Successful activist efforts by students of color have occurred as students at hundreds of campuses across the nation advocate for change. See stories from the University of Missouri, Claremont McKenna, Occidental College, Dartmouth, and Yale, just to name a few.
In the midst of these empowering actions, media outlets have also been covering a debate about microaggressions. On one side of the argument are those who believe microaggressions – everyday slights and snubs, whether intentional or unintentional, that make people feel like they don’t belong – must be actively challenged and avoided. On the other side are those who suggest people of color who are demanding faculty and fellow students become sensitive to the impacts of historical racism are furthering a culture of victimhood and threaten free speech.
Sandy Banks, an African American columnist for the Los Angeles Times, weighs in on many topics I find important. Her most recent article, titled “Petty slights and snubs that can leave deep wounds,” recounts her experiences with the kind of overt racism the majority of U.S. citizens now soundly reject. She then writes of another set of challenges that deeply affected her during her college years. Today we call them microaggressions. She refers to the over 5,000 studies which suggest that these slights can negatively impact a students’ academic performance and mental health.
Banks goes on to tell of an email she recently received from a white man in his 50’s named James Vaughan. He wrote to her of his experience in Kenya during his college years when he recognized what it felt like to be regularly overlooked and/or mistreated due to his race. He noted, “If I was so frustrated after just six weeks of this, how would I feel after months, years and generations of this?” Banks then writes that, “Vaughn understands why some people consider the concept of microaggressions a mere contrivance of the thin-skinned. ‘White America doesn’t have the experience of the buildup of subtle racism, so they don’t know why something that to them seems small is really actually a big deal,’ he said.”
What prompted me to write this blog is what came next. Banks recounts Vaughn saying, “This is such a minefield for white people…If we could have honest conversations it would help.” And then, “I see the anger and the protests, which I can now feel empathy for. But honestly, I don’t have a clue as to what I am supposed to do about it.”
Those words from Vaughan about not knowing what to do ended the article. That gave me pause. Vaughan’s sense of empathy mixed with confusion over how to play a helpful role in this mess is quite common. The good news is that many people are working toward solutions and can provide support and direction.
In that vein, here is my list of 7 things that should be done by white people who see the minefield and are hesitant to enter cross-race dialogue.
1. Become immersed in difference for an extended period of time.
Vaughan’s perspective was changed irrevocably by a six week experience in an African country. I also had my world upended when I said yes to opportunities that took me outside my comfort zone. The feeling of difference I experienced as the only white person in the room (regularly) was unimaginable to me prior to actually living it. I am not suggesting I was mistreated. I didn’t need to experience prejudice in order to recognize how different life felt when I was the ‘other’. For white people, spending an extended period of time outside the dominant majority provides a new angle. If approached with an open mind and heart, it is surprising what happens, what one notices, and what becomes important. This is one of the most effective ‘empathy builders’ I have experienced. If the constraints of daily life make this kind of step impossible, there are other things that can be done…
2. Recognize the impacts of differential racial identity development.
Read “Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations about Race,” by Beverly Daniel Tatum. It’s not a new book, but it was as a national best seller for very good reason. It explains how people of color and white people have very different racial identity development processes. In brief, people of color are taught by society very, very early on that their race is meaningful. White people, on the other hand, tend to receive the never-ending societal message that we are individuals who will be treated as such. Without going into the hour-long presentation I could give on all that contributes to and arises from this fundamental difference, suffice it to say that it provides the fodder for many cross-race misunderstandings. Essentially, white people’s lack of early and sustained attention toward our racial identity leaves us with an underdeveloped vocabulary and skill set regarding race. All too often, this leaves us anxious, resistant, and defensive. Knowing this, we can begin to take productive steps to learn what we missed out on earlier in our lives.
3. Be humble and courageous at the same time.
Read The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown and take her fundamental messages to heart. One, embrace our imperfection. Our ineptness on race issues doesn’t mean we’re bad people. But, it does mean we have a lot of work to do. We need to be humble about this without falling into shame. Two, lead with our vulnerability. In a culture where being vulnerable is generally considered a sign of weakness, admitting that we’re unskilled, nervous, and afraid of making mistakes takes courage. What I’ve found, however, is that it is the single most effective way to begin a fruitful, open, and authentic dialogue across race. This is because doing this honestly indicates that we are showing up as a learner. This makes a huge difference.
