Calling all white people, part 9: Seeing and respecting race

Calling All White People, Part 9

(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: Don’t be the “color-blind” numbskull nor the “race fetishist” weirdo
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

Speaking on behalf of my fellow white people, I’m going to say that (on the whole) we are pretty awkward about how we deal with racial, ethnic and cultural difference. We tend to fade into the woodwork and not address such things when we should, or we go overboard. It’s not dramatic in either direction all the time (or maybe even most of the time) but it does tend toward the useless and/or counterproductive more than it does true inclusiveness and acceptance of non-whiteness as a perfectly normal thing.

More to the point: We need people to stop saying stupid crap like “I’m color-blind when it comes to race” and we need people to also stop treating people of color (especially folks like Black people and Native American/American Indian people) like zoo exhibits or merely as educational opportunities.

Now, those are pretty much opposite ends of the spectrum. On one end, trying to pretend like race and ethnicity don’t matter and on the other end sort of fetishizing it. But what they share in common is that they often lead to white people committing microaggressions against non-white folks (or other people of difference or marginalization). And as most of us realize when we really think about it, it’s the multitude of “little shit” like mircoaggressions that really wear people down day to day, hour after hour, and often more so than the big crap like being called the N-word. Big stuff can be startling and scary, but it’s probably not what’s gonna contribute to anxiety, high blood pressure and the other things that have often shortened the live of people of color or at least led to them having overall unhealthier lives compared to white people of similar socioeconomic status. Microaggressions matter on a social and societal basis

So, let’s take a few examples of these extremes of white people dealing with (or not dealing with) racial stuff and thinking (wrongly) that they’re doing good.

I don’t see color! – This is perhaps one of the most annoying statements people of color hear from white people who think they’re being all open-minded and progressive. To say that you don’t see color when you deal with people is ignorant unless you actually have a visual or neurological impairment that literally makes you see in black and white or to not be able to somehow differentiate pale skin from darker skin. To be honest, this is a form of erasure. It’s like saying a person’s very identity and background doesn’t matter. But it does. We are many of us defined by our cultural, racial and/or ethnic backgrounds. That doesn’t mean people of color are stereotypes, but it does mean they tend to have various (and varied from person to person) distinct character traits (good, bad or neutral) that come from their racial background and racial experience. Black people, overall, often have different cultural behaviors and language compared to white people, for example. It’s a fact. Someone who is part of an immigrant family or only a generation or two removed from immigration probably has all kinds of cultural differences compared to the average white person. Ignoring that is being purposefully ignorant. When a white person from the North meets a white person from the Deep South, you can best believe that Northern white person is gonna notice differences in the way the other person speaks, reacts to situations, eats, etc. (and vice-versa). So don’t act like you didn’t notice the person in front of you was Black, brown or whatever. Acknowledge and respect differences; don’t pretend they don’t exist or don’t matter. Acceptance is better than mere inclusion.

Oh my gosh, can I touch your hair? – This is a statement that is so often followed by the white person who said it putting their hand into the hair of a Black person without actually waiting for permission. It’s a very specific example, but probably one of the big ones that Black people complain about because it happens to them or to their children, and there are all kinds of variations on this theme. But regardless of whether it’s hair or something else, it’s invasive and creepy. It turns non-white people into something like the human equivalent of zoo animals. It is, in a sense, as fetishistic as the white person who “only dates Black (or Latinx, or whatever) people” (often because they are seen as exotic). People of color and other forms of difference are not interactive exhibits to be handled or ogled at the whim of people in the more mainstream/privileged groups (white, cis-male, hetero, Christian). This is the kind of thing that happens when people think they’re being open-minded and/or progressive, but instead they are making the person’s difference(s) the only interesting or important thing. Turning a person into an object.

You speak so well – This is the example I will finish with. I mean, I could go on and on and on but I just want to give you some starting points to open your own eyes. The previous two examples were on the two ends of the spectrum: “color-blind” vs. “fetishist.” This you speak so well example is often committed by white people not only at both ends of the spectrum but most of them in between. It often comes out in other variations: You write so clearly, you speak so eloquently, you’re a credit to your race, etc. It’s insulting because chances are in the 95% or more range that you would never say the same thing to a white person if you read something they wrote or listened to them speak publicly or argue a point in a discussion. It is insulting because underlying it is the suggestion: “Most of the people who look like you are lesser in skill than us white people but you’re different.” Under the guise (and often the honest intention) of sincere flattery, you’ve just not only insulted most of the person’s fellow race/ethnicity but also “othered” them…set them apart from everyone else and made them out to be something rare and not belonging to any “normal” group. It’s one thing to tell a person of color, for example, after a talk they’ve given, “That really moved me” or “I learned a lot from hearing you speak”…that’s often fine. But that’s because it’s the same kind of thing you would say to a white person who spoke. Don’t give the backhanded compliments, though, spiced up with racism or bigotry, however unintentioned it might be.
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