11 Things White People Should Stop Saying to Black People Immediately
Whenever a black youth like Michael Brown gets shot, or a racist blowhard like Donald Sterling gets exposed, many white people on and off the Internet react with remarks brimming with the ugliness of anti-black racism. And it absolutely has to stop.
More often than not, many white people resort to putting the onus back on the people who are experiencing the pain of racism. This tactic often derails the broader conversation, allowing white people to continue ignoring their own biases, and prevents a frank examination of the larger systems and powers accountable for enshrining the dehumanization of and discrimination against blacks and people of color. That larger system is white supremacy, a version of which has little to do with neo-Nazis or the KKK as most would assume.
A growing number of black people have been ruthlessly beaten, shot and killed by white police officers of late, a fact all too easy to gloss over for white people who will continue moving through American life with white privilege. White privilege means not having to deal with the disproportionate impact of police brutality, racial profiling and exclusion from everyday social settings and public accommodations.
Rather than tackle a thorny issue with tact and honesty, however, privilege also allows people to ignore the conversation, mock it or walk away from it altogether. But it doesn't have to be that way. Americans don't have to let this type of ignorance stop us from examining the many subtle, insidious attitudes and beliefs that help perpetuate racism through microaggressions — a term coined by African-American psychologist Chester Pierce and further developed by Derald Wing Sue and researchers at Columbia University to explain smaller instances of systemic, cumulative racial indignities.
Here are a few problematic examples that can be used to help elevate a much-needed dialogue as the images streaming out of Ferguson, Mo., bring us face to face with America's legacy of institutional intolerance.
1. "Why do black people have to make everything about race?"
If it seems as though black people talk about race so much, that's because America, as a government and as a power structure, has made everything about race, from the moment Columbus landed in 1492 to the recent shooting of Michael Brown at the hands of a cop with institutional power and privilege on his side.
White people will never fully understand how racism impacts the everyday lives of black people and people of color. That's because they benefit from a racial system that enshrines institutional racism and racial prejudice as the rule of law and social order.
For those who aren't already actively anti-racist, however, exercising empathy is a good place to start. Doing so means taking the lead from black people, listening to their stories of racialized pains and struggles, and reflecting on the ways privilege minimizes those hindrances for white people.
If the continuing conversation about racism upsets you, take a second to imagine what it's like for the black people who deal with racism everyday, and who are tired of thinking and talking about it, but discuss it anyway because for them, it's not just a dinner table dialogue.
2. "I don't have white privilege. Stop saying that I have white privilege."
White privilege isn't inherently about being raised in an affluent, two-parent home with high educational attainment and markers of upward mobility in American society. White privilege is the many built-in perks afforded to white people by virtue of being born with white skin and white ethnicity in a social and legal system that enforces white supremacy as the rule of law. It's not having to seriously think about or discuss how the situation in Ferguson will affect friends and relatives or even how a broader justice system will work to protect (or to not protect) the constitutional rights of black people.
White privilege is being able to walk away from the conversation, or to stop reading a piece about racism when it stirs up discomfort, rather than wrestling with the subject matter and owning up to personal biases and limits to understanding.
White privilege can be used for good too, of course, if those who wield it actively challenge the prejudices of their white friends and reject white supremacy. But as long as white people keep denying their privilege, white officers with badges and institutional power on their side will continue killing blacks with impunity.
3. "I'm not racist. I have black friends."
Aside from the lazy logic of such a statement, this phrase describes the phenomenon wherein people use black people as accessories and distractions.
Having a black friend, or any relationship with a person of color, doesn't mean your everyday habits and politics are exempt from having racist implications. For proof, look no further than Donald Sterling, who told his girlfriend, a person of color, to stop bringing black people with her to basketball games because he feels blacks are inferior.
4. "These protesters speak so well, but they're such violent people."
Most of the protests in Ferguson have been peaceful, but that fact hasn't stopped some characterizations from making it appear as though a race war is brewing. In effect, blacks are being typecasted as loud, irrational people who shouldn't be paid attention to, when they actually have valid concerns about the abuses from their local police force.
These types of remarks go hand in hand with an amazement about how poised, well-spoken and presentable some black protesters have been amid the chaos. In other contexts, "You speak so well" may sound like earnest praise, and sometimes it's received by black people as a commendation because of the apparent intent. However, more often than not, this sentiment is a backhanded compliment that assumes most black people speak with rudimentary grammar and communicate using "lesser" linguistic patterns such as Ebonics.
If a black person has great oratory skills, it's certainly possible to say so in a way that isn't infantilizing or denigrating. Talk about the content of the remarks and other communication dynamics they employed to be effective, but please do not assume that someone else's method of communication is automatically inferior just because it sounds different.
5. "You probably voted for Barack Obama just because he's black."
