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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Skool Haze: Part 2

Image by twobee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image by twobee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just how does a white teacher communicate identity and belonging to a black child or teen? Is their legitimate concern enough? Are a set of classroom guidelines and good intent enough to fill in the chasm of “who am I in relation to what you are?” Is the fact that they’re there enough? If a child doesn’t understand the power and pain of their skin color, how will a white teacher assist with this? How can a white teacher provide a young black male with the tools to survive when that teacher has no concept of the child’s reality and/or destiny?

See where I’m going with these questions? White people can’t teach identity to black people regardless of what their intent is. Nope, can’t be done. So it isn’t a question of is harm being done to our kids, it’s more a question of how do we mitigate the damage? What do those white eyes see when they look at our black children? Are they peering across the great divide of privilege and looking at blacks like they think they will never amount to anything?

I can say from the truth of my own life that white teachers give up on black kids, and they do it routinely. Sometimes it’s because they are unable to recognize intellect in any other population other than their own, and sometimes it’s because they can’t comprehend the import of being entrusted with black children. They look at their students and quietly categorize them and then funnel them to whatever they believe their potential to be. Simply because one chooses to teach or feels they have the aptitude doesn’t mean they have the skill to work with populations other than their own.

Mr. Hagen was a good white teacher, for good white kids. But for his black students, he was sorely lacking in empathy and understanding. These traits can only be cultivated in a teacher who is intellectually curious and courageous enough to step outside of their whiteness to see the true challenges of all of their students. It’s clear there will never be enough black teachers, but there is no end to bad white teachers. This is a sad and inexcusable deficit, and the response to this should be in keeping with the need. The fact is white teachers have a hard time understanding their kids of color, and this is a lack of knowledge and experience we can’t afford. These teachers should be exposed to as many aspects of the student’s life as possible.

I’ve met many people who were well-meaning, but who were singularly unqualified to do the jobs that were gifted to them through privilege. Teachers, social workers, doctors, lawyers and politicians – all horrendously bad at their jobs but are well protected by their skin color – ensconced in a strata of unearned benefits. This is the sad mirage of social good: People get so caught up in helping, they forget that working with these populations takes training and the willingness to be introspective. To teach and to help, one must be absolutely ready to learn.

Immersing young black kids in a white cultural experience they will never have full access to is an unavoidable and abusive act. It sets these kids up to think they will never be good enough because they aren’t white. America’s prisons are filled with men who thought that they weren’t good enough either. They were systematically taught to live up to no expectations.

But in the end, you know what scares me more than white teachers? White social workers who work in tandem with them and who collectively think that the key to balancing a social ill is a program or a guilt-laden vocabulary that will have no effect on anyone who doesn’t innately care anyway. The unconscious analyses of whites scare me, because privilege is so easy to forget if it’s the sea you swim in.

There’s nothing more dangerous than people who think they know what they’re doing simply because they care.

Aftermath of Ferguson sheds light on racist bias

Clay Smith

Clay Smith

Editor’s Note: The shooting of an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO – and the reactions that racist act generated across the county – have been the subject of important conversations among Solid Ground staff and others committed to calling out and undoing institutional racism. Here Clay Smith, Case Manager at our Phyllis Gutiérrez Kenney Place, weighs in on how racist perceptions of black youth are barriers to justice. Please post your thoughts in the comments section that follows.

I was awake early this morning and came across this article on the Huffington Post: Grand Jury In Ferguson Shooting Investigated For Misconduct. It started me thinking about the discussions I’ve been having with white friends of mine, and about perceptions of minorities generally. Here’s the tweet that’s causing some real concern that “justice” is once more going to be denied:

Screen shoot of tweets

Screen shoot of tweets

Some people I’ve had some rather heated discussions about this case with seem oblivious to the idea that shooting an unarmed teen should be scrutinized to the highest degree. It’s as if they can’t see every person should be given the benefit of the doubt before deadly force is used. I’d almost term this as a racial “blind spot,” where perfectly reasonable people suspend all logic to excuse terrible policing. This idea that because the police act, that somehow they must have been justified regardless of how ludicrous the situation may be. It started me thinking about how our young men and boys are perceived by some non-blacks: Black Boys Viewed as Older, Less Innocent Than Whites, Research Finds. From the article:

Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” ~Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, University of California, Los Angeles

