How to talk to other white people about race (& why it’s necessary)

Kayla Blau, author.

Kayla Blau, author

This post was authored by Kayla Blau, Children’s Advocate with Solid Ground’s Broadview Shelter & Transitional Housing. It originally appeared in The Seattle Globalist and is reprinted with their permission.

We’ve all been there. Enjoying a family dinner and great-aunt Sally makes a snide remark about “Mexicans taking our jobs.”

Not wanting to make waves at a family gathering, my typical pattern would be to let it slide and stay silent. I’d roll my eyes and text my “conscious” friend about the experience, leaving the comments hanging triumphantly in the air.

And what had my silence done? Absolutely nothing but perpetuate the racist culture I claimed to want to dismantle.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Great-aunt Sally is just old and ignorant! But every racist joke, comment, dynamic, or law that goes unchecked, especially by white people, reinforces and perpetuates a racist society. It normalizes racism. It becomes accepted and expected. It gives the illusion that racism ended with the signing of the Civil Rights Act, when people of color are still being targeted and murdered by the police.

While overt racism appears to have lessened in the past 50 years, it is still extremely active and deep-rooted in our society’s psyche.

It usually freaks other white people out when I use the term “white supremacy” to explain how our society accepts racism, but it simply puts a name to the oppressive structure that means, for example, that we don’t have to fear being shot while walking in the dark wearing a hoody, while others do.

After learning the brutal reality of racism and privilege, white folk (myself included) often lament, “what can I do? I can’t accept these injustices…what can I do about them?”

This is literally it: Talking to other white folks about race, and, more specifically about whiteness, is one concrete way to undo racism as a white person. Unlike at a black-led march — this is where our white voices are needed.

Conversations with loved ones are tough. It is something I continue to struggle with in my own family and friends.

But we must push through discomfort to talk about race, even with great-aunt Sally, even when it feels completely unproductive and frustrating.

I mean honestly, people of color have enough to worry about to talk to a defensive white person about race. It can be extremely re-traumatizing for a person of color to have to justify their oppression to a white person, and it really is not their responsibility to do so.

Whether we like it or not, white people created racial oppression, therefore white people need to be part of the movement to undo it.

After much trial and error, here are a few tips about how to talk about race with other white people, drawn from my experiences of talking to my white family and friends, learning from other anti-racist white people, and advice from mentors of diverse backgrounds:

Educate Yourself First

Because white people are so uncomfortable with naming and discussing race, conversations can easily become argumentative or defensive.

The hope is to avoid calling the person you’re talking to racist and storming out (been there). I’ve found it helpful to educate myself about the real racial history of our country (spoiler alert: there was a genocide here, not a corn-filled dinner party), reflect on my own connection to whiteness and racism, and remove judgment of other’s understanding of race and privilege.

If we were raised and socialized in the U.S., we have all been receiving unconscious (and sometimes blatant) messages about white superiority and negative stereotypes about people of color since birth.

While it’s easy to dismiss other white folk as racist or bigoted, it is unfair to negate our responsibility to view every conversation about race as an opportunity to educate and learn, while processing the extremely complex emotions that come with it.

When I first started talking to my 62-year-old Jewish father about race, I would often leave the conversation feeling deflated and frustrated. When I told him Native Americans were mass murdered, he would respond with doubt and denial.

It wasn’t until we visited an indigenous peoples museum with facts of ethnic cleansing (over 90,000 indigenous people were murdered by white settlers) and displacement (hundreds more died on the Trail of Tears after false treaties were signed) that he began to open his eyes to the deception of the white narrative of U.S history.

Only then could we begin to have honest conversations about our country’s patterns of genocide, displacement, and racial oppression. Because he responds more to fact and logic than emotion and storytelling, the wall of white fragility was broken.

That being said, the more educated you are, the better equipped you’ll be in having discussions based in fact and analysis, rather than defensiveness and judgment. Plus, exposing yourself to the racial history that was not taught to us in school will only deepen your own understanding, allowing linkages to be made between your own family history and racism (which is difficult but necessary work in itself).

If you are personally connected to the person you’re talking to, try to tailor your approach to engage them in difficult conversations based on their personality and what would resonate with them (i.e., documentaries, intersectionality to other forms of oppression, mixed-media, art, scientific reasoning, etc.).

