An article was just recently released on The Second City network website entitled “Discussing Race and Racism with your Black Friends: Dos and Don’ts.”
It is fairly well written – clever, sassy, just the right amount of funny to be pretty poignant, and it’s been shared by a number of my friends on Facebook today. I have, I’ve discovered, a moderately unpopular opinion: I don’t think this article is particularly helpful, and, in fact, it might exacerbate the problem it seeks to address.
Every piece of advice this article gives can and should be applied when discussing ANY emotionally charged subject with the affected person or persons: listen, treat the person who is sharing their experience as the expert on that experience, empathize, acknowledge, create a safe space, and above all, don’t try and make their problems about you.
This seems at least slightly obvious, or should be to anybody who’s been in any sort of relationship before.
Making this article about “white” friends to “black” friends isolates all of the personal experiences to two particular groups as though those experiences are homogenous in some way.
I mean, if you take 5 minutes and skim through the comments on the article, you’ll notice a disturbing trend: the discussion has become very “black people vs. white people,” and new discussion points and perspectives are shelved as being relevant to one group or the other, and when someone disagrees, they start throwing stones about “derailing the conversation.” Even when a black (white) person is agreeing with a white (black) person, or just directly responding with a perfectly valuable, valid, and interesting anecdote, seven other people will enter the conversation and say something to the effect of “Bitch, you don’t know me or my people.”
Though there are camps that we are relegated to based on skin color at an INSTITUTIONAL level, when it comes discussing these things, ain’t nobody wants to be told that they don’t know what they’re talking about based on the color of their skin. As soon as you go down that path, and then JUSTIFY it by citing the color of your own skin, you’re doing basically everything the article is theoretically against.
In the interest of not simply shooting down an advice article, I’d like to add my own perspective.
Friends: when talking to your friends about racism, we need to understand that there are two concepts we’re dealing with. These two concepts are often interchangeably referred to as “racism” but, while related, they are actually very separate.
One of those concepts is actualized systemic racial prejudice. Many people argue that this is actually what “racism” refers to, and it’s why there’s a strong argument that states, “People can’t be racist against white people.” Incidentally, using this concept of “racism,” they’re right. White people CANNOT, by definition, be the victim of this “racism.” Western culture is not, by any stretch of the imagination, anti-white. Every time a white person says, “Oh, I know what racism is, there’s this guy in my neighborhood who HATES ‘crackers,” people who use this first definition of racism will just think they are horribly misguided, or, even worse, an ignorant racist. Calling that experience of racial prejudice “reverse racism” or anything like it is completely misleading. There is no “reverse systemic racial prejudice,” and I think that’s what a lot of “black friends” hear when these notorious “white friends” talk about it.
To be clear: systemic racial prejudice exists. Like global warming, people who debate this are forgetting about how reality works.
The second concept, also referred to commonly as “racism,” more often by white people than not, is personal experiences of racial prejudice. This is the all-encompassing “racism.” Anyone can experience it, and most of us probably have. This is why some white people will go up in arms when their “black friends” tell them they’ve never experienced racism. Often, their “black friends” are referring to systemic racial prejudice, and the “white friends” are referring to personal experience of racial prejudice.
It doesn’t behoove us as a culture to tell all white people that they can’t possibly have personal experience of racial prejudice (and believe me, there are a lot of people who hear that when we say “people can’t be racist against white people”), and even though that’s not what this article is trying to say at all, because it doesn’t specify the difference, it’s very easy to get mixed up in that part of the conversation. In those comments I mentioned before, there are tons of runaway arguments about this very idea.
Here’s the thing. In general:
White people: Your personal experience of racial prejudice does not actually make you an expert on issues of systemic racial prejudice.
Black people: Your personal experience of racial prejudice does not actually make you an expert on issues of systemic racial prejudice.
I probably could have wrapped that into one comment.
People: Your personal experience of racial prejudice does not actually make you an expert on issues of systemic racial prejudice.
Yes, your personal experiences are relevant, and you are the expert on those experiences. But it’s not like some personal experiences are more relevant than others based on skin color. It’s just that some personal experiences, often based on skin color, are supporting an idea that there’s really no point in trying to disprove: systemic racial prejudice in this country exists, and is directed at non-white people.
And, as this article so boldly puts it, when talking to your “black friends” about racism, what the “black friends” are likely doing is putting forth their personal experiences of racial prejudice as evidence toward the systemic racial prejudice problem and hopefully intending to move on with the discussion to “what can we do about this?”
Side note for the “black friends”: If that’s not your intention, then it’s perfectly valid for white people to bring up their experiences of racial prejudice. By doing this, it doesn’t actually diminish your experience, and it’s probably unhelpful to tell them that it does. It’s more likely that they’re trying to relate in some way, and I don’t think we should tell people to not do that.
BUT, if the discussion IS “what can we do about this,” then the “white friend” responses with the devil’s-advocate-not-all-white-people-I’ve-experienced-racism-too personal experiences don’t actually further the conversation in any helpful way, because it makes it sound like the relevant debate is “does systemic racism exist and who is it directed at” and not, as I hope it’s clear I feel it should be, “what can we do about it?”
Now, like I said at the beginning, every piece of advice the article gives can and should be applied when discussing ANY emotionally charged subject with the affected person or persons. I think we, as a culture, need to be aware that in the discussion of “what can we do about systemic racial prejudice,” everyone is an affected person, and it’s probably emotionally charged for…everyone. We could be dealing with the question of “who is more affected,” but let’s be honest, that question is sort of dumb, and the people who are oppressed – i.e. not white people – are the ones who have spent the duration of the lifetime of this country not being heard, so they’re probably at least slightly more touched by the effects of the system. They, like everyone, deserve your time and respect. These personal experiences sometimes really suck. Don’t minimize them. That would be like telling a friend in an abusive relationship that there are people who have died from domestic violence, so their relationship problems aren’t that bad.
I think it’s time to step away from informing “white people” how to talk about the existence of systemic racism, and start talking about how to go about fixing it.
Thanks for reading.
P.S: Here is an article that is sort of on the same subject, but goes about this idea in a way that I feel is far more helpful.