When it’s not white people’s time to talk

One of the most important lessons I’m learning when it comes to undoing racism in myself—and in my racial justice work in the larger world—is that there is not simply one set of rules I can start following.

As much as we white people—those of us committed to antiracism, at least—want to learn and do better, we are not going to find a clearly defined new set of rules that if we only follow them, everything will be fixed. This work is confusing and messy and not linear.

So. No set of new rules to follow to be a better white person. And—oh how many “ands” there are in breaking free from whiteness!—also, when Black people are telling white people something we are doing is problematic, we should listen.

One of the messages I’ve heard lately—and most of my hearing Black people’s messages comes through Twitter, as my social circles are still almost entirely white—is that white people shouldn’t publicly weigh in on problematic behavior on the part of Black people (two examples lately being Kanye West and Herschel Walker). Black people have got it covered generally when it comes to dealing with Black people in the public eye who are causing harm. The “hot takes” out there should be coming from Black voices, not from us white people.

No one is suggesting we have no opinions, or that we don’t wrestle with the complexities of racial issues. For example, in the privacy of my own home, I have talked with my children about my decision not to hang up the New York Times cover I have framed from when President Obama won. I used to have it hanging on our front hall wall, and after my landlord painted, I decided I didn’t want to hang it up again (mostly after some analyses and commentaries by Black people on some of his more questionable decisions in office, some of which have been classified as “war crimes”). But, on social media, or in public spaces, I don’t spend time trashing our first Black president.

If I get the urge to add any detailed commentary to the public discourse about how a Black politician or celebrity has behaved badly, I use that as a nudge to return to my own racial justice work.

I consider three general areas: my own internalized racism/support of white supremacy culture and learning new ways to be; how white supremacy culture shows up in my interpersonal relationships and how I am working in community to change that; and what antiracist actions I am taking in the larger systems.

When I notice an urge to chime in to conversations about Black people making mistakes or being harmful in public, I ask myself, “Why do I think my opinion about this is worth sharing?” Usually, it’s some quality of white supremacy culture—I like this document that includes “antidotes” to practice—perhaps it’s my “individualism,” for example, that makes me think I belong everywhere?

These are the kinds of questions I ask myself when I read or hear that Black people think white people shouldn’t chime in about Black people’s behavior. I start off by hearing that opinion (be quiet, white people!) and turn back to my own work, trusting that Black people have “got this” when it comes to substantive critiques of other Black people.

Those of us who are white-bodied should catch ourselves and pause when we start thinking it’s a good idea to publicly share opinions about the behavior of Black people in public. We don’t have a depth of understanding about the many nuances and complexities of Black culture or Black history that comes at all close to the level most Black people do. Our opinions will be inherently uninformed, likely misguided, and potentially harmful.

We should keep many—maybe most—of those opinions to ourselves and interrogate that impulse (compulsion?) to center our opinions (a common conceit we too often indulge in). For more on this topic, check out this essay written by Ijeoma Oluo, where she says, to those of us who are white, “remember that NOBODY ASKED YOU…If you think that you get to criticize black people for selling out to the system of anti-blackness that you as a non-black person benefit from and help maintain, you need to check your privilege and be quiet for a while.” Really, read that essay above, because it says better what I am trying to say: It’s not that we can’t say anything; it’s that we need to be careful about what areas of discussion we barge into.

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Image by Kristina Flour via Unsplash