What is so productive about talking?

We were sitting at a bar waiting for the rest of our group to join us. It was mid-September, and still warm outside. Beads of water dripped down my glass into a puddle on the brown surface. We had just started our senior year of college, and my friend was describing a recent discussion in one of her classes about racism in America. A couple black students in the class had raised their voices when another white student claimed racism no longer existed.

“They were just so angry,” my friend said. “It’s like, ok yeah, I get what you’re saying, but you’re not going to convince anyone by being rude.”

I winced just a little bit and looked my friend in the eye. She was kind and compassionate, someone I had a lot in common with and someone I agreed with on a wide range of political issues. We rarely had arguments about anything, and were both involved in causes we cared about. We both identified as liberals. We supported LGBT rights, women’s rights, and equality. She taught me a lot about what it means to be a feminist, kindly corrected me when I was wrong, and helped me grow.

In my head I thought to myself, “Well, they have a right to be angry, and we shouldn’t really be policing their tone or their language. We should be listening.”

But instead I took a sip of my drink, nodded and said, “Mmmhm.”

I hadn’t wanted to start an argument or hurt her feelings. I didn’t know how to say what I really wanted without sounding harsh. So I did the easy thing and chose silent, passive agreement.

In the years since I’ve learned a great deal about racism, white privilege, allyship and how to have discussions (mostly online) about these issues. I’ve stumbled along the way, and still have a lot to learn. This example sticks out in my mind as a wasted opportunity. But it’s more than that. It’s oppression. And it’s just one example of many in my closet of skeletons.

In the wake of the murders of two more black men this week, and all the days, weeks and years before now, I see and hear my white friends asking, “What can I do?” I am also seeing something I find rather troubling. People say they are “tired of talking,” and don’t find it productive. Likewise I’ve noticed an outpouring of mourning over the police officers who lost their lives in Dallas, but silence over the loss of black lives at the hands of police. I too, deeply mourn the lives of the officers in Dallas. In an extremely personal way. But, fellow white people, if we want this violence to end, it is up to us.

If you are a fellow white person, there are some things you need to know:

  1. You are racist. We all are. I know you hate that word. I know you equate it to slavery and lynching and things you “would never do.” I know this label cuts deep to your core and identity as a good and moral person, but it’s the truth. Look, we created this system of institutional racism, and unless we are striving every single day to dismantle the prejudices ingrained in our minds in subtle ways we don’t even recognize, we continue to perpetuate racism and all the violence that comes with it. Once you accept this reality, you can dig in and do the hard work required of you.
  2.  There are many things white people can do, but talking just might be the biggest one.

It starts by educating yourself (and not relying on people of color to do so), and then talking about it. Especially if you are someone who already considers themselves progressive. You see it’s easy to yell at the overt racist assholes. At least it is for me. For those who unapologetically support the KKK for instance or advocate for violence against people of color, it’s a no-brainer to say “Hey that’s fucked up. You’re an awful human being.” It is much harder to say to a like-minded friend who claims racism is a thing of the past, “Well actually no it isn’t.” And are you really going to change the racist asshole’s mind? Probably not. But you can influence the mind of someone who is open to learning.

I hear over and over again to not discuss things like religion or politics at the dinner table or online. “What is the point? It will only get heated. No one ever won a Facebook argument or changed someone else’s opinion with a status! It is just not productive.” I beg to differ. I have been influenced and educated time and again by social media. In fact, everything I have learned about white privilege is because of Facebook and Twitter. Not school.

We are all influential to someone — a friend, a family member, a student, our hairdresser. We are all responsible for using our influence and our privilege to do something about the injustices we witness. It is in the spaces we occupy with other white people where we have the biggest capacity for impact.

I vividly remember learning about the Civil Rights Movement in high school. The black and white images in the pages of my textbook of the marches and the sit-ins. I thought about the white journalists who covered these events and the white folks who joined the actions. We all ask ourselves who we would have been during dark times in history. Of course we would have been standing with our black brothers and sisters demanding equal rights, right? Obviously those advocating for slavery or segregation were wrong and how on earth did it take so long to end those injustices?

You don’t have to wonder who you would have been or what you would have done. This isn’t a chapter in American history. Racial oppression is literally the foundation of our country. Its roots run deep and its pervasive ugliness is entrenched in our psyche, embedded in our social interactions, thoughts and words in ways that are both conscious and not. It takes time and work to dismantle these prejudices, and nothing is achieved by pretending they don’t exist. In fact to ignore them is to actively participate in oppression. Silence is violence.

In a lot of ways it is easier to take to the streets. To hold a sign and march along like-minded people. To feel part of something bigger. To be visible and acknowledged. It is rewarding.

But this is not necessarily where the work is. The work is in being vulnerable and raw. It is in daring to be wrong and learning from it. It is in speaking up when what you say may not be received well. It is walking with someone through their wall of defensiveness, until you both understand each other a little bit better. It is looking your loved ones in the eyes, and challenging their words. It means perhaps engaging in a conversation either online or around the dinner table that is difficult and ripe with opportunities for hurt. It means failing over and over again in having these conversations, learning new tools to communicate, and trying again. It means continually questioning, learning and growing and urging your white friends and family to do the same. It is learning to recognize all the subtle ways you and the people in your life perpetuate racism, and not letting these go unchecked.

Every time we choose passive, silent agreement we are choosing the side of the oppressor.

It is not only productive to speak up, but vital.


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