Being a Better White Person

Dear fellow white folks,

So you’ve figured out that you have some privilege based on your skin color, and not everyone experiences the world the same way you do.  Congratulations!  Now what?

It’s really easy at this point to get caught up in guilt, and not do anything for fear of offending somebody. But guilt doesn’t accomplish anything. Recognizing white privilege is really important, but it’s not enough.  Sometimes, the way we talk about privilege even lets people off the hook, because systemic issues aren’t any one person’s “fault.” So we think, what can any one person do against this faceless, monolithic system?

Well, dear white person, that’s where you come in. It’s time to start looking around and connecting to others who are already doing this work, as well as finding ways to use your privilege productively.

Listen. One of the ways privilege operates is by allowing white folks to ignore the voices and experiences of people of color. A recent survey showed that the social networks of white people are on average 91% white! Recognize whose voices are present in your life, and start really listening to the voices of your friends and acquaintances of color.

Part of listening means taking what you hear seriously. You’ll hear about experiences that are different from what you’re used to hearing, and that’s a good thing!  Resist the urge to argue, interrupt, or assume you know what someone’s going to say.  Trust what they’re saying to you.

A good way to start listening is to empathize. Recognize where your experiences are different, but also notice that the feelings attached to those experiences are deeply human.  The impulse behind the slogan Black Lives Matter is the systemic denial of the basic humanity of Black folks in particular, and you can start by recognizing the shared joys and sorrows and fears of the people of color in your life.

Be aware of intersectionality; that is, things are more complicated than just black and white. None of us are 100% privileged or 100% oppressed, and those gray areas are places where we can start to understand other people’s feelings of exclusion. As a queer white person with a complicated gender identity, I have some experiences of what it feels like to be marginalized and systemically discriminated against, which I think helps me to notice and trust those feelings when others mention them.

That does not mean I know what it feels like to be Black, but it does help me empathize and recognize situations that might be upsetting or problematic for a person of color. Nor does it mean I know what it feels like to be a queer person of color!  But it does mean we have some common ground to start from.

And finally, to white men in particular: recognize that this might be new territory for you. Dig deep and think of a time when you felt like things were unfair or not right (like many people started to recognize during Occupy Wall Street), and know that other people have been having these experiences for years. Then, enter these conversations with humility – it’s like you just woke up outside the Matrix for the first time, and this is a whole new world for you, so it’s time to be quiet and let other people show you what’s going on.

So, welcome to the real world. Let’s try and make it better, okay?

* My title is borrowed from Chris Rock’s spot-on statement about racial progress: “The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.”

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