagined something very cerebral, analytical, and logical
- In other words, you might have imagined that the feedback would be delivered in a highly cognitive fashion, telling you which facts you got wrong or which words you used that were problematic. You probably imagined it would feel very rational. Instead, if the feedback was more feelings-based, it might have been a lot more challenging for you
- For example, the POC might say to you: "I feel intimidating energy from you," or "I feel unsafe around you simply because you're a tall white man, and there's nothing you can do about it," or "I don't want to keep talking about this, and I don't want to have to explain to you why"
- When you ask for feedback from someone in a marginalized group, they're doing you a favor. They're helping you grow. I know it doesn't seem fair, but they probably don't want to debate you. It would probably be easier for them to just not say anything at all, so your asking for feedback is asking them to be vulnerable and to expend energy to help you. They have no obligation to sit with you to process your feelings and answer your questions. All they signed up for was to tell you if you said or did something that negatively affected them. If you want support beyond that, please ask a white friend
- Finally, be careful with saying something like "the POC made me feel..." It could be that all they did was point out the negative impact you were having on them or on the group. In other words, they didn't "make you feel" anything. They simply presented a fact and your mind processed it in a certain way
- And, at the same time, it's also perfectly ok for you to feel frustrated, embarrassed, lonely, or any number of other emotions. You're not a bad person
- But if you're feeling lonely or like you're being perceived as the "bad guy" in the group, try saying something like "I'm feeling scared" rather than trying to defend yourself and prove that you were right. The latter might push people away, whereas the former might draw them toward you
If a person of color firmly asks you to stop what you're saying or asking, please just stop.
What could be happening? Maybe you unintentionally said something offensive. Or, maybe you did nothing wrong; but, something you said or did might have triggered a trauma response for this person (i.e., it reminded them of something traumatic from their past).
What should you do?
Step 1: Stop talking. Don't try to explain what you were trying to say or what you were about to say. (Yes, it's possible that there was a misunderstanding, but they're probably not in a place emotionally to listen to your explanation in this moment.)
Step 2: Apologize (don't say, "I'm sorry if this offended you," which discounts their experience; do say, "I'm sorry, I can see that something I said had an impact on you").
Step 3: Slow down to get mindful. Try to figure out what might have gone wrong to see if you can apologize more specifically (e.g., "I'm sorry, I can see that I was speaking from a place of privilege and assuming that your life experience has been like mine").
Step 4: Ask if they'd be open to trying again and continuing the conversation. If not, thank them for asking for what they need, and go to a white person if you need someone to process your feelings with.