It seems that every time there’s a tragic act of racial violence, I see many of my white friends are either silent on the issue because they don’t know what they can do about it, and a few who are bold enough to ask what they can do. I decided to share what I’ve learned is helpful. This information is based on research-supported effective anti-racism and communication methods, but is driven by my desire to uplift the voices of people of color who have to repeat these answers again and again to an unhearing audience. As a white woman, I have never experienced true racism first hand, so I can’t claim to truly understand, nor can I explain it as a person of color could. But due to my diverse background and my interracial, multicultural family and upbringing, I have been a first hand witness to racism enough to consider myself knowledgeable of the dialogue surrounding racism, and to understand what works and what doesn’t when fighting racism on an interpersonal level.
It’s important to understand that fighting racism and oppression is not a simple task. There is no one single thing you can do to stop racism. It is an ongoing discussion that we will probably have to keep having for years, maybe decades. In my opinion, part of the reason we are seeing a returning increase in racist sentiment (after a long decrease) in this country is that we all got a bit lax on talking about it, and some refuse to even acknowledge it exists. We became complacent and fell into a lull of an imagined “post racial utopia”, and we turned silent, laughing off casual racism as antiquated sentiment that would die out on its own. Meanwhile, racism festered and thrived in the recesses of our society, coming to a head in recent years. It’s time to fight again.
Racism is multifaceted, institutionalized, deeply ingrained in almost every aspect of American culture, and therefore it must be fought in a multitude of ways. But if you are reading this, you are likely reading it because you want to know what you, as an individual, can do. So for this article, I will be addressing interpersonal methods. There are three main parts to effectively fighting against racism as an individual: listening, which gives you understanding; learning, which prepares you for the fight; and finally, acting.
1. Lower you defenses, at least for this article. There’s really no way to discuss racism comfortably. If you are white, you probably feel uncomfortable with, or even offended by seemingly accusatory terms that go along with this topic, such as “white privilege”, or maybe even the term racism itself. I know…you’re not racist, you haven’t had a charmed life, and you don’t deserve to be labeled or lumped in with a group you don’t belong to or identify with. You certainly don’t want anyone to think you’re racist, and so the natural response is to defend yourself. But try to let it go and detach from your ego for the sake of learning.
There is a time and a place where your own input is needed. But the first step to solving a problem is understanding the problem, and you can’t begin to understand something until you learn to listen without defensiveness. And that means not interjecting the “not all white people” qualifier every time the topic of racism comes up, and not getting defensive when a person of color points out your own racism or someone else’s (intentional or not).
2. This should really be #1. Listen when people of color talk about racism and their personal experiences with race and racism. Listen carefully and respectfully, and go back to #1: drop the defensiveness. Don’t argue, don’t defend, don’t interrupt, don’t make assumptions, don’t accuse them of lying or exaggerating about their experience, and don’t take it personally. Learning is uncomfortable. Just listen.
There will never be a time when you know all there is to know about this subject. There will always be more to learn. I understand that listening to people talk about the injustices they face can get depressing or even tiresome for some. Having worked in social services for 14 years, I’m well acquainted with the pitfalls of compassion fatigue. But as depressing or tiresome as it may be to listen to it, imagine having to experience it and be a target of it every day, throughout your entire life. Which brings me to my next point.
3. Respect the speaker’s emotions. Understand that whatever a person is feeling might just be a valid emotional response to their experiences. When people talk about painful experiences, they usually speak with emotion, and that emotion isn’t necessarily directed at the listener, but at the situation. Even if that person is slinging around terms and generalizations that make you feel uncomfortable, remind yourself that it’s not about you (probably…unless it actually is about you, in which case you should probably ask them how you can fix it).
To be clear, I am not advocating for enduring verbal abuse. Obviously, someone shouting “kill the whitey devil”, or something similarly ludicrous, is not someone you’re going to learn much from. But if a person of color is telling you about an experience, and they’re angry about it while telling you, try to separate the emotion from the message.
Most people just want to be heard and to have their feelings acknowledged. If you allow people to vent their frustrations, and especially if you can acknowledge them (“That’s awful, I can see why you would feel that way,”), you can usually move on to more productive communication.
4. Asking questions. This one is tricky. If you’re going to ask questions while discussing race issues with a person of color, make sure the questions you do ask are in an earnest attempt to understand their experience. And try to keep your questions limited to their personal thoughts and experiences. Despite what the Rev. Jesse Jackson would have us believe, there is no such thing as an Ambassador of Blackness or any other race or ethnicity. No one person of color can be the voice of all people of color. No one person of color can explain the experience or culture of all people of color. Everyone is an individual and has individual experiences.
5. Try to educate yourself about racial issues using the wonderful world of Internet BEFORE asking a person of color to explain it all to you. This is especially true if there has just been a major tragedy involving racial violence. Nobody wants to be tasked with educating you on such a complex issue as racism while they are grieving and processing their emotions. But even in times of peace, explaining these things and talking about it over and over can get tiresome on any topic, especially if it’s a painful topic. Odd as it may seem, this includes benevolent questions such as “What can I, as a white person, do to help fight racism?”