With all the accessibility of resources, we must educate ourselves and our community if we truly want to work for change.

Use Non-Violent Communication Skills

During an incredibly insightful event, “Dear White Allies: A Training,” put on by Black Lives Matter DMV, participants were urged to use non-violent communication skills to do effective racial justice work in white communities. Too often white people shut down due to discomfort during conversations about white supremacy, and claim to be victims when called out on our privilege.

One way to use non-violent communication skills to remediate this is “connect before you correct,” meaning, make a human connection with someone before calling them in on their ignorance.

For example, instead of leading with, “you ignorant asshole, ‘black man’ is not synonymous with thug,” try leading with, “I hear you saying that black men are all criminals. Why do you think that is?” And continue the conversation to tease out their perceptions and stereotypes based on media portrayal, for instance.

Meet ignorance with compassion. I’m not advocating coddling white people, nor lessening the message to make white people less uncomfortable. The message should still be loud and clear, but altering the way it is messaged can be extremely useful in impact. I’ve found people respond to and learn from compassion and self-reflection, and shut down when met with judgment.

In a very frustrating conversation with a co-worker about Israel and Palestine, he continuously justified Israeli occupation with “how violent Islam is.”

My knee-jerk reaction was to call him ignorant and walk away (which I did). My other co-workers shared our frustrations with him among one another for a few weeks, but never really addressed it with him.

It wasn’t until I heard him share his sentiments with a Muslim student that I realized my comfort level was less important than any damage he could do with our students. I asked him to elaborate on where his perception of Islam came from. He thought for a moment, and uncovered the truth that his only interaction with Islam was what he’d heard after 9/11.

Taking advantage of a teaching moment, my other co-workers and I researched the 5 Pillars of Islam with him and the impact of occupation on Palestinians. While this wasn’t a magic wand for years of prejudice, at the very least he began to question his assumptions.

Calling someone ignorant and walking away doesn’t necessarily have the same effect.

Make it Personal

During a particularly challenging conversation with my dad about the Confederate flag and the nine lives lost in Charleston, it seemed like nothing was getting through to him about the weight of such a racist attack.

“Just to play devil’s advocate,” he ventured, as he often plays during our conversations about race, “isn’t the flag part of the South’s history? What’s the big deal?”

After a few failed attempts at reasoning with him, I asked him how he would feel if he saw the Swastika on bumper stickers and street corners, let alone at his state’s capitol, knowing that his father was a victim in the Holocaust.

He immediately understood, as if the window to empathy was locked somewhere in his own connotation of oppression.

While no two oppressions are the same, by linking his own history to symbols of oppression his awareness was heightened. Others have used their experiences with homophobia, sexism, or other intersectional identities to relate to oppression as a system, thus allowing space to recognize our role as beneficiaries of racism through our whiteness.

Take the Time, Do the Work

Whatever you do, keep the conversation going. Invite your friends and family members to conversation groups, movie screenings, black-led events, and community forums about racial justice to keep them looped in and accountable. Share articles and novels written by people of color. Attend undoing racism trainings. Interrupt negative stereotypes of people of color in the media by offering holistic narratives. Urge friends and family to listen to people of color when they recount their experiences. Continue processing, talking, and organizing your community.

It is all too easy to slip into the apathetic and numb existence of whiteness, to not feel connected to racism because we benefit from it.

We are at a critical tipping point in history, thanks to the media and accessibility of information. White people are beginning to “wake up.” We can’t afford to let this movement pass by without engaging our white community and supporting POC-led movements against racism and oppression.

To be sure, having one conversation about race will not solve racism. We’re looking at 400+ years of racial oppression, genocide, and violence, and unpacking the painful and visceral implications of white supremacy will take time and work and commitment.

It will be messy and frustrating and liberating but, above all, necessary to undo racism.

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Building Community Luncheon was ‘bleeping awesome!’

