Dear White Americans: It's Time for Us to be Brave With Each Other
I recently attended a lovely holiday dinner party with long-time good friends. As tends to happen, the topic of our reprehensible “President-Elect” made its way into the conversation. Immediately the host put down his drink and proclaimed, more loudly than necessary, “If anyone brings up politics, you are ejected from the party!”
I quipped that I promised not to be the first one to bring him up. Something inside me noted the moment, though, and filed it away for reflection. How often have we heard statements like this? I have memories of similar messages, spoken or unspoken, at parties, family gatherings, and work events. “Never talk about politics or religion,” I heard many times growing up. “That’s the fastest way to lose friends!”
Here’s the thing: I think this is a harmful social norm of white Americans. I think we’re afraid to talk about “politics” because we know politics is inseparable from race, and we have no idea how to talk about race. Our squeamishness with high-conflict subjects like privilege and discrimination makes us avoid important conversations, ones that could lead to advocacy and changed minds. We need to get better at digging deep and speaking out.
I am no exception. I realized this trait in myself as I started college. I went to a small, liberal-arts college in southern California. The administration believed talking about racism is worth prioritizing. As a fairly sheltered 18-year-old, feeling homesick and shy, I was randomly assigned to a small group and asked to discuss race and how it affects our lives. The experiment was a noble effort, but our discussion did not go well. The group began in awkward silence, so with my doe-eyed eagerness, I decided to ask a question: “I’ve always wondered, do people of other races want to be treated like they’re different, or like we are all the same? Would they like to have differences acknowledged?”
I had never asked anyone a question like this before. I expected the moderators to gently open up discussion among the group. Instead, the student sitting next to me (who was of mixed race and was clearly much more experienced in discussions like this) didn’t miss a beat. She immediately looked me dead in the eye and asked, “How could you not treat us like we’re different?”
I wish I had had the skills to say, “Yikes, I am totally out of my element here. I’d love to know more of what you think.” I didn’t know what to say, and to be honest I didn’t quite understand what she meant. She, in her wisdom, let me sit there uncomfortably, turn red, and stay silent for a painfully long time. The moderators tried to get me to answer, but I shut down and desperately wished for someone else to jump in. No one did. I assume the other white people in the room sat there thinking, “No way am I going to say anything and risk embarrassment like that poor girl! She took one for the team!”
That one question was a wake-up call for me. Her steady stare motivated me to start listening and learning. Her challenge inspired me to stay present with discomfort because it creates change. It even influenced my career path. I bring up this shameful moment because I want other white Americans to feel less inhibited in sharing their own shame, less afraid to talk about our embarrassment with how little we know about race, and how uncomfortable we are talking about it. I name Americans specifically because white people in other countries are often better at challenging each other and discussing uncomfortable subjects.
People of color have been trying to tell us this for…well, forever. Many have written and spoken about how difficult it is to talk about race with white people because we have three main responses:
1) We take it personally and our feelings get hurt.
2) We dominate the conversation.
3) We shut down.
Our utter inability to be challenged has a name: Dr. Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility.” I believe this phenomenon played a large role in Donald Trump’s election. How many of us challenged other white people directly during the election cycle? How many asked members of minority groups, “What do you think? Tell me more about your experience.” No, we didn’t. We were shocked by the extent of racism and apathy in our country because we were too conflict-avoidant to deal with it.
I recently saw white fragility in action when I attempted to engage in a debate with a long-time friend who had voted for Trump. “Whether or not you are racist,” I told her, “voting for Trump enabled racism.” I wanted to see if she agreed, at the very least, that racism is a bad thing, and if she would join me in standing up against white supremacists and for human rights. Her response was to get angry at me for trying to get her to join “my” causes. She has since refused to talk to me.
Losing this friendship was painful. It reinforced that challenging other white people is hugely risky. In the end, though, I’ve decided that I am not sorry. Trump voters deserve to be shamed. I may be the only person in her life willing to challenge her. Losing a friend is nothing compared to losing my life to police brutality or losing my child to poverty.
Donald Trump is so pathological that we will never talk him into supporting human rights. Our only hope is to engage with other Americans. It is the job of white Americans, the ones responsible for Trump’s disgraceful election, to speak to each other and to stand up for others’ dignity and protection. We have much to lose, but it’s about time we risked losing it for the good of us all.