After the release of the movie and TV series “Dear White People” I began thinking about the things I have long wished I could explain to some white people. Though the first season of the Netflix series was enjoyable, I definitely have some differences in my beliefs about how certain issues were handled within the show. Certainly, there are many feelings dealing with race and we will all deal with them differently. The biggest thing for me is establishing understanding on both ends of the spectrum, but in order to get there, we have a long way to go. Here are 5 things I wish white people understood.
1) Race is a social construct that was created to benefit those in positions of power. Historically, power was related to wealth and class, not the color of ones skin. “Race” was not advantageous until the 18th century.
The short history lesson: The Origin of the Idea of Race (see below) indicates that during the 17th century, Irish, Native Indians and Africans were all enslaved and were treated very similarly. Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) is an example of white, Indian and African slaves coming together in rebellion against the colonial government. As the demand for labor grew, it became apparent that white and Indian people were not suitable slaves. Africans were able to withstand harsher labor and were immune to most diseases, causing slave owners to rely more heavily on Africans. Additionally, the social order became threatened as poor free white people desired more rights, such as land and property. Colonial leaders suggested turning solely to African labor, in an effort to guard against more rebellion from poor white people. Threats to the social order of the time motivated the construction of racial ideologies but none of these ideas were factual or based in scientific evidence at all. By the start of the 18th century, this shift had completely fixed the system that created an illusion that poor white people would eventually gain status as they were elevated above the lowest class, slaves. This illusion was maintained with harsh news laws and was justified with the fake presumption that Africans were uncivilized heathens who needed colonists to “save them from themselves”. Once the poor white people believed they would gain status, they turned their backs on the Africans whom they were once allied with.
Though many laws have been changed to give black people rights they had not had during slavery, the system is still in place. Race is still widely viewed as holding real meaning and black people are widely viewed as somehow fundamentally different. Ask yourself, how many stereotypes have you believed in the past or currently still believe? BE HONEST!
For the longer history lesson: visit The Origin of the Idea of Race
2) White privilege is simple. It is each and every time you have access to something that people of color do not. The common examples; the color of band-aids (beige) or the available hair products in a basic drugstore (mainly for straight hair). While these examples are valid and impact the way that black and brown people navigate throughout society, culture bias is often overlooked and is another way in which privilege rears itself.
Gradually throughout my adolescence and into my adulthood, it has become apparent that black culture makes some white people feel uncomfortable. Because white people are the majority and therefore represent the dominant culture, black culture is inaccessible to those who are not actively in relationships with black people or immersed in black communities. This manifests as privilege in a few different ways. First, most white people never have to feel like the “odd” person in the room, and secondly, they can feel confident that they’ll find someone who relates to their experience or culture in any scenario. Don’t believe this matters?
Imagine being in a networking event, or a job fair or any situation you can think of where you want to “get ahead” in some way. Most people will be of a certain ethnicity and there will be certain cultural expectations on how to interact. A person of color may not be able to interact according to the rules they are familiar with, and are subject to behave according to “white people’s rules”. This can and does, keep many people of color from reaching their fullest potential. It also positions black people in a way that requires them to censor themselves and it can be mentally exhausting to always have to guard white people from your “blackness”. There is an underlying requirement to be as non-black as possible, in order to avoid judgement or….fear.
3) When involved in discussions about race; the first rule for white people is to listen, then listen some more, then listen again. Once the person of color has shared their experiences and completed their thoughts, please ask questions for understanding and to clarify misunderstandings. But under NO circumstances should a white person tell a person of color how they should discuss race, how they should protest, how they are wrong, or explain racial issues to the person of color. The perspectives and support of white people are valued, but the first step to understanding is listening. In order to be a productive ally and to be able to explain these complex racial problems to others, understanding is key. If you want to understand, LISTEN.
The second rule; check your guilt. Guilt can be subconscious, and creates the desire to defend yourself against being considered a racist and to explain how you aren’t like your ancestors. It is an understandable response to highly sensitive discussions that involve how today’s white people, benefit from the racist history of America. However, guilt is an unproductive emotion and keeps you from having empathy because you are too busy defending yourself. Race discussions are intended to agitate because they shake up what has been normal for too long. Your honesty and participation are necessary in order to start undoing the harmful effects of America’s ugly history. You may not be guilty, but you aren’t innocent if you ignore racial problems and shrug it off like it isn’t your problem.
