Many people of color, myself included, feel compelled to advocate for policies and practices that correct the historic institutional harms we experience. While carrying out that advocacy, we often grow accustomed to the fact that, amidst the hyper-conscious mindset that accompanies much of the social and political debate in 2019, many white people maintain what they believe is the perfectly-acceptable option of simply ignoring race and racism in its totality.
Because white people are not affected by the social, medical, economic, and political disparities that black people are, white folks have the option of never really thinking about racial issues, not to mention their own race. White people are afforded the privilege (if we want to call it that) of never really examining what it means to be white in America. White is the norm.
It follows quite easily then, that White people are afforded the convenient choice of whether they desire to take part in racial discourse. White people can quite easily choose to literally ignore America’s race issues because, on the whole, the issues do not meaningfully affect them.
Black people generally have no such option. The issues that surround and continue to plague black people in America do so relentlessly and largely without exception. We experience these harms every day and cannot work, educate, or pay our way out of this reality.
I’ll give two examples. A few years ago, I dated a white woman who, within a few weeks into our courtship, informed me that she had blocked my social media posts because my posts relating to issues of race in America “bummed her out.” She stated that the manner in which I discussed the issues were “bad juju,” sending bad energy out into the world, and that she didn’t need that type of negativity permeating her day.
In essence, she was telling me that the way I conveyed my thoughts and opinions relating to my own experiences within a highly-racialized society affected her negatively, to the point where she chose to block them out.
After much prodding, many arguments, and much convincing, she ultimately became more open to listening to these issues in person—but I had to expend a great deal of energy to move her to that point. Though I am no longer involved with her for what should be obvious reasons, I like to think that our brief relationship had an impact on her life, with respect to race issues in America.
The point, however, is that prior to my convincing, she had made the unilateral decision that she would not even observe a conversation on race, much less participate in one. This option to completely avoid race is a product of whiteness thriving yet simultaneously being insulated within a society that supports it.
Another example. Recently, my sister Jubilee telephoned me, distressed at a conversation she had just had with two of her white friends. The first thing Jubilee said to me was, “Johnathan, I just had the talk with Taylor and Aubrey.” I knew immediately what that meant: Jubilee had just broached the topic of race with white friends.
She went on to describe how the talk had led to a discussion of white privilege, which quickly resulted in Taylor upset and Aubrey crying, arguing with Jubilee through her tears, “but Jubilee, why does racism have to exist in our world, specifically within our group of friends? Can’t we just act like it doesn’t?” My sister, of course, was then forced to suppress her own frustration and anger and to explain why this was not an option, chiefly, because racism does exist—even within their friend group.
That Aubrey became upset and started crying during this conversation is quite significant. As I’ve written previously, white feelings are often a significant obstacle standing in the way of discussions of race and racism. Jubilee felt genuinely sad and regretful when she brought up the topic of white privilege to her white friends. Think about that for a second. Think how backward that is.
Before that moment, my sister’s white friends had the very real option of living their whole lives, never taking part in a serious discussion on race. Knowing this, when Jubilee finally took the risk of discussing it with them—because of how fundamental the topic is to Jubilee’s identity and experience in America—they became upset, argued, and literally cried about it, asking that their friend group simply choose not to engage on the subject.
Aubrey and Taylor’s refusal to discuss the racism and their outward reaction to its mere mention caused my sister to reexamine whether she had done the right thing, simply broaching the topic.
This interaction is multifaceted. It illustrates quite well the very real idea that white people are able to avoid—intentionally or otherwise—discussing issues of race and equity. It further illustrates that, when a black person finally takes the risk of bringing up the subject to her white friends or colleagues, confronting them on their own issues and perhaps exploring their individual role in the system (knowing that these types of conversations are of the utmost importance to her own fulfillment and happiness, but also understanding that these conversations are often received poorly by white people) the white people’s feelings often quickly become the primary concern. This interaction was a near-perfect embodiment of the choice for which whiteness allows.
This idea is crucial to an understanding of white people’s place in a country that supports and affirms them, at the expense of black people. It’s worth noting that, with the start of nearly every new close relationship with a white person, romantic, or otherwise, black people likely enter into it thinking: I wonder if this person gets it? Has this person chosen to inform themselves on the topic of race? Is this a safe person with whom I can be honest?
Most of the time, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding no. Even when interracial relationships do form, more often than not, the responsibility of educating the white person on issues of race unfortunately falls squarely on the black person. The dynamic often plays out this way, despite the fact that black people have no obligation to explain race issues to white people, because by virtue of their own race, white people possess very little actual, real-world knowledge about race issues, particularly about what it’s like to be a member of a race this country deems abnormal and inferior.
It makes practical sense that black people are the ones who can explain race issues—but that does not mean it’s easy. That doesn’t make it our obligation. But we do it anyway. It’s frustrating and tiresome. And it’s the primary reason the recognition of white people’s choice of whether to participate in the process of progress and growth is so vital.