Calling All White People, Part 22
(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)
By An Average White Guy
TODAY’S EPISODE: When people of color says it’s racist, start with trusting them
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]
Back in June, I wrote a piece for BGIM Media titled “Devil’s advocate deviltry” in which I called out our tendency as white people to often question Black people and other people of color (or people who aren’t part of other marginalized groups questioning people from those groups) when they say that they have been victims of discrimination, oppression and other mistreatment by more dominant groups (like white people).
It’s a terrible habit, and this post is a bit of a follow-on to that one.
So, I pose a question to you, my fellow white people: Do you find yourself questioning the experiences of people of color when they say they’ve been mistreated? Even something you might see as “innocent” like saying to them, “Are you sure that was a racist act?”
Because let’s face it: When you do that, you are literally questioning someone else’s reality based almost always on you having no personal context and no personal experience with that reality.
If a friend or family member says they are being undermined or overworked by a boss or supervisor or if a woman you know says she’s been sexually harassed, do you immediately challenge them, even mildly? Probably not. You start with trust. You believe what they say is either true or that they have good reason to believe they are being mistreated in a way that others are not in the environment or situation in question. As you get more information, you might have reason to pose questions or say, “But are you reading that situation right?” but you don’t start off questioning them.
That’s the key. If you like or love or respect a person, you begin with trust, listening and a willingness to see their side.
But too often even the “well meaning” white people ask: Was that really racist? We shouldn’t do that. When we are not in another person’s shoes and do not have their lifelong experiences, we ought not to be questioning their perceptions and insights out of hand.
Does this mean that people of color and people in other marginalized groups are always right about their negative experiences and their belief that their treatment stems from racism, bigotry, homophobia, sexism and other such things? Of course not. But the vast, vast majority of the time they are right, because they have been through it time and time again.
Let me give you an example, though, to illustrate I’m fair about this and not simply beating on my fellow white people. Imagine the following scenario:
You drive a Black friend to a big-box chain store because they need to pop in quickly and buy something; you wait in the car. The person comes out of the store, visibly upset and empty-handed.
Them: I’m never shopping at this store or any of their other stores again. The cashier ignored me like I wasn’t there and treated my with total disrespect.
You: Oh my god. And the manager backed them up?
Them: I didn’t go to the manager; I was so angry and humiliated.
You: Then why are you going to boycott this store, much less the whole chain?
Imagine the conversation getting uncomfortable at that point. Your Black friend is angry at their mistreatment, and now angry at you for questioning them at all on their actions. However, an hour or two later when they’ve calmed down they realize they overreacted—not about the mistreatment, mind you, but about their larger response to it.
If this seems a very specific scenario, it’s because it happened to me several years ago. It is an example of a Black person overreacting, but there are some important caveats here to point out, because it’s not meant to be an excuse for you to question people or color about their encounters with racism without awfully good reason.
- I never questioned that the worker had been racist in their actions; only that the lack of going to a manager and the jump to a chain-wide boycott made no sense based on one worker or even one store.
- I didn’t even question the decision not to seek out a manager; I could tell my friend was rattled and upset. When you finally have an experience that is the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back that break the spine, you might not want to cause a scene or rehash the experience with another person either.
- This is the only time I can recall in my life in which I actually had a reason to question a person of color legitimately on how they responded (again, not about whether they were right, because I didn’t witness the interaction and I trusted my friend on their assessment that it was racially motivated).
Let that sink in; re-read it if you need to.
Black people and other people of color experience bigoted behaviors all the time, and because they are outnumbered, often out-powered and typically given less benefit of the doubt by the white people around them compared to white people—well, they know the signs.
Absent any clear reason why they are misreading a situation, we shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions based on our white experiences (and even with clear reasons, we must proceed carefully if at all), because we are given more latitude and more benefit of the doubt and overall better treatment. For the overwhelming majority of us white people, our skin color never automatically puts us in an under-privileged and vulnerable position.
And frankly, even when you are in a position to see a situation with a person of color play out and they say it’s racism and you saw the interaction in a whole other way, that still isn’t the time to question whether it was racist.
The first thing again: Trust.
Trust that they, with their lifetime of experience, know more than you do about racism. It makes sense, because you as a white person don’t experience racism. You might every once in a while get some bigotry from non-white people, but even that is exceedingly rare and not nearly as serious in 99% of cases I would estimate as is racism.
You are not the expert.
And even if you still don’t see the racism in the encounter you witnessed, rather than questioning it and saying, “I don’t think they meant to be racist” or “I don’t see the racism there” instead consider saying (if you say anything at all other than “I’m sorry that happened to you”) something like: “I totally missed the racism; what did I not see that you did?”
And then do the thing that follows trust: Listen.
Whether or not you end up agreeing, you will likely learn something about racism and how it plays out subtly as well as obviously. You will likely learn something about what people of color face every day when they walk the minefield of white people and their assumptions and prejudices.
And also, as a side note, it doesn’t always matter whether the person “intended” to be racist. We as white people need to start learning not to treat people of color in ways that mistreat them and/or put us in positions of power or judgment over them that we aren’t entitled to. Intentions don’t matter if we do things that cause actual harm because of our preconceptions and/or ignorance. (Example: If I run someone over accidentally, my intentions mean very little compared to the harm I have done.)
Trust and believe.
And learn something about how prevalent and pervasive racism is in the world so that you can better identify it in yourself and others. And challenge it, head it off or avoid committing it yourself.
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