I think it’s more than probable that some of the white jurors in this grand jury stand very firmly with Officer Wilson. Also from the article:

Researchers tested 176 police officers, mostly white males, average age 37, in large urban areas, to determine their levels of two distinct types of bias – prejudice and unconscious dehumanization of black people by comparing them to apes. To test for prejudice, researchers had officers complete a widely used psychological questionnaire with statements such as ‘It is likely that blacks will bring violence to neighborhoods when they move in.’ To determine officers’ dehumanization of blacks, the researchers gave them a psychological task in which they paired blacks and whites with large cats, such as lions, or with apes. Researchers reviewed police officers’ personnel records to determine use of force while on duty and found that those who dehumanized blacks were more likely to have used force against a black child in custody than officers who did not dehumanize blacks. The study described use of force as takedown or wrist lock; kicking or punching; striking with a blunt object; using a police dog, restraints or hobbling; or using tear gas, electric shock or killing. Only dehumanization and not police officers’ prejudice against blacks – conscious or not – was linked to violent encounters with black children in custody, according to the study.”

I shudder to think that there are armed officers out there that see blacks as something less than human, therefore react accordingly. But I think we are coming to a point where people can no longer excuse these types of behaviors because they are patently lacking empathy and understanding of the community. The exception: The Story Behind A Shocking Dash Cam Video That Landed An Officer In Jail.

When the decision is made to send a white cop into a neighborhood he or she is not part of with little to no training on the population, incidents like the one in Ferguson will continue to happen. It’s just very bad policing to send people into situations that will put them and the population they serve at risk. But in the end, I don’t think the grand jury will be able to see Michael Brown as a human being; that isn’t a leap some are prepared to make.

Just sayin’….

Clay

‘It’s a broken system that’s not working’: Proposed new youth jail will increase incarceration of youth of color

In 2012, King County, WA voters passed a levy initiative to fund the construction of a new Children and Family Justice Center. Given the fact that 100% of taxpayer money will be used for the construction of the facility – not for maintaining or creating services – it’s hard to think of this facility as anything other than a reinforcement of the school-to-prison pipeline, a widespread pattern in the US of pushing students, especially those already at a disadvantage, out of school and into our criminal justice system.

In King County, African-American and white youth commit crime at the same rates, yet about 40% of detained youth are African American, and they are twice as likely to be arrested and referred to court as white youth. Incarcerating youth without providing diversion or reintegration programs increases the chances of recidivism, thus continuing the revolving door of our criminal justice system – statewide and nationally.

“It’s by design to start that process off early,” says Ardell Shaw, intern for Solid Ground’s Statewide Poverty Action Network. He describes how this affects kids later in life: “A person has a felony on their record. Now they may repeat this cycle, and when they get out, they have huge amounts of fines to pay. The system creates enough stress where they perpetuate recidivism and keep that cycle going.”

New Youth Jail, King County, institutional racism, african american incarceration, king county juvenile infographic

Infographic created by Solid Ground

Now that we’ve gone over some statistics, imagine how these numbers will change after the jail is built. The county is going to have to justify spending a quarter of a billion dollars on this project somehow. Their justification will come in the form of incarcerating more youth, especially targeting youth of color.

“The purpose for building it isn’t about the renovations, it’s to put more bodies in it. Particularly African-American bodies,” says Ardell. “When it first came out they tried to glamorize it as a ‘family center’ instead of calling it what it actually was.” A youth jail.

What can you do about it?

1)     “Make calls. Support us when we have meetings.” Ardell is referring to the No New Youth Jail campaign, which is strongly backed by Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, The People’s Institute Northwest, and the Black Prisoners’ Caucus among other organizations, including Solid Ground.

2)     Call King County and City of Seattle council members Bruce Harrell, Mike O’Brien, Kathy Lambert and Dow Constantine to say you support the demands to defer this money elsewhere.

3)     Also, Ardell encourages us to talk about it. “Make people aware that it is a waste of taxpayers’ money. That money could be spent other ways. The juvenile system is broken and they DON’T fix problems in the current system.”

“You have to deal with what the issue is, why they got into trouble in the first place,” explains Ardell. “They’re not just committing crimes to commit crimes. There are other factors … So if we can get to the base root of what that is, then we stand a better chance. Then we let the kids know there is a possibility. They need to find a way to correct their system and really offer these kids help. Not just probation, but help.”