There are tens of thousands of blogs and articles from POC on the web which have all the answers to all the insensitive questions about “why do ___ people do ___ …” that you could possibly think of. And they probably have good answers. Google is your friend.
6. Learn what racism is in all its forms. I know it seems obvious, but it isn’t. Racism is not just saying the “n-word” or hating people based on their skin. It’s not just outward behaviors, attitudes, and verbalized judgements by individuals. As long as this article is, it’s still fairly myopic in that it only covers addressing attitudes and behaviors. Those forms of “hard racism” are easily identified, but they are not the only kind, and by far not the worst kind of racism.
Racism also comes in the form of institutional practices and policies that function, whether intentionally or not, explicitly or implicitly, to systemically disenfranchise groups of people defined by their race or ethnicity. Learn about all of these.
7. Read as many studies and research articles and statistics about institutionalized racial discrimination as you can find. Institutionalized racism is the most insidious, and also the most pervasive, yet the least understood and the least visible form of racism. This subject is too immense to cover everything in one article or one research paper. Take it upon yourself to seek out and learn this information. You will need it for the “action” part.
8. Get to know and acknowledge, at least to yourself, your own prejudices and implicit racism. (I can hear you getting defensive already; go back to #1, press on, there is a point to this part.) Everyone…regardless of color, culture, education, life experiences, whatever…everyone has some prejudice, biases, and/or implicit racism in them, even if unintentional. And it doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person to have subconsciously absorbed some of the messages and dialogues that we’re constantly flooded with beginning in childhood and throughout our lives. It just means we have to make an effort to unlearn them.
Despite my diverse experiences and education, I still have to check myself sometimes on my own prejudices and privilege and implicit racism. It’s not a direct thought, but rather a lack of thought. Or maybe I used a term that I didn’t realize was racist. But I acknowledge those ideas and mistakes when they come, I analyze why I might feel/think that way, and I work toward eliminating my own false beliefs. This self-awareness will also come in handy for the “action” part.
9. Before we go into what works, let’s address what doesn’t work: shaming, bashing, scolding, hostility, ostracization, name-calling, verbal suppression (telling the to shut up), etc. These simply do not work. In fact, they often backfire, reinforcing the behavior and making things worse.
When shame and guilt comes from within, because you truly understand why your actions are bad and harmful, it can be a great motivator. But when you shame someone who doesn’t truly understand what’s wrong with their words or actions, they suddenly perceive you as this irrational and overly-sensitive crazy person, which in their mind is proof that they are right by default.
When people believe they are right, based on the knowledge they have, they perceive this shaming as an unfounded attack. Human psychology tells us that people are simply incapable of really listening or understanding when they fell they are being “attacked”. This is also why I strongly suggest avoiding outright calling someone a “racist” or “bigot”, even if it’s obviously true. Terms like “racist” and “bigot” are so politically and emotionally charged, invoking them will almost always derail a discussion beyond all hope of recovery and progress. They immediately go into ego defense mode, scrambling with mental gymnastics to come up with reasons why they’re right and you’re wrong, completely blocking out anything you say.
While it may seem convenient to socially ostracize these people who just won’t listen, this can have dangerous consequences. They don’t just disappear. Ostracization only drives people to insulate themselves in an echo chamber social group where they will only hear the voices and opinions of those who agree with them. Combine this with their experiences of perceived “unfounded attacks”, plus the underlying anxiety of losing privilege or respect, and you end u with a bunch of racists with a persecution complex, believing that they are the true victim of oppression. And then they militarize. This is how hate groups get started, how they attract new members, and how they convince those members to strike out against this perceived oppression, often with violent forces.
As satisfying and cathartic as it may be to lash out and tell them what utter pieces of human garbage they are, it doesn’t help. So what can you do?
10. Speak up! Do not be silent in the face of racism. I can not begin to express the importance of this. Psychology tells us that when an inflammatory statement is met with silence, and not rebutted with dissent, the person speaking interprets that silence as support and will overestimate how many people agree with them. Furthermore, your silence tells the people of color on the receiving end of this hatred that you either don’t care or you agree. In other words, your silence makes you complicit.
Don’t be afraid to speak up for fear of alienating your friends and/or family, or whoever your “ingroup” happens to be. Those are the people you are most likely to be able to influence, according to the research, and unfortunately, this is why white people are more likely to be heard by other white people on these issues. Stand up to your racist old grandma; you’re never too old to learn. Stand up to your college buddy. (Obviously, you won’t always be in a position to speak your mind, like if you’re at work and it’s a customer. I’m not advocating jeopardizing your career.) Every racist comment, statement, or joke is an opportunity to reach someone and have an open dialogue about racism, to speak out and challenge these false beliefs and attitudes.
But if you can’t tell them they’re being an ignorant racist dirtbag, how do you talk to them?
11. Engage the person in civil intellectual discourse. Do not lecture them. Lecturing is not the same as discussing. Leading a one-way conversation is a surefire way to lose your audience. This is why people fall asleep in church.
