How to Tell a White Person they are Being Racist

by Alice Bell

Again and again, the slight feeling of discomfort that comes with the suggestion that you might have been a bit racist is allowed to crassly trump the much larger oppression. White people need to stop that.

First published: 25 March, 2014 | Category: 

How do you tell a white person they are being racist? The simple answer is don’t. They’ll get offended. It'll just make things harder. Another option is to follow Jay Smooth’s advice, and distinguish between suggesting someone has done something racist and saying they are a racist. But that distinction is still not enough. Even calling out a particular instance of racism is still hard work. It still opens up space for the white person to get offended and cause further problems. We’re still left with the question of how to get it right.

But the burden of getting it right shouldn’t be on the person challenging racism. It’s a backwards approach to the problem. Instead of looking for some magical formula to enlighten people about their racism, those who hold positions of privilege need to proactively take it upon themselves to take this sort of critique more constructively. I find it offensive that we should be led by how the person holding privilege might react.

And at this point I should stress that this article about racism is by a white person, largely aimed at white people. And that is partly the point: White people need to talk and think about racism themselves.

Because being the victim of racism - continually, in multiple ways, throughout your life - is a lot more upsetting than once or twice being told you were maybe, accidentally, a bit racist. This really shouldn’t need saying. It should be obvious. And yet apparently it does still need saying again and again. I’ll try it again in caps lock, which at least makes me feel better. BEING THE VICTIM OF RACISM IS A LOT MORE UPSETTING THAN BEING CALLED RACIST. This shouldn’t be hard to grasp.

Somehow, the relatively small feeling of discomfort that comes with the suggestion that you might have said or done something a bit racist, is allowed to crassly trump the much larger oppression. Reni Eddo-Lodge puts it well when she writes about the sort of ‘emotional disconnect’ many white people display when she tries to discuss race with them: “They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white - so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact; they interpret it as an affront.”

It’s not just race. It’s gender. And class. And all sorts of other aspects of our lives where a person in a marginalised group finds themselves against a world built to serve others. My hunch is that it is a lot harder when it comes to a person of colour pointing out racism to a white person, but maybe I’m wrong. It’s complex and varies a lot depending on context. But, again and again, conversations go something like this:

Person A: <does or says something which unintentionally marginalises or offends person B>

Person B: “er, um, obviously I love you loads and respect you oodles otherwise I wouldn’t bother saying this, I’d just spit in your tea or something, but that thing you [said/ did] totally reflects the supremacy of [male/ white/ rich/ straight/ able-bodied/ cis/ neurotypical / some other thing] culture in a way which [outright offends me/ makes it hard for me to live my life/ ignores what people like me have to contribute]”

Person A: “I don’t think this you should reduce this terribly important issue to identity politics”

Person B: “I know it doesn’t look like it’s relevant, from your perspective, but if you listen and think about it can you consider how it looks differently to me, because aside from showing me some common courtesy you might learn something about the world in the process.”

Person A: “OMFG are you calling me sexist/racist/ etc?”

Person B: <patient face>

Person A: “OMFG you are sooo touchy. It’s not always about race/ class/ whatever.”

Person B: <tired of this now face>

Person A: “You really shouldn’t let that chip on your shoulder obscure your view of the broader picture.”

Person B: <stoic patience edges towards scowl>

Person A: “I suppose you think I’m just a boring old rich white man with nothing to contribute” <clearly in a huff>

Person B: “I’m sorry you’re offended, I didn’t mean to upset you, I love you really.”

Person A: “HUH! I think you need to think about what you’ve done!”

Person B: “Ok, I’m really sorry” <wonders why they were the one who apologised>

Many of you will be familiar with that pattern and identify with person B. If you are not, you have undoubtedly been person A. Several times.

I remember the times I’ve been B because it is incredibly frustrating. But I’ve been A too, loads more than I realise too, I’m sure. I just don’t remember because it didn’t seem like such a big deal. But that’s the point, A’s don’t notice. But they should, and they should be better at coping with having it pointed out.

As a result, marginalised people worry a lot about how to help others notice their privilege, or simply let it go unchecked, because it’s too much hassle. Again, this is a feeling many of you reading this will be all too familiar with. If you are not familiar with it, be aware it’s happening around you all the time, probably about you. You just don’t notice.

Musa Okwonga maybe puts it best though, with his poem The First Law of Privilege, which starts:

They make you ashamed of your rage.
They call you the angry black man,
The hysterical woman,
The paranoid Jew.
They make you stand in fire,
Then complain when you yell about the heat.
They say:
“What are you playing the race card for?” -
But I have never known a membership card
That has closed so many doors.

Or, in the words of blogger battymamzelle, “it's incredibly inappropriate to demand that a marginalized group restructure a conversation to make things more "comfortable" for the very people they are mobilizing against. That is the very definition of flexing one's privilege.”

So how do you tell a white person they are being racist? Or a man they are sexist? Or call out any other number of privileges? We can try the best as we can. But there isn’t a trick. Because it is the wrong question. It, yet again, puts the responsibility on people who are already struggling to be taken seriously. So, instead, for my fellow white people, here are five easy tips for how to deal with being called racist more effectively (not in any way exhaustive, but can help as a starter):

1) Listen and take it as a chance to learn and grow. Appreciate that it is unlikely that the person saying this is doing so lightly.

2) Don’t expect them to explain or justify why they are offended or school you in the issues at play. You can take the time to work that our for yourself.

3) Take time to think about it; don’t rush yourself to a clumsy attempt at an instant reaction. If you do need an immediate response, try to lead with friendship, care and desire to understand.

4) Remember that racism isn’t just a violent expression of hate, it can be implicit and need calling out before you even notice and, like most expressions of power, can be especially potent when it’s not talked about.

5) Even if, having thought about it, you still disagree, show respect for their point of view, think about why they felt that way and if some greater mutual understanding can emerge.

I know it’s not easy. High five of solidarity with the pain of being the holder of privilege. It can totally be a bitch sometimes, I know. But it’s way more of a bitch not having that privilege. So try. You won’t get it right the first time. Or the second. Or the nineteenth. But you’ll get better. And you’ll probably learn a lot about yourself and your world in the process.

And I know I’m really, really shit at it most of the time myself, but I promise to try to get better. I also know none of this is original, or will solve things.

Alice Bell is co-editor at New Left Project.

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