Back Fence

White Responses Matter

Because there’s only one group that can end white privilege. The privileged.

By Kathryn Robinson November 16, 2016 Published in the December 2016 issue of Seattle Met

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Image: Adam Hancher

I was spinning on a bar stool in my friend’s pub when her son walked in. Early 20s, affable—white—the kid came in with some buddies, looking for something to do. His mom suggested they go downtown.

“Nah, there’s a Black Lives Matter rally on right now, and I don’t want to be anywhere near that.”

I looked at him, at his mom, at the patrons within earshot. All white. All silent. 

I’m white too: a descriptor I wouldn’t have thought to offer back before I grasped that whiteness, in the words of antiracism activist Tim Wise, isn’t “the floor model.” 

That was one steep learning curve ago. Somewhere between Michael Brown and the 15 black people killed at the hands of police in the 30 days before I write this—I saw my white privilege, really, for the first time. So I joined a group of white people, meeting monthly to support one another in countering it. Starting assumptions? Racism is perpetuated by bigots and by well-intentioned white people who benefit from their skin color. I benefit from mine daily. People of color can’t opt out. So white people who want to be part of the solution can’t either. 

Uncomfortable is one word for how this work makes me feel. Seriously crappy comes closer. 

My shame, of course, is monumentally not the point. It serves as a goad to action, however, which is the point. Namely: white people challenging other white people when they perpetuate stereotypes. It’s tricky work, not least because it can harden defenses. “How,” wrote Seattle’s congressional hopeful Pramila Jayapal, “do we call people in even as we call them out?”

In my life, some callouts have come easier than others. Sure, there’s Uncle Bigot at the holiday dinner table who demeans in broad, buffoonish brushstrokes. Far tougher in my experience, and much more common in Seattle, are subtle prejudices, tossed off with jocular nonchalance by a white speaker who assumes the complicity of his white audience. 

“Ah, you go to Garfield!” a middle-aged family friend chuckled to a white teen at a Christmas party. “So you’re dating black boys now?” The girl, stunned, blurted that she wasn’t dating anyone—then kicked herself later for not saying, “If I like someone I’ll date him, whatever his race.” 

“It just felt too intense to take a lighthearted conversation to that heavy place,” she confessed after—and I felt her. Doing so obliges us to face down deep conventions about social propriety—even with the kinds of comments, like this guy’s, that have upheld white exceptionalism since slavery.

What to do? I called Natasha Marin, the black Seattle conceptual artist behind the Reparations project, who didn’t skip a beat. “White supremacy isn’t going to be dismantled if people are unwilling to be rude. White supremacy is rude.” I called white Seattle racial justice educator, Dr. Robin DiAngelo. “Racism occurring in a lighthearted way?” she marveled. “Lighthearted for whom? That suggests we’re entitled to enjoy racism. The only way not to contribute to this system is to consciously interrupt it. When you don’t, you’re colluding with it.”

DiAngelo, who coined the term white fragility, believes that training our focus on Uncle Bigot’s brazen racism allows us to minimize our own. In our interactions with people of color, white people working to dismantle white privilege must listen more than talk, must follow more than lead. We need humility. Fortunately it turns out humility is also our best tool in calling out people of our own race.

DiAngelo suggests that a white person can gently challenge privileged comments by establishing common ground—“I once felt that way too, but I learned that…”—thus offering a counternarrative. Or by asking questions—“Why would you be surprised if she were dating a black boy?”—to bring a new frame to an old worldview. Marin even suggests a kind of reverse trigger warning: “It’s like how, before a family gathering, when you let everyone know you’re on a diet?” she offers. “You can say, ‘I don’t want to have interpersonal conflict today, so I’m telling you now: I’ll be speaking up and being accountable to what I believe.’ ”

In short: There’s no excuse for silence among those who hold white privilege. The ones who hold it, after all, are the only ones who can take it down. 

Like a young man in his mom’s pub—whose assumptions I said nothing to challenge. “You know,” offered Marin, “you could’ve said something like, ‘Being afraid to go near a protest in which people are simply acknowledging their right to live is kind of sustaining this problem. The reason many cops are getting away with murder is because they say they’re afraid.’”

It seems I’m not the only one who needs to be braver. It’s tough to challenge a friend, in a social context, with no guarantee that the friend will be moved. But maybe, DiAngelo reminds me, moving the friend isn’t even the most important end. Maybe calling out mostly changes me.

“My silence,” muses DiAngelo, “reinforces something in me I don’t want to reinforce.”

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