The XX Factor

How White People Shouldn’t Talk About Race: Part Two

Protestors in New York City rally against the Trayvon Martin verdict on July 20, 2013.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Last week, XX Factor responded to a powerful essay by Jessie-Lane Metz on white ally-ship, racial appropriation, and the Trayvon Martin verdict. On Monday, Metz elaborates on her original piece with a Q-and-A, posted below. (Our questions are in bold.)

Is there a “right” way for white people to talk about race? Or should they just not do it?

Hi Katy. I wanted to start by saying thanks for reading the piece, and I’m glad that it impacted you in some way.

I want to clarify as well, my article was not a “to-do” list, rather it was a “please-don’t” list, or at very least, a “please-think-about-it-first” list. The purpose of the piece was very much to say, “wait, stop, listen, think about it. Do you need to say it in this way? Is there something you can do instead?” It was meant to generate more self-reflection and inquiry in readers, rather than some easy answers.

I believe absolutely there is a space for white people to write about race. I think everyone should talk about racism and racialization. I think that there are spaces to be very self reflective, spaces where one could use their privilege to forward the dialogue, and spaces to step back and say “I am not the expert in this context, this is not the platform for me to do this.” I don’t think that this means that, as a person of colour, the thought of a white person writing about race in an effort to be an ally should be a source of anxiety, or pain.

I also expect that people will make mistakes. I make mistakes all of the time. While my article spoke to my pain, it also spoke to the need for further dialogue. And while I specifically responded to the words of two writers, in the form of critique, it was done in a spirit of investigating some common issues in what is considered to be mainstream progressive feminism, where white people do centre themselves in writing about racism, which I find problematic when unchallenged. It was a conversation in an effort to start more conversations that are hopefully a bit more mindful.

I have lots of friends from diverse ethnic groups, including white friends. I love my friends fiercely. I talk about race with all of them. I expect that they will talk about race, and that they will be anti-racist in their daily lives. I expect that even when dealing with internalized racism, they will find ways forward that don’t include burdening people of colour with their processes.

How do you walk the line between appropriating someone else’s pain and ignoring it?

I don’t actually think that the dichotomy of appropriation and/or ignoring is helpful. I think there is a lot of space for better practice between those two extremes.

I think this question ties into your comment about being taught empathy in school.  It depends on how you understand empathy. If you feel that empathy is about “experiencing” the pain of another, rather than recognizing that pain exists, recognizing the structural reasons for this pain, and recognizing your responsibility for addressing these structural inequities, than you are closer to appropriation than beginning to be an ally.

I think we live in a culture that seeks to “experience” the other. As a person of colour, I am often treated as though I am something that can be sampled. From the hair touching, to the “where are you from?” questions, to the potluck model of “let me taste your heritage” approach to diversity, people view my ethnicity and experiences as a novelty. When “empathy” comes from curiousity, rather than a social justice orientation, it becomes appropriative.

Appropriative ally-ship can also take place in cases where prominent voices that don’t represent the population in question do make the narrative about themselves, or when their prominence in the issue represents the absence of the voices of people with lived experience.

Is it better to offend someone in the course of discussing something than not have the conversation?

I do think that if in your social justice work, you continue to hurt those whose oppression you are seeking to address, it may be time to step back and listen.

Real talk. People fuck up all of the time. I fuck up all of the time in my own work on being an ally. Nobody knows everything already. When I fuck up, I certainly don’t ask myself if it was better to offend someone than to not have that conversation at all. I listen. I ask myself, how can I do better so that the next time I have a conversation I don’t hurt anyone. Or how I can educate myself through those who are actively engaging in teaching, so that others don’t have to have that conversation with me at all. And I inevitably will fuck up again. But I keep on working on it. I’m committed to it.

There are times where fuck-ups are big enough that relationships end or that people may not be able to access certain spaces anymore. That doesn’t mean that they can’t unlearn, or re-learn, or do better. It means that there are consequences for oppressive actions, not that in making a mistake one is no longer responsible to do better.

Is there something–a form of insight or experience–white people can contribute to the dialogue about race, or is their role really to just listen?

Oh sure. I don’t think that white people, or people with privilege in any context, lack opportunities to talk about themselves and their processes. There are lots of comments responding to my original essay that talk about white privilege 101 spaces where people can go and make it about themselves if that is useful to their process. There lots of people engaging in that kind of anti-racist work. And I’m sure there are more books and blog posts than I can shake a stick at (or insert other antiquated expression here).

And maybe it is useful for white people to have these conversations amongst themselves. I’m not white, so I don’t know what white folks need to do to get there. But I do know that in that essay I wrote, I listed some things that I don’t find helpful, that I would like white people to think about while they are writing about getting there, especially when their audience includes people of colour.