On Friday April 10, Solid Ground had our most profitable Building Community Luncheon ever: We grossed $290,000 – as much revenue as last year, but with 500 fewer people in the room – and our net income was MUCH higher! We think it’s because people really resonated with our theme, If you want to end poverty, work for JUSTICE!, highlighted here in the Luncheon video:

Justice is, of course, both political and personal. As our President & CEO, Gordon McHenry, Jr. told the assembled:

Today, we are here because we are concerned about justice. I remember being concerned about justice as a young boy. It was in the mid-’60s when I was 6 or 7 years old, walking with my family in the small, segregated town of Terrell, Texas, where my mother was born and raised. It was an uneventful stroll until my parents stepped into the street, because there were some white people coming toward us. Even then blacks in the south yielded the sidewalk to whites.

“A few months ago, I was reminded that some troubling aspects of our society haven’t changed in 50 years. It was after Ferguson, and this time I was walking in the streets of Capitol Hill as part of a small but loud protest march. When we approached the East Precinct, our Seattle police surrounded us with a show of force far vastly outnumbering the protesters.

“Mistrust, Anger, Fear, Misunderstanding, and Conflict. We can all recall such powerful feelings. They are the feelings and experiences that come when you realize you are trapped by injustice. Sadly, it’s a near universal experience for people of color in our country.

“And YET there is the transformational experience of being part of powerful actions and mass movements for justice. The thrill of chanting and believing that our very presence will make a difference.

“What do we want? JUSTICE! When do we want it? NOW!

“Whether you marched for an end to the Iraq wars, rallied to demand
$15 Now, joined hands around an old growth tree, OR packed council chambers with angry residents in wheelchairs (something Solid Ground did in the early 80s to help secure the future of ACCESS transportation), most of us have had that experience. You know that feeling of coming together as MORE than a group of people, but as a FORCE for right, a FORCE for justice.”

Kathya Alexander, the Seattle Storyteller, who worked with us on 40th Anniversary activities last year, contributed and performed a riveting story about the civil rights movement. You can read some of her stories on her Seattle Storyteller website.

Grammy Award winning "Thrift Shop" vocalist Wanz singing "I Will"

Wanz wows attendees at Solid Ground’s Building Community Luncheon

And when keynote speaker Jessica Williams of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart had to cancel due to ill health, local Grammy Award-winning singer and Solid Ground supporter Wanz stepped in at the last minute as our surprise guest star. As Gordon mentioned in introducing him, “Talk about making lemonade out of lemons: ‘This is bleeping awesome!’ ” (a reference to Wanz’ signature riff on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ hit track, Thrift Shop).

Wanz’ inspirational song I Will was a great addition to the program, focusing on the importance of community, especially in troubling times. We encourage you to follow Wanz on social media:

If you were at the event: Thank you for making it such a special occasion! If you missed out but would like to make a gift to make the event even more successful, please go to our online donation page. Thanks!!

PREMIER SPONSORS:

The Boeing Company | DCG ONE | HomeStreet Bank | Microsoft | Safeco Insurance

COMMUNITY BUILDER SPONSORS:

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation | Marguerite Casey Foundation | Real Change | REI | Seattle Children’s | Sprague Israel Giles, Inc. | Washington Dental Service Foundation | Whole Foods Market

State’s leading anti-poverty advocate retires

If you’ve spent much time in the corridors of power around Olympia, you’ve no doubt heard The Laugh. It is disarmingly loud, boisterous and endearing. When Tony Lee unleashes, his laughter cascades over and through everything in its way. Perhaps it’s a secret to his success.

Tony!

Tony!

For nearly three decades, the last 19 years as Advocacy Director at Solid Ground, Tony has been the state’s leading lobbyist on issues impacting poor people. With his retirement this week, he steps out of the limelight to spend more time with his family.

Well known for his affable manner, keen analytical mind, and passionate commitment, Tony has had his hand in the creation and protection of many state policies that promote equity and equal opportunity for people living on low incomes in Washington State.

For instance, he was a driving force behind the creation of the state’s Food Assistance Program, which extended food benefits to tens of thousands of legal immigrants who were excluded from food stamp eligibility.

“Tony Lee is a really special human being, with a huge laugh, and huge heart and brains to go along with it, all of which are put to the service of improving and saving the lives of the most vulnerable people in our state,” says Diane Narasaki, Executive Director, Asian Counseling and Referral Service.

An immigrant who earned a law degree, Tony abandoned the practice of  law to spend the bulk of his career as an advocate, working to make laws more just.