President Obama issued a statement on Tuesday regarding Brown's shooting death, and finally spoke Thursday about it as he would any other major policy issue, noting a Justice Department investigation already in progress, and that there's "never an excuse" for police brutality or excessive force against peaceful protesters.
Unlike many other presidents and political leaders before, Obama has a better understanding of black issues, given his lived experiences as a person of color and his education. But don't treat black people as though they can't make an informed political decision that uses a cost-benefit analysis, or even a pragmatic approach to politics, in order to cast their vote.
The vast majority of African-Americans vote for Democratic candidates like President Obama in major elections, but this is often because of a sense of "linked racial fate" — in other words, the candidate that represents the issues most relevant to the everyday lives of black people is most likely to win a disproportionate share of votes from black constituents. So it's not as much about skin color as it is about positions on issues, which is how most anyone else votes.
Otherwise, people like former Tea Party Republican congressman Allen West would have swept the the black vote in their elections, despite their problematic views on issues affecting black people.
6. "It's not fair that you all can say the n-word, but we can't."
The n-word has hundreds of years of slavery, segregation and institutional racism attached to it. But in recent decades, it's been reclaimed by black people, which now means that some blacks use it in a variety of different ways, often to refer to one another in a not-so-derogatory manner.
But just because some black people have reclaimed the word in their everyday vernacular, or even in their cultural productions, doesn't mean white people get to participate in that same reclamation. White people irrevocably lost that opportunity the day the n-word coincided with lynchings, whippings, mob beatings and police shootings.
7. "I'm clutching my purse or my wallet when you walk past, because I think you might steal from me."
Anyone of any race can perpetrate a mugging, or commit any other crime that involves physical or personal property. But because of how white overrepresentation in America's police departments and the justice system impacts the enforcement of laws, research shows there's a disproportionate impact on how blacks are caught and publicly held accountable for their wrongdoing. The situation in Ferguson mirrors that very reality, as the Los Angeles Times shows, based on a report from the Missouri attorney general's office about racial profiling in that state. That might explain why some people feel as though every time they hear about a violent crime or theft, they see a black mugshot or hear a name that "sounds" black.
It also removes accountability from larger social systems, such as the school-to-prison pipeline and the prison-industrial complex, that may put someone in a position where they must choose between not having basic needs and stealing from someone who can afford them. Instead, disproportionately white police departments pull out all the stops in a show of excessive force, protecting white privilege and white wealth in the process.
8. "I don't understand why you people..."
The phrase "you people" is coded language, a euphemism for the n-word, black people, outsiders or "the other." By being an outsider to whiteness and white supremacy, "you people" suggests that blacks (and other people of color) do not belong in the same rooms, venues or halls of power as white people.
9. "When I see you, I don't see race."
Color-blind racism is still racism. Without facing history and the present realities, it's impossible to understand how racism affects the everyday life of peoples of all races and ethnicities.
Almost everyone, save for those who ascribe to a racist system or retain deep-seated racial prejudice, wants to be able to unite across races, ethnicities and cultures to live in harmony. But with the systems and structures of previous generations still in place, which codify and promote racism in politics and everyday life, we're nowhere close to being post-race or being able to "not see" skin color.
But there are moments every day when that racial divide is bridged in a way that is mutually beneficial and even life-giving for all parties involved. For proof, take a look at this black family, which welcomed a white reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch into their home for safe shelter and sustenance while he reports about the situation in Ferguson. It's an illuminating example of what an authentic cross-cultural embrace can look like.
10. "If black men don't want to get stopped by police, maybe they shouldn't dress that way."
It shouldn't matter what a young person is wearing, or how they walk down the street, or how they talk, how they speak or where they come from. It doesn't matter if black men wear suits everywhere, or stop sagging their pants, or stop wearing hoodies — a "classy" dress code isn't going to stop police brutality.
In fact, many white young people wear the same kinds of clothing, yet are not subjected to the same kinds of the racialized subtexts. On average, a white man in a hoodie is less likely to be perceived as a threat by a police officer or concerned citizen. Indeed, the moment a self-appointed Florida neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman thought he could accost and harass a black young man wearing a hoodie and jeans, the situation snowballed into that young man's death.
It is never the victim's fault. And no change of clothing will hold the people and systems accountable for murdering young black people.
11. "Racism ended in the 1960s. Stop making such a big deal out of nothing."
This statement couldn't be farther from the truth. In fact, if you pay attention to news coverage, there's a laundry list of big and small issues proving that American racism is far from being a thing of the past.
The killings of Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and many other nameless, faceless black young people — all at the hands of police and whites — come at a time when black women like Marissa Alexander are simultaneously being denied the "stand your ground" defense and instead threatened with decades in jail for firing a warning shot at an allegedly abusive spouse.
When it comes to the reality in Ferguson, Mo., the images speak for themselves. And that unsavory reality begins with the family that Brown leaves behind, including a father and mother struggling with the pain of burying their son because of the very people who should be keeping them safe.
Image Credit: AP