4. Accept that we will offend people even as we try to learn.
The minefield Vaughan speaks of is real. The anxiety most white people feel regarding discussing race issues is well placed because we generally lack the skills to say the right thing at the right moment. Racial issues are complex, and it can take years to become adept at recognizing the nuances that are operative at any given moment. After a decade doing this work, my anxiety is markedly lessened. But, there is only one way through this situation. We must not only reject the idea of “colorblindness”. We must also confront what pervades dominant white culture: conflict avoidance. There is no way around the fact that we will mess up. We will sometimes trigger angry responses that surprise us with their force, and we will have to be okay with that. It takes courage to step into the fray willingly. If we show up authentically, though, our sincerity will be evident. Over time trust may build, and we can grow into people who skillfully engage cross-racial dialogues.
5. Avoid relying on validation from the person of color we relate to most easily.
Just as white people have differences of opinion, so do people of color. We all are complex beings, shaped by a myriad of factors. This may be obvious. However, when white people are newly entering race conversations, it can be confusing to hear people of color disagree. How do we know who is right? It is common for white people trying to sort through the minefield of race to locate a person of color who agrees with them and then to say, “Ah, well, that’s what I thought.” Whether consciously done or not, this is the lazy way out of confronting our conflict avoidance. It also stops us from learning something new and taking critical feedback seriously.
My suggestion is that we listen for the truth within each person’s perspective. This is what can lead us into a nuanced and full understanding. More importantly, it will help us avoid the charge that we are selecting the “easy” way out by aligning with those who offer the least challenge to the status quo. For an illustration, see how the current Mayor of Los Angeles is being accused of just such a side step in an article about Black Lives Matter activists.
6. Adopt a new standard for our lives.
We need to be inclusive, not just appreciative of diversity, actively anti-racist, not just opposed to racism, and race conscious, not colorblind. Doing so means that we must confront the way historical and continuing power structures play their roles in our lives and cross-race interactions. Our standard for ourselves regarding race issues has been far too low. We haven’t been pushed to develop a complex analysis of how racism pervades societal structures, and it shows. It shows up when a Dean of Students says that a school needs to do a better job including those who don’t fit “our mold” when speaking of students of color who feel regularly mistreated. It shows when we fail to recognize that dressing up like people from traditionally marginalized groups is hurtful and wrong.
Times are changing, and we need to develop new skills. Being well-intentioned is simply not good enough. We need to be racially competent. We need to learn how to avoid enacting microaggressions. My parents surely didn’t learn these skills during their schooling, and I didn’t either. The current crop of teachers also have not learned all they need to know to do this well. Being culturally competent may be part of teacher education standards, but this doesn’t mean teachers are trained to navigate nuanced cross-race conversations among their students. This is ongoing, deep, extended work and proficiency takes many years to develop. This means we all have to raise our game and support one another in this learning process. The health of our diverse society depends on it.
7. Take action.
We need to take action to learn and use our voice to help spread the knowledge so more of us can develop the skills needed to thrive in a diverse society. There are so many resources available now that it is harder and harder for white people to claim that our ignorance is not willful. Here are a few things that might help:
• Read Witnessing Whiteness for a comprehensive investigation of why it’s so important to learn to notice the nuances of race, what happens when white people begin to confront the issue, and how to create a positive white anti-racist identity. Start a book group using the free workshop series available at www.witnessingwhiteness.com to deepen knowledge.
• Watch videos like those uploaded of Shakti Butler or Joy DeGruy that provide insight into the complexity of the issue. A number of Resource Lists can also offer direction, such as those offered by Ta Nehisi Coates or the Social Justice Training Institute.
• Join a list-serve or sign up to receive anti-racist newsletters. There are many white people sharing info to continue our learning. This is a great way to stay engaged even when life seem overloaded. Let the information come to you. You can subscribe to my newsletter at www.shellytochluk.com if you’re interested.
• Take an ethnic studies course at a local university or seek out other community dialogues. Take a risk and engage in conversation.
• Attend the White Privilege Conference in Philadelphia in April 2016.
• Join an anti-racism group in your area. If there isn’t one, think about starting one. There are organizations that have been doing this for a long time and can help. Consistent and sustained effort is more likely when we are part of a community of people striving together. See SURJ or AWARE-LA as examples.
The increasingly vocal calls for change on campuses and elsewhere require white people to change. This is warranted, overdue, and fundamentally liberating. It is a call toward a next step in our society’s evolution, one I believe will ultimately strengthen us, even as it appears to first invite us into confusion. After all, building something new often requires breaking something down. The attempt to be “colorblind” is not serving us well. If we can confront our fear of conflict and enter the fray with a whole heart, we will find that meaningful engagement is the only thing that will bridge the racial divide.