40th Anniversary Timeline: 2001 a year of tragedy & hope


2001

Looking back at the year 2001, it is hard to remember anything other than the 9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. A few other historical bullet points:

  • George W. Bush was sworn in as President.
  • The Congressional Budget Office projected a $5.6 trillion dollar federal budget surplus over the next 10 years!
  • The Taliban began destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.
  • In the Netherlands, the Act on the Opening up of Marriage went into effect, which allowed same-sex couples to marry legally for the first time in the world since the reign of Nero.
  • Locally, the Seattle Mariners set a record for winning baseball games, but flamed out in the playoffs.
  • The Nisqually earthquake shook the Seattle region, causing significant damage in Pioneer Square.

Financial Fitness 2001

For Solid Ground it was a time of piloting new ways of responding to the changing needs of our community.

We developed the Financial Skills Education program, later renamed Financial Fitness Boot Camp. The program offers money management classes, skill-building workshops and personal support for families working to attain financial and housing stability. Over the past few years, the program has been part of a national Learning Cluster to develop best practices for the field.

Working Wheels 2001Recognizing that lack of affordable transportation was a barrier to accessing well-paying jobs, in 2001 we partnered with Port Jobs to launch Working Wheels. This program received used fleet cars from the Port and the City of Seattle, as well as donations from private donors. The cars were brought up to safety and service standards by our Transportation Department mechanics and sold at affordable prices to people who needed a car to get or keep a job. We partnered with a local credit union to get favorable loan rates, and even provided ongoing maintenance through the short-lived Community Garage. Working Wheels was closed in 2009, a victim of changing economic conditions that made municipalities hold on to their fleet vehicles longer, and made fundraising for the program more challenging.

Undoing Racism 2001

2001 is also the year Solid Ground committed to undoing institutional racism:

  • Trained staff in Undoing Institutional Racism and cultural competency.
  • Formed a multi-racial staff-driven Anti-Racism Committee (ARC) to organize internally and begin to identify and prioritize anti-racism actions to better serve our clients.
  • Engaged staff and community members to recognize and take action against racism in our own lives and communities.

Responsible Lending 2001Additionally, our advocacy work ramped up its efforts to address predatory lending in 2001. The Statewide Poverty Action Network was a founding member of the Seattle/King County Coalition for Responsible Lending (SKCCRL), which increased awareness of and helped consumers avoid predatory loans, and worked with local lenders to increase affordable loan options without limiting credit access. Our staff  served on the founding SKCCRL steering committee and were active on its committees.

Our Mission, Vision & Values

An organization’s Mission, Vision and Values statements are its heart and soul.

Ideally, they define what we do, how we do it, and why.

And they are our DNA, the imprint that we pass on to all staff, volunteers and program participants. Want to know what makes Solid Ground unique? How are we distinguished from partner agencies? Look at our Mission, Vision and Values.

As part of an ongoing new strategic planning process, Solid Ground has just revised these statements. They move beyond addressing poverty to calling out racism and other oppressions that are fundamental contributors to poverty, homelessness and hunger.

“Our previous Mission, Vision and Values statements were written over 10 years ago and as such, did not reflect the major shifts in direction which have taken place,” says Solid Ground Board Chair, Lauren McGowan.

“The new statements speak to our strong commitment to working collaboratively in the communities we serve and to ending racism and other oppressions that keep people poor. They are a direct result of the work we have been doing at Solid Ground to undo institutional racism in our organization and in the community.”

The changes were developed through an extensive process that involved staff  at all levels of the agency, Board members and program participants.

“These new statements are the building blocks for the Strategic Plan we will complete in December,” says McGowan. “They represent both a track record of providing innovative and effective services to people in need and our aspirations for the future. As our community continues to struggle though this challenging economic climate, Solid Ground is committed to ensuring that everyone has access to food, housing, transportation and justice.”

SOLID GROUND’S MISSION, VISION & VALUES

MISSION
Solid Ground works to end poverty and undo racism and other oppressions that are root causes of poverty.

VISION
Solid Ground believes our community can move beyond poverty and oppression to a place where all people have access to quality housing, nutritious food, equal justice and opportunities to thrive.

VALUES
Solid Ground is committed to working with compassion, integrity, accountability, creativity and an anti-oppression approach to end homelessness, hunger, inequality and other barriers to social justice. We value collaboration and leadership from the communities we serve.

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