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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Silence and Ignorance

Continuing last week's discussion about Justice and Reconciliation, let us examine an all-to-familiar scenario: 

A white person, trying to be friendly and reach out, makes a small comment to her black friend about hair, music, politics, any number of things. But since one of the consequences of the racial divide is the majority's lack of contextual understanding, her comment sounds insensitive, rather than engaging. And again, because of this basic ignorance, the she is caught completely off guard when, rather than an enthusiastic response, she is met with outrage. Now the white chick's head is spinning with a mix of pain, indignation, exasperation, and a strong lesson to not to ever engage in racial dialogue again. So she avoids entering into conversations about race, never mentions the topic even among other white folks (who also never bring it up), perpetuating the divide of misunderstanding.  What results, is a hostile impasse in which inter-racial conversations stall out: one side feeling attacked and silenced, and the other side feeling, well....attacked and silenced. 

There are so many missteps here, it's hard to unpack, but let's try (broken up into a couple week's worth of posts):

First of all, let us recognize that at the root, white folk have the huge privilege of never having to learn about other cultures if they don't want to do so. We can arrange to be in the company of our own race most of the time, we can avoid other groups we don't like, we can access desirable housing within the comfort of similarity, we can easily find news, TV shows, and magazines that only talk about people similar to us (Yes, blatantly borrowing from McIntosh's Knapsack). 

The consequence of this privilege is that not only do we say offensive things, but we don't even know why they are offensive. It's a terrible place in which to find ourselves, because the very act of self-education is bound to bring pain to the very people with whom we are trying to reconcile. So why bother?? Maybe it's better to just ignore the whole thing so as avoid further injury to self and others. And this is what many white folks do, forgetting that ignoring a problem does not make it go away. 

The result is a deafening silence in the white community when it comes to race. It's not that when we are among ourselves we all sit around snickering at racist jokes and derogatory slurs.* We just don't talk about race at all. Ever. Never EVER. We don't even use the word 'black', and you'd better use a wispier and quotation if you've got to say "African-American." Race is far too contentious of a topic and someone is liable to call you a racist, so it's better to just be quite about the whole thing! 

White folk don't talk about racism, so we think it is over. We stay silent, which means we also stay ignorant. 

And this is why no white person thinks she is a racist. How can I be a racist when I never talk/think about race!?! Of course, we know that this lack of involvement in the racial world is, in fact, an act of racial injustice. But to the racially-privileged, it feels healthy, post-racial, 'colorblind,' which means we are totally unprepared for the passionate responses we receive in a conversations about race.  To those that never talk about race at all, suddenly encountering someone's deep pains and anger about centuries of racism can feel out-of-the-blue, disproportionate, and unjustified. 

This is the moment that white folks so often label as "reverse racism." It is the false premise that arises from the belief that we have reached a state of racial equality, and therefore any aggression from POC must be the result of an overcompensation, rather than the legitimate reaction to centuries of abuse that remain unrectified. But denying the truth of this pain and its roots only breeds more hurt and frustration. Not only do we remain ignorant, but in doing so we belittle the feelings of those with whom we are supposedly trying to build relationships. How would you feel in a marriage, for example, if your spouse dismissed your anger and pain as being unfounded? And then said it was all in your head? Trust me, it doesn't work so well in building unity. Part of breaking out of our own silence is remembering not to silence others. 

White folks need to remember that, although we have the privilege of never having to talk about race if we don't want to, we have sisters and brothers that have to be aware of the racial divide day in and day out. Therefore, when we are not even conscious that we are unconscious of race, we flagrantly parade our privilege. Which is why, of course, our seemingly simple comments made in passing can hurt so badly: it is a blatant expression of white folks' ability to be oblivious to the cultures around them. You might not be intending to brandish your privileged status, but the pain your ignorance causes is real, whether you meant to hurt or not.

So of course there is conflict. There is pain when white folks don't even recognize the daily struggle of being a modern POC, and there is also woundedness for a white person when she starts to break her silence, but lacks the vocabulary, makes a mistake, and then gets chewed out for it. 

Understand, I am not justifying the situation. I'm just laying it out, explaining how it is. Neither am I trying to put the responsibly of reconciliation and education on the those already marginalized. Ultimately, it's white folks that need to make up for lost time, and to have the courage to end their silence. But we'll get there quicker with POC's grace and guidance. 

See next week's post on how 'intent' plays a role in discussions about race and the choices we have in how we respond in the situation outlined above. 

*Sure, you sometimes get the crazy oddball that say something stupid, but that is how that person is seen: as a crazy 'racist.' Not at all like we who are 'post-racial and colorblind' and know better than to say stuff like that...right...

See Also
Does 'Intent' Matter?
I Don't Know
Justice vs Reconciliation


  1. Posted on behalf of Mierka:
    "I like your assessment of the situation but at the same time communication takes effort from both sides. When you get really angry at someone and it seems like they don't know why, it can really help the relationship to explain why you were angry later when you are not so frustrated. This is important whether the subject is race, religion, or who does the dishes. After all, it's impossible to read minds and each individual may have a unique opinion on aspects of their race or religion. The boon is not on the angered or the uneducated it takes both parties to work on a healthy relationship."

  2. We are definitely dependent on others' help to become well informed. To some extent, this is why we need redeemed white folk to help carry the burden of education, so that it doesn't always fall on the shoulders of POCs. You're right, though: at the end of the day, we need gracious POCs to step out in faith for the sake of reconciliation. Stay tuned next week for an in depth discussion of this issues you bring up here.

  3. And begin your post by talking about this in the context of white people vs./with black people, then transition over to simply talking about "PoCs" as though the one defines the other, and they are interchangeable. In the spirit of this post, I feel as though I really should let you know that they aren't.