12. Ask them questions. And keep asking questions. Ask them questions until they are forced to reveal the basis of their false beliefs. If it’s a racist joke, play dumb. Pretend you don’t understand the joke and make them explain it to you. If someone just “doesn’t like black people”, ask them if they dislike all black people. They’ll inevitably say “No, there’s this one guy, you know…one of the good ones.” Ask them what it is about that one guy that makes him okay, and what it is about other black people that makes them not okay.
But don’t be a troll about your questions. If you ask too many questions, the other person will disengage. You’re not asking to antagonize them. You’re asking so you can get a better idea of the basis of their false beliefs so you know how to proceed in beginning to debunk those beliefs.
13. Try to empathize with the racist to get the discussion going. I know this seems counterintuitive, but bear with me. Empathizing with them doesn’t mean agreeing with them, or sympathizing with their beliefs. It means acknowledging their perspective and why they may have it. A lot of people base their racist beliefs on their own limited personal experiences. And a lot of racism is based solely in feelings (which, when pressed, they will try to support with false information). In this case, empathizing means saying “I hear what you’re saying. I can see why you might think/feel that.” By acknowledging their feelings, you can get them to lower their defenses and move on to the productive part of the discussion.
This is one area where getting to know your own past prejudices is helpful, because you can point out that you may have thought or felt that way in the past, and then explain how you learned that the belief is false. Again, this isn’t about agreeing with them. It’s about positioning yourself as an understanding friend that they’ll listen to, and not an enemy whose every word the will reject.
Now that you have their full attention…
14. Use knowledge to challenge their false beliefs and stereotypes. This is where all that reading on numbers 5, 6, and 7 will come into play. Racism is strongly rooted in ignorance. Your knowledge is your ammunition.
Maybe they’ll say “Well, of course I don’t dislike all black people (I’m not a racist); just the ones who do ___ or act like ___.” This is your opportunity to point out that most black people are more like “that one black guy at your office who’s pretty cool”, but the other guy (the one who acts like ___) is the only one we see because the media just loves to trot out the worst examples of every group (something we can all relate to). Whatever gets the public to click their link.
Maybe they’ll bring up black culture, and “Why can’t they just assimilate?” This is your opportunity to point out that, yes, there are cultural differences. But that a lot of what we call black culture was born on necessity, as a survival mechanism from times of slavery and segregation. And throughout the history of the U.S., people of color haven’t been allowed to be a part of white culture or even share white spaces until very, very recently. But culture doesn’t go away that easily (nor should it). And it certainly won’t go away as long as we continue marginalizing and socially segregating the people who claim that culture.
If cultural issues come up, try to focus on the similarities between cultures, rather than how different they are. If someone sees the similarities between races and cultures, it helps to erase some of the “us/them” mindset.
Maybe they’ll bring up the myth of absentee black fathers or the role of family in the black community. This is your opportunity to explain that, removing marriage from the equation, black fathers are actually more likely to be more involved and spend more time with their children than unmarried white fathers. Explain that single-parent households are not an indicator of morality, nor is it exclusively a “black problem”. You know who’s really not getting married: the millennial generation, regardless of race. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t creating and maintaining closely bonded family units. Again, draw on the similarities between cultures.
Maybe they’ll talk about unemployment rates. This is your opportunity to explain the statistical fact that is is easier for a white man with a criminal record and no degree to get a job than it is for a black man with a degree and no criminal record. Point out the statistical fact that a person with a “black sounding” name is 50% less likely to even get a call back on an application.
Maybe they’ll list off a few statistics about crime within the black community. This is your opportunity to explain that the legal system is stacked against people of color. The number of arrests is not necessarily proof that black people commit more crime, but that black people get caught and convicted more often. Explain that a cop is more likely to pull over and search a black person, even though drug use and weapon ownership is equal between black and white folks. Explain that the courts are more likely to convict a black person than a white person for the same crime, more likely to try a black minor as an adult than a white minor, and more likely to give harsher punishment for the same crimes and same number of previous convictions.
This last example would also be a good time to talk about how poverty and crime are so closely intertwined, and that oftentimes, crime is an act of necessity and desperation.
15. Talk to your kids about race and racism. Do not leave them vulnerable to learn about it through the media and people around them, or they will learn these false beliefs. Engage your kids in discussion about what they see on TV, and help them understand the underlying messages they receive. Talk to them before someone else does.
That guy (whose name I won’t utter) who murdered 9 black people sitting in church was “not raised in a racist household”, according to his manifesto. But at the same time, he says “race was never an issue, it was never discussed…” He said he was “not racially aware” until he started reading white supremacist conspiracy propaganda on the internet, convincing him that it is the white man who is the true victim of racial oppression, encouraging him to act on it and “take back our country”. His own family offered to “flip the switch on his electric chair”. Makes you wonder what could have been prevented if someone had discussed these things with him before it was too late.
16. Lastly, be more racially inclusive with your friends. Find similarities and shared interest with people of all races, and nurture those into full-fledged, genuine friendships. If you live in a racially diverse region, and you don’t have any friends who are people of color, please…do some real soul-searching introspection and try to figure out why.