“Not all white people”

I have a very modest goal for (me and) my white colleagues:

To be able to read something like José Luis Vilson’s recent post, or Mia McKenzie’s recent post, without feeling defensive.

A modest goal, for sure. But a necessary one, and one that will allow us to move forward.

Each of these posts is by a Black (/Latino) writer, with teachers as (at least) part of the intended audience, and each calls out racism in schools. (And sexism—for which I have an equivalent goal for my male colleagues—it shouldn’t be hard to reread this post replacing race with gender wherever it appears.)

When white people read this writing, there is an instinctive reaction that begins and ends with Not all white people. That is the defensive response I hope we can do away with.

Here’s the problem with that response: Racism is not about white people’s understanding of the nuances and varieties of white people. It is about the lived experience of people of color.

“Not all white people” is a racist response.

“Not all white people” denies the experience of the writer.

“Not all white people” cuts off further conversation about race.

This leads me to a second claim.

Refusing to discuss race is a racist act.

There is a certain brand of white liberalism, for example, that believes noticing race to be a racist act. This view makes it impossible to talk about race.

In such a climate, asking a colleague what he knows about Somali culture in a quest to better understand a classroom incident is called into question as an act of racism because some white people engage in the same behaviors, and therefore there should be nothing to ask about. In such a climate we cannot speak of the vastly differential racial demographics of developmental math courses and College Algebra courses at the college level. To do so is seen as racist. Because—after all—we give the same placement tests to everybody.

Now a question for my white colleagues: Why is “racist” that rare varitey of action that we allow the power to define us?

We can live with duality in other areas of our lives: I did/said a ___ thing, but this does not make me a ___ person.

I have done many stupid things in my life, and I accept the potential for doing more stupid things in the future. Yet I am not a stupid person. I am comfortable owning that something I did was stupid. I can wish that I hadn’t done that stupid thing. But I don’t let the stupid thing define me.

Furthermore, it is OK to talk about how stupid something I did was, and the goal in talking about it is to ensure that I don’t do something that stupid again—or at least to eliminate this particular brand of stupidity from my repertoire.

But we treat racism differently. We pretend that only racists do racist things. (Again, do only stupid people do stupid things?) Therefore, we cannot own our racist actions. If we admit that we have done, thought or said something racist, we become racists.

This mindset—this inability to speak of our racist actions; to name them (even the inadvertent ones) as racist—keeps us from being able to talk about our mistaken ideas and actions. But talking about them would help us to avoid perpetuating and repeating them.

You don’t need to own the racism of your fellow white people. You don’t need to identify as a racist because someone else has done something racist, nor even because you have.

No.

You need to (I need to) honor the experiences of others. When a racist incident is brought to your attention, you need not to explain that “not all white people…” or that you have not experienced this. Doing so puts the focus back on you as a white person (which, again, is a racist act; and which, again, you—I—can own as an act without needing to own the title racist).

See, you don’t need to explain the experience of others away. Instead you need to listen. You need to acknowledge that racist acts are committed in the world, and that our goal is to reduce and ultimately to eliminate their incidence. Pretending—through denial or through silence—that racist acts do not exist is itself a racist act. Pretending—through denial or through silence—that racist acts have relevance is a racist act. Pretending that racist acts can only be committed by people who are racists through and through—this is not an effective means to the end.

I understand that my goal is modest: Reading accounts of racism, written by people of color, without becoming defensive. But we have ample empirical evidence that the goal has not yet been attained, and it is clear to me that moving forward to really dealing with racism is impossible in its face.

Achieving this goal allows us to listen.

And listening—to our own hearts, and to the hearts and experiences of others—is where learning begins.

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10 responses to ““Not all white people”

  1. As soon as someone starts defining what responses mean before they’ve actually been made, I instantly want to make that response to argue that it need not mean what is claimed, and further to argue that no one has the right to tell me what I mean. That’s a right each person reserves for him/herself unless s/he explicitly abrogates it to one or more others.

    That said, I’m reminded of the talk by Tim Rice I attended at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, MI a few years ago. One of the first question posers after Tim finished his remarks was a young man (maybe 20 or so), who asked a rather predictable question for someone in his ethnic/age group: “Should I feel guilty the sins of my fathers?”