“Everyday people of color face discrimination in the housing market, in lending practices, in our school system,” Tony says. “Not intentional perhaps, but the impacts are there. That is really one of the big reasons I’ve done what I’ve done.”

“Tony Lee is the conscience of Washington State when it comes to helping poor people,” says Frank Chopp, Speaker of the Washington State House of Representatives.

Tony defers, crediting the people he represents: “I speak with more credibility when I can say ‘our agency sees people in need and here are the needs we see.’ ”

Through his work with Evergreen Legal Services, the Washington Association of Churches and Solid Ground, Tony has been a leader in multi-racial organizing and advocacy that resulted in progress on issues spanning welfare reform, food security, housing and the achievement gap in education. He worked as Solid Ground’s Advocacy Director from August 1995 through September 2014. Tony was a founding member of the Statewide Poverty Action Network in 1996 and played an essential role in its development and direction.

Tony will continue to serve as Solid Ground’s Advocacy Senior Fellow, supporting Solid Ground’s Board, CEO, Advocacy Department and the Statewide Poverty Action Network on public policy issues pertaining to education, basic needs programs, and funding for health and human services, including programs serving refugees and immigrants.

Tony, thanks for your commitment, your passion and your laugh. The world is a better place because of you.

For more on what Tony Is

 

 

Solid Ground supports teaching youth about racism and social justice!

FISTS-smallSolid Ground is lending support to the issue playing out at The Center School, where teacher Jon Greenberg was directed to discontinue the racism section of his Citizenship and Social Justice course.

Greenberg is well-known to the Solid Ground community. He is a former Penny Harvest Coach, and his students have been powerful advocates for people living on low incomes, people of color, and others facing oppressive barriers to full participation in our community.

Below you will see a message from Gordon McHenry, Jr., Solid Ground’s President & CEO, to the Seattle Public Schools Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent and Ombudsman, calling on the district to keep race and social justice units in the curriculum. This statement reflects Solid Ground’s commitment to engage on these issues in the community. Thanks to everyone who brought information and perspective to our process.

Superintendent Banda, Assistant Superintendent Tolley, and Ombudsman McGlone:

Solid Ground is a King County based community action agency. Our mission is to eliminate poverty and undo racism and other forms of oppression that are the root causes of poverty. We provide direct services including several programs where we are a partner of the Seattle School District. We value and appreciate working with SPS to educate and develop our youth.

We support the teaching of a curriculum that engages students in discussions of race, gender and class, with a focus on understanding white privilege. There is a continued need for this kind of curriculum as students live in a more and more diverse community and as employers place a growing emphasis on students who can work well in a global marketplace. As you evaluate the situation at Center School, we urge the District to ensure that race and social justice remains a part of the curriculum. It is important to support those teachers who educate our youth on topics like race, gender and class that continue to be a source of struggle for our society. Thank you.

Best Regards,

Gordon A. McHenry, Jr.
President & CEO, Solid Ground

Protect the safety net and fight for jobs on MLK Day

“The existence of poverty in the US should not be accepted as a necessary evil or an insoluble problem, but should be considered a crisis requiring emergency measures. It is a matter of will and priorities, not a matter of resources.”

~ Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This MLK Day, join Statewide Poverty Action Network in Olympia rallying and advocating with lawmakers to protect our safety net. Sign up at www.povertyaction.org.

The annual Seattle celebration of Dr. King focuses this year on unemployment and jobs. A workshop on “Jobs: Where Are They?” starts at 9:30 am at Garfield High School at 23rd and East Jefferson. For more details go to the event facebook page.

The Difference between Guilt and Responsibility

In my growing awareness of power, privilege and oppression, I find that it is very important that I not only learn the difference between guilt and responsibility but that I also internalize that message and act on it. My own guilt about the legacy of racism paralyzes me as it does others in the racial justice movement. It does not serve me or anyone else in the pursuit of racial justice. Rather, when I can shift that attitude to one of taking responsibility for understanding racism, understanding my white privilege (the ways that I have received advantages as a white person), and taking action on causes that move us toward equity, then I can be part of real change. Tim Wise says it really well in the video below in response to the question, “Should white men feel guilty about racism?”

Solid Ground as an agency has made an explicit commitment to fight for racial justice and ending poverty. A part of that struggle has to be shedding our guilt and taking responsibility!

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