I would also ask people, “when you own your own racism, what do you do next?” Because stopping at the confessional, or that moment of hope about doing better in the future doesn’t seem like a full step forward. It seems like the beginning of thinking about maybe moving forward to address internalized racism. And I’m definitely worried if that is where we are at in terms of addressing racism in mainstream feminism. I would ask, “if you are talking about your own racism, what are you contributing to the anti-racist movement?” “Is this exercise helpful?” “Who does it benefit/disadvantage further?”

Do white people have certain responsibilities in addressing race?

If white people would like to live in a world without racism, yes they have certain responsibilities in addressing this racism. If folks with white skin privilege don’t work to interrupt that, what does it say about their feelings about equity? bell hooks speaks frequently to the “white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy”. Doesn’t that sound like a terrible system in which to live? I would like to do my best to address that, and part of that includes acknowledging my privilege, and taking actions to address that privilege.

I don’t want to tell people exactly what to do. I don’t know exactly what to do. When I wrote that essay, I knew some approaches did not sit well with me. When I think about moving forward against racism, I sit down with the writings of bell hooks, or Audre Lorde, or I get on the internet and check out Racialicious, or the Crunk Feminist Collective, and I look at all of the voices, and experiences, and opinions, and actions that are happening. I check out what people are saying on Twitter. I check out those young people occupying the Florida legislature.  I don’t look at myself first, or exclusively. I look outwards, as well as inwards, and I go from there.

When I speak in my essay about having these types of conversations, “not as a service to you, rather because of your responsibility to me,” I am asking people to stop for a moment and think about this. It is not a one-way street. There is no way I can have these conversations without giving something of myself. It is a back and forth, and often, the cost to me will be more than it will be to you. That is inevitable. What I am asking instead is that white people do better anti-racist work regardless of what they get out of it. There should be no sense of entitlement that people of colour will meet you in the middle. The work is of value, no matter what you get back from it as a white person. That is what I mean by responsibility.

Has the Trayvon Martin case changed the way you think about race?

I don’t think that the Trayvon Martin case has changed the way I think about race. But it has changed the way I talk about it. I am still experiencing a pain so deep it is difficult to express. The first time I’ve really slept since Zimmerman was acquitted was the day after The Toast published my article, because there was at least some outlet for my pain. This case changed the way that I talk about race, because my heart will be forever bruised by his death and the injustice of that trial. I am not the same, and my practice will not be either. My voice is stronger through my pain.

You objected to two articles in which writers exposed readers to racism by recounting comments or beliefs that they then condemned. Why doesn’t the context, the condemnation, matter here?

There is more than one context to discuss here. The authors know that racism is wrong, and they can sometimes identify it in themselves and others. Fine. That is one way to read those articles.

My question is, how many confessionals do we need? How many times do we need to re-centre whiteness? How long is this going to be the conversation? Because it’s not new. I haven’t found it to be particularly helpful. And, as I’ve said, it usually really hurts to read about.

The context that I am making sense of this through is my own. I want to know:  “How does focusing on or reinforcing white privilege move the discussion forward?” “How is saying you are at times racist, or perhaps that you are less racist than you have been, or that other people are more racist than you actually forward an anti-racist cause?” And I think that people of colour have been asking for a different approach for a long time. I don’t think I said anything new about that really.

That being said, lots of people will disagree with what I said. And people will have lots of reasons for that. I have stated what I think and I hope if nothing else, it may give pause, and some time to listen for people that have a relationship of privilege with these issues.

By proceeding so cautiously in the way we talk about race—curtailing forms of expression because of the harm or offense they may cause—are we underestimating each other?

By continuing to talk about race the way that the articles spoke to it, I think we are underestimating each other, and ourselves. When I read articles like the ones I critiqued, I ask myself “why the authors aren’t holding themselves to a higher level of anti-racist practice?” Because those analyses stop short of the type of change and thoughtfulness I would like to see added to the dialogue.

We’re not painting each other as overly fragile or delicate?

I think this question may fall into the “are we being too politically correct?” line of questioning, which I reject wholly. As long as the approaches we are using haven’t overthrown privilege, then we need to continue examining them. I don’t think mindfulness about the well being of others, or a commitment to not reinforcing oppression with our actions is ever a problem. And I don’t feel comfortable framing mindfulness about this in terms of the “fragility” or “delicateness” of the feelings of people experiencing marginalization. It is about what it means to be working towards being an ally, and that is about being respectful of others, among other things.

Are we prioritizing short-term comfort over long-term growth as a society?  

If long-term growth about society requires causing additional short-term pain to people experiencing marginalization, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say we’re probably doing it wrong.