    Wise’s answer struck me as excellent. Rather than transcribing, I offer a link to the video with just that question and Wise’s reply:

    I think this view gives a lot more room for dialogue. I’m fine with anyone telling me what their views are. I’m not fine with being told what my views are, or what they “must” be if I say X or do Y. People are more complex than what we reduce them to with a playbook. Life isn’t a roman a clef, and no one, myself included, has The Key to reading simplistically what or who I am.

    The ‘Net increasingly reflects attitudes and beliefs of my progressive colleagues about speech. I must say that I’m often very disappointed in what I see, read, and hear. George Will wrote something mostly pretty stupid in WaPo over the weekend. I would say, “George Will made an ass of himself,” but he long ago accomplished that a thousand-fold. And frankly, I’m not convinced that he was 100% wrong in every particular. But he managed to make it absurdly easy for his critics to pillory him. Problem is, the published critics have seemingly decided that actually representing fairly and accurately what he wrote wasn’t enough. They seem to be competing for which pundit can paraphrase Will to maximum disadvantage. It’s not enjoyable to read after actually bothering to read the original column. And of course, my pointing that out subjects me to vehement attacks for being a sexist, a promoter of rape culture, an apologist for male chauvinism, and of course for “mansplaining.” (I have a bizarre soft spot for that truly horrid bit of slang. Guilty pleasure?)

    Does any of that pertain here? I think it does. But then, I always think everything I write is amazingly on point. At least when I write it. :)

    Bottom line: I don’t feel guilty for being white or for being male. I am highly critical of white and male privilege, but I don’t feel obligated to swallow or follow anyone else’s party line on how I’m supposed to express my thinking or what thoughts I’m allowed to have. I can’t stop others from judgment me, however wrongly, based on their views and biases or codes of conduct. But I’m pretty confident that they don’t have the hotline to Truth, either.

    • It is not at all clear to me, MPG that you are arguing with me here. It feels a bit more like a riff/rant that my piece reminded you of.

      I have no interest in telling people what to think. I am simply calling for white people to be aware of the defense mechanism that gets triggered when race is mentioned, and to try to override that mechanism in order to listen.

      I am definitely not asking you to feel guilty for the sins of your fathers. I am asking you to listen and to remember that racism (and sexism) are about the experiences and lives of others, not about your understanding of whether all white people are the causes of those experiences.

  2. This is excellent, Christopher. As are the two post to which you linked. I will be passing all of them along to my white affinity group at school, as I’m sure you (and the other bloggers) would be okay with that.

  3. Jenny Jorgensen

    Thank you Christopher for the great two reads. I, unfortunately work in a very homogenous district. I appreciated the articles and clarification of racism and that sometimes comments are said that aren’t meant to be racist but actually are.

    Jenny

  4. Hello Jenny.

    I think you can doubly benefit from Christopher’s post. (You mention the first benefit in your comment – your own learning.) The second benefit is bringing this learning to your homogeneous staff. I don’t mean you should go preach or even ask your colleagues to read Christopher’s post. I mean you are now better equipped to respond to racist remarks that you hear in the teachers’ lounge. (Maybe I over-generalize but I’m imagining that that happens some time.)

    I’ll follow the lead of my colleague above and try to embed a video that might apply.

  5. I guess the embed didn’t work. The link does work, though.

  6. Actually it’s fine to say “not all white people” and risk being perceived as racist as much as it is to try the more approved way of speaking and jump on the band wagon where the intellectual admits yeah “we are all racist on some level…” Because the bottom line is we haven’t made progress much at all according to the milliennials and everyone feels defensive. And if we’re trying to discuss racism in the first place with any group of people “generalizing” any other group and we all know the world is globally dominated by white patriarchal society and breaks further down into various colored patriarchal societies… and the real math is that if we don’t do something about climate change we are “stupid”. Gun lobbyists are racist and stupid. Energy companies are polluting, racist and stupid. The USA is an arms dealer abroad and at home. We ‘re doing it for the energy race and the technology race. There was a Nova ScienceNow special hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson discussing climate change and what we can still do. It was hopeful and well reasoned. All other topics aside, if any humans matter to any other human, clean the oceans, air, soil, and grow clean food.

  7. Pingback: “Not All White People” | Five Twelve Thirteen

  8. Pingback: Listening and Learning from Educators of Color | Number Loving Beagle

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