The third rule; claiming not to see color is a lie. If you are a citizen of the world, you have been exposed to stereotypes at some point in time. Because we are all socialized, it would be impossible to be completely without bias of some sort. This claim is usually a defense mechanism used to divert attention away from the target. Its time to stop avoiding what is already part of our society. Becoming aware of race will help us acknowledge our faults and call ourselves out in an effort to grow and change so that our futures aren’t dictated by race.
The fourth rule; having black friends, family or co-workers does not make you exempt from the conditioning we all get from the media and other messaging avenues. It also does not make you exempt from benefiting from your whiteness, because as we know white culture is the dominant culture.
4) On the topic of black natural hair; it is the choice of the individual to wear their hair as they choose. Straightened hair is great, but kinky, coily, or curly textured hair is also great. There is nothing unprofessional, or unkempt about wearing your hair the way it naturally grows. When white people choose to wear their naturally curly, wavy, frizzy, or straight hair it does not illicit discussion or outrage in the same way that black people do. It is time we start accepting the variety and differences of the ways in which we each have been made and the ways in which we need to care for our hair.
Secondly, hair touching is generally not welcomed. I would never dream of reaching out and touching someones hair, with whom I was not familiar or close with. I would hope others would behave the same way. Personal space much? Black people do not feel comfortable being petted or treated as an oddity that is stared at like a zoo animal. It is understandable to be curious or desire to ask questions about it because it is different from your own, but be respectful of each person’s feelings and choose your words carefully. Describing someone’s hair as wild, crazy, or interesting does not necessary read as a compliment. You may not be familiar with or accustomed to seeing kinky hair on a regular basis, but start getting used to it, it’s here to stay :).
I wrote about this last week, see here NATURAL HAIR, a political statement?
If you find yourself in a situation where you have questions about a hairstyle, or want to know more about it, there is a respectful way to ask questions about it. Try “Oh my goodness! Your hair is gorgeous! How did you get such luscious locks?” or “Wow your curls are so boingy and springy! I’ve always thought that would be so beautiful to have hair like that” (wait for the stranger to ask if you’d like to touch their hair). Or if you have a friend you are getting to know and want to ask about their hair, go ahead and ask. If you have a close friend and have wondered what their hair felt like, simply say ” I’ve always wondered what your hair felt like, would you mind if I touched it? In any scenario, be sure to make it clear that you respect them and their right to not want to be touched.
5) Being an ally for justice is something that people of color want from white people, but it requires continual learning and willingness to be in uncomfortable situations and conversations. Growth is uncomfortable. Discussions about race are hard to have, because it requires you to call yourself out for any ways in which you have been wrong or possibly benefited from a corrupt system. Changing the way you view something, or what you believe is always hard. One thing that should definitely be a priority is being around more people of color.
It is highly encouraged to intentionally place yourself in cultural events or community events, where you are likely to be the only person of your race. Just because an event is labeled “black”, does not make it exclusive to black people. You are welcomed to join so long as you come respectfully whether it be for fun, to learn something or to expose yourself to something new. It will certainly open your eyes to how it feels when you stand out. Standing out is a good thing, not because it gives you a taste of your own medicine, but because it allows you to empathize with those with whom you have not shared the same perspective. It is a much needed perspective shift. Being in a new position you can learn what it means to navigate a different culture, or experience a new culture, or simply learn what it means to be a person of that culture. Too often our ideas and assumptions are based on our narrow experiences with the group in question. The only way to expand your mindset is to have more experiences with people of color.
America is still mostly segregated, and segregation supports the theory that we are fundamentally different. Otherwise, why would it be necessary to be kept separately? Integration has been the goal for many years, but today it seems futile to mandate schools and neighborhoods into integration. For the longest time, white people have had more access to wealth, which enabled them to simply move away when they did not like the demographics of their current neighborhood or school. Because that is still true today, it is important that we change our mindsets in order to truly achieve integration and equality in the eyes of all.
Let’s start conversations around these 5 things, share this with friends/family/co-workers etc. I want to hear from you in the comments. What have your experiences been with black natural hair (whether you have natural hair, or you know someone who does or you have been in that awkward position of being a little too grabby ;))? Have you had uncomfortable conversations about race in which you wished someone understood your position, or have you had your mind transformed by having conversations with people of color? Or how you do think white people can become better allies, be specific? Is there something you would have added to the conversation? Whatever your experience has been, I want to hear from you. We can all learn from one another.
Smedley, Audrey. “Origin of the Idea of Race.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, Nov. 1997. Web. 25 July 2017.