Friday, March 14, 2008

White People & Racism: Speak Up!

On Wednesday my partner and I both experienced incredibly stressful days. I spent mine trying to educate people who should know better about transgender inclusion. She spent the day hearing racist remarks.

Now, it is my job to educate people and frankly there are very few cigender people whom I would feel at ease with were they to be in my shoes. So while I may moan about the ignorance of my community, I am happy that I have the opportunity to speak. However, it is not my partner’s job to educate people about race. As a Black woman the constant education of white folks does not fall onto her shoulders, even though it appears that most white folks believe it should.

I feel some need to protect this student’s anonymity and there is no need to repeat ignorance or “scientific” racism so I will not tell the story in full. So that this post makes sense, however, I will say that my partner was sitting in a class where she is one of only a few students of color watching a film about a photographer famous for his blatantly fetishistic photos of Black women. A white student made a side-comment on the realism of the photographs that went unchallenged.

When my partner told me her story I was mortified. I was not appalled at the white student who blatantly said racist things about Black women and body type but at the countless other white students sitting nearby who did not call the student out. These comments have been made before and will continue to be made so this student’s individual belief in racist stereotypes rooted in the science of eugenics isn’t shocking. What is shocking is that other white people let the comment slide by. Perhaps because my partner was sitting so near them these students assumed she was going to speak up. Or perhaps because the comment was made while watching a film they thought it rude to interrupt the film to discuss the comment.

White people – we have to be responsible for each other. Institutionally, no one is teaching us how to be antiracist and no one is telling us how to tackle our own white privilege. This knowledge has to be passed on from person to person; we have to educate ourselves if schools refuse to do so. When you see something or hear something you have to say something. This is our duty as white people – to educate and challenge ourselves and to then challenge and educate other white folks.

I have been guilty of not speaking up. I have been guilty of perpetuating stereotypes and not noticing when a publication, class, party, or whatever was rooted in white privilege and benefited from racism. So when I call on white people to speak up I am also calling on white people to challenge me. In previous posts I have said that the most important thing when challenging racism is communication, and I still believe that. When I was first realizing my white privilege I often felt silenced by reprimands on my racism. I became mortified of my statements and afraid that no one would ever take my comments on any other subject seriously. While doubtless some people took longer to like me because of past comments my commitment to anti-racism work allowed them to trust in me and continue to support me. Further, while I sometimes wish comments could have been delivered with less force, I am sure that students of color in the class (and white students) were grateful to have me be quiet so that they could participate in school without hearing racist comments and questions all the time. So I am grateful to the people who spoke up and challenged me, as they were the people who caused me to commit to exploring my whiteness and challenging my privilege.

It is tiring challenging racism. It is tiring trying to fit one’s mind around the myriad ways we have been privileged and it can seem hopeless because so few people have gone the route of white anti-racism before. Challenging good friends can be incredibly difficult, challenging bosses or professors can bring consequences, and being challenged can bring about extreme feelings of shame, defensiveness, and guilt.

None of that truly matters as long as we speak from the heart and we speak respectfully. If our goal is to eliminate and illuminate racism and white privilege (and not to show off before people of color) then all of this is worth it.

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