    Putting aside my personal hatred for the term "people of color," engaging in a discussion of racism while talking about "white people and people of color" makes it seem as though all non-white people are on the same side and don't engage in racist acts and thoughts against each other. I am not implying that was either your goal or your intent. I realize that you are white, as is the majority of your intended audience, and that you are simply trying to write from a perspective with which you are familiar.

    As to my response on your actual topic: I'm from an ethnicity towards which most racial dialogue merely shrugs and dismisses from the subject. Perhaps because of this, it's one of the ethnicities whose struggle against racism is most ignored, whose stereotypes are not only encouraged but accepted and sometimes not even recognized as stereotypes.

    In similar situations to the one you describe in this post, I feel I have almost always had to just keep silent and let the white person continue with whatever it is that offends me. In times where I have spoken up, not only do I get the indignant exasperation you speak of, but also an equally or more insulting betrayed surprise. If I am speaking up to a black person on the issue, their indignance and exasperation is even greater, because my racial struggle is not seen to be as important as theirs. It is not meet of us of the "good dog" ethnicity to speak up; after all, we should have so much more to be grateful for, right?

    The racial divide between black and white is huge, but it is not the only racial divide. Using the term "PoC" as a catch-all in the discussion on race while meaning and referring to it simply in the context of the black experience is no way to approach racial issues. Any reconciliation between the white and black communities does not automatically spill over to people of other ethnicities. In this day and age, a white neighbor and a black neighbor, whether best friends or bitter enemies, may still automatically label any Arab OR South Asian as a "terrorist", any Hispanic a "Mexican," and any East Asian "Chinese"--"Japanese" if they feel especially "culturally sensitive". This behavior is so common and believed to be so acceptable, that it is used in the context of these same non-white, non-black communities on and against each other as well.

    I don't say this to belittle or misinterpret your words or your purpose. It is good that you are trying to enter into the dialogue. I'm not even accusing you of intentionally perpetuating the "People of color=blacks" terminology, or of not caring about other races or their struggles. This post is actually relevant to people of all races. I just wanted to mention something that I find gets lost all too often in well-meaning discussions about the impact of race and racism.

  4. Excellent points, all!

    I do recognize that I tend to talk more about black/white than I should. It is the relationship I know most about, but I continue to work to educated myself about other dynamics at are certainly very important and salient. Sometime I remain too slow, though, and so will try to better in the future. And you are also right in calling me out for my use of POC, particularly in this post. I apologize and will try to guard against it in the future.

    Thanks, M, for the comment. Any interest in writing a guest post on some of the important issues you raise here?

  5. thank you for bringing up that our racial problems go far beyond the black/white issues in which they're usually framed and how you respond to the term "people of color" (POC). thank you in a Very Big Way for doing this in a posting that's devoid of outrage. in fact, you acknowledge that Kaitlin is speaking about a sensitive subject and doesn't intend to offend or exclude others.

    I'm also white,* and most of my experience with "people of color" has been with blacks/African Americans. I've attended a predominantly black church, now attend a racially mixed church (mainly white and African American, although other racial groups are represented) and work in a setting where I'm in the racial minority (predominantly African American; the ratio is 60:40 or maybe 70:30). I can say that immersing myself in another culture has been instructive and I simply don't have the same experience with other minority groups. well, that's not quite true . . . more about that later.

    I want to affirm that white people are most aware of black/white differences and the majority culture hasn't yet engaged with other racial minority groups in a meaningful way. I guess a place to start is acknowledging that statements made about relations with African Americans can also apply to relations with other minority groups while avoiding the tendency to lump together all racial minority groups. The majority culture (which is becoming less of a majority, a fact that alarms some. this is part of our current problem!) still thinks in terms of white/nonwhite.

    For this reason I understand your dislike of the term "people of color," especially when it fails to acknowledge differences within this grouping. still, I try to avoid referring to different racial groups as "races." one of the things I've learned from the American Indian community (in this instance representing the Mohican and Dakota Sioux nations) is that there is one race, the human race. even though humans have different experiences and points of view, we are all one race. I believe this shouldn't be lost when we discuss our different experiences and assumptions.

    I've been in an American Indian community where a number of cultures are represented. I've found that American Indians, while small in number, are very welcoming of others with different backgrounds. there's an expectation, though, that the people they include in their activities (pow wows, talking circles, sweat ceremonies) are respectful of and follow their ways when we come together. Indian people and cultures are as diverse as any other group, but my experience has been that mutual respect is a prominent value in a shared culture that's been created by 20th/21st century American Indians. I like that.

    * I am white, but my father was/is Jewish. in my experience, those who identify/are identified as Jewish aren't considered "as white" as those who have a Christian European background. anti-semitism is also a form of racism

  6. While I do appreciate your purpose, I'm not entirely sure I would be able to write a guest post for you that would be fully integrable with the purpose of your blog. I respect the Christian faith, but am not of it, and I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to frame a post in such a way as to be relevant to that particular aim of this blog. That being said, if you are still interested, I would be willing to at least address the issue raised in this post, if nothing else. For instance, the very day after I posted my reply to this, I actually had an incident that was almost ironic in its relevance to the discussion.

  7. Thanks for your openness and sensitivity. I don't feel like every post need be framed from the Christian perspective. I would welcome your contribution, should you like to submit.

  8. When talking about race,maybe it would be helpful to listen to how people refer to themselves. If they refer to themselves as black, use the word black, if they refer to themselves as non-white use non-white and so on. Or ask them what they prefer. Asking a question is like knocking on the door rather than breaking into their house.

  9. Indeed! Listening is such an important part of the reconciliation process. Conversely, assumptions can destroy it. Check out Christena Cleveland's series about 'Listening Well as a Person of Privilege' for other great insights!


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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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