Q: What are useful guidelines for talking to white friends about everyday racism, when their first reaction is to shut me down for even suggesting that I and they might have said or done something racist?
A: I am sorry to say that there are no set “guidelines.” The key is to keep standing up. Everyday racism is often seen in microaggressions. Microaggressions are little pervasive things in our society that show that whiteness, christianity, able bodies, etc. are valued more than other identities.
The University of California describes microaggressions as, “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership (from Diversity in the Classroom, UCLA Diversity & Faculty Development, 2014). The first step in addressing microaggressions is to recognize when a microaggression has occurred and what message it may be sending.”
University of California’s Office of the President has a great handout about different microaggressions and the messages they send (microaggressions). Additionally, Kiyun Kim did a great photography project, while at Fordham University at Lincoln Center in New York, that deals with racial microaggressions. Seeing people holding signs with microaggressions they hear on a regular basis can really bring the impact of microaggressions home.
As we recognize racist messages we often discuss it with our friends and hopefully do something to change the path of racism that our words and actions supported, furthered, etc. This is not an easy process, but it is the correct thing to do.
Talking to your friends about everyday racism and microaggressions is often difficult. White people often see racism as something that they don’t do. Seeing that we do racist things on a regular basis and need to be changing our ways is not an easy thing to admit. I like to ask myself, and my friends, why would I want to continue saying or doing something that might hurt someone else?
Rebecca Carroll: I just watched a clip from Spike Lee’s Malcolm X – the scene where the well intentioned white girl approaches Malcolm and is like: “What can I do?” And he says: “Nothing” and walks away. I feel a real pull to that response, because really, if there was something you all could do, wouldn’t you have done it by now? Just mind your business and stop killing us? Take care of your business. It’s like detox.
I have long maintained that white privilege is an immaculate high – it’s free, you feel (I imagine) magnanimous and amazing all the time, there are no side effects and there is no comedown. Unless you choose to come down. And then you’re gonna go through it – withdrawal, anxiety, agitation, all of it. And then you have to figure out how to live your life without it. We’ve been doing it for the past 400 years, so.
Jess Zimmerman: I guess what springs to mind is the obvious stuff: Say something when a person acts unjustly, and make them stop. Say something when an organization is imbalanced, and refuse to participate if it isn’t fixed – and seek out organizations and businesses with black leaders, too. Vote and get involved politically to try and chip away at inequities at the national level.
Rebecca Carroll: Those are all good, common-sense action goals. And as I’ve said, I will always support and encourage talking with each other – it’s why we are here on the planet, as far as I’m concerned: to communicate, listen, articulate, understand, work through, pause and keep going. And for every white fool you shut down on Facebook or school or take on, I personally am grateful.
But also, as a white people primer:
- Do protest; do not take selfies as you protest and then post them on social media – good for you, I don’t care, not what it’s about.
- Next time you are shopping in an upscale store and no salesperson is watching you, ask them why they aren’t watching you.
- Check your tone, your tenor and your composure when you’re engaged in dialog with black and brown people. Literally. Don’t say “I get it” because you don’t.
- Read Ta-Nehisi Coates Reparations piece in The Atlantic, and then read it again.
- If you are a celebrity or public figure and have a national platform, use it, because the young folks are watching you every second. I’m not talking about Erase the Race or USA for Africa type action (fine), I mean go hard in a national campaign, publicity junket type way (see: Chris Rock). Because your celebrity is among the most extraordinary, astonishing privileges there is. As Chris Rock likes to say: “I love being famous. It’s almost like being white.”
JZ: Maybe this isn’t so different from trying to argue with your racist Facebook friends – or it’s a difference of degree. It’s just calling bullshit at different points along the power structure. Being white means I have better access to the upper levels; I have to go up and call bullshit there, too. It’s like being the tall person who needs to get cans off the top shelf, only the shelf is ingrained power structures and the cans are basic human rights.
Rebecca Carroll: Yes, exactly.
Stopping the patterns of racism in our daily lives does not mean that you get a gold ally star though!
Indigenous Action Media posted a zine called Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex in May 2014. They talk about working together, becoming complicit in a struggle towards liberation.
“The risks of an ally who provides support or solidarity (usually on a temporary basis) in a fight are much different than that of an accomplice. When we fight back or forward, together, becoming complicit in a struggle towards liberation, we are accomplices. Abolishing allyship can occur through the criminalization of support and solidarity.”
So what are some things accomplices do? (from Accomplices Not Allies)
- Understand that it is not our responsibility to hold your hand through a process to be an accomplice.
- Accomplices listen with respect for the range of cultural practices and dynamics that exists within various Indigenous communities.
- Accomplices aren’t motivated by personal guilt or shame, they may have their own agenda but they are explicit.
- Accomplices are realized through mutual consent and build trust. They don’t just have our backs, they are at our side, or in their own spaces confronting and unsettling colonialism. As accomplices we are compelled to become accountable and responsible to each other, that is the nature of trust.
The bottom line, your friends will shoot you down. You might loose friends as you stand up and join in the struggle for collective liberation. Keep it up!
You can also read more in: Revolutionary Solidarity: A Critical Reader for Accomplices