Very few of us white people were taught by our parents or teachers how to exist in a multi-cultural world. And the few instructions we were given, weren’t very helpful.
Because of the shitty racial education most white people received, it should be no surprise that we make a lot of mistakes in our cross cultural relationships. Honestly, there is a zero percent chance white people will get through life without saying or doing something racist. So if you’re on the quest for perfection, let it go.
There is just too much racism in our world to avoid getting infected by it. And like eating a Big Mac, when toxic stuff goes in, it’s gonna come back out. And sometimes we are gonna get called out for vomiting this racism up in public.
Maybe it’s a racist joke, maybe it’s “our take” on the day’s news, maybe it’s calling a Native person an “Indian” in a tone they “didn’t appreciate.” (All of which I am embarrassed to say I have done in my 33 short years on planet Earth).
Being told we did or said something racist hits white people with a tidal wave of emotions. At times I have been angry and indignant that I was being slapped with the same label as the KKK. I’ve felt hurt that I was misunderstood or taken out of context. I’ve been afraid that I might lose my job or gym membership. Other times, I just feel sick to my stomach that I hurt another person – especially if it’s someone I really care about.
And while all these reactions are swirling inside us, it’s tempting to react in even more hurtful (and racist) ways. So please learn from my mistakes.
Bad Reaction #1: Desperately Trying to Defend Ourselves
While the person we hurt is still standing in front of us, it’s tempting to desperately try to defend ourselves as “not racist.”
I’m not proud to admit it, but I’ve tried to defend myself with some of the old standards. “But that’s not what I meant!”
“I have lots of Native American friends”
and “I think you may be over-reacting…”
These are not helpful to say. It’s basically a self-centered attempt to shift the blame back onto the offended person. This strategy is akin to a waiter serving a rotting steak and attempting to avoid apologizing, by showing the customer a bunch of good Yelp reviews for their restaurant.
Even if we don’t screw up often…we did this time. And we need to acknowledge that we made a mistake and do our best to try and make it right.
Mistake #2: Retreat into a Shame Spiral and Give Up
There have also been times when I was speechless at the racist word vomit that just exited my mouth. And in a fit of self-loathing shame I did my best to quickly apologize and get the hell out of there.
Then spent the rest of the day free falling into a stomach twisting shame spiral.
Beating myself up for being “another hurtful white person” or “wondering why I even try to be friends with people of color.” And instead of going back and addressing the situation, I let my words haunt that relationship like a racist specter. Making it awkward and embarrassing whenever I see them.
Which usually equates to giving up on any real relationship and resorting to a sort of awkward (or worse antagonistic) working relationship.
But We Can Do Better!
Step 1. Apologize (even if you don’t understand why you are wrong)
Even if you don’t understand why your actions or words were racist…
Even if this is your first offense with that person…
Even if you didn’t mean it that way…
Remember that you are probably not the first white person to make this type of comment or joke or slight. In some ways, it’s similar to making a fat joke to a plus sided person.
This may be your first offense. But this is probably the millionth time they have heard it. So, unfortunately the person you offended might not have any fucks left to give you. They may be at the point where every straw is the last straw.
So they may explode at you.
Let them vent, rant, call you racist. Just apologize and listen. Listen to how hurt they are. Listen to their pain.
Step 2. If You’re Not in a Good Head Space…Ask for Some Time
If the offended person is too upset to talk or you feel like you are not in a good head space to do anything but defend yourself, argue, or shut down…ask for some time to process and learn from your mistake. You will probably say something you regret and it is not the job of the hurt person to explain to us why they are hurt and angry and offended. Which leads me to Step 3.
Step 3. Process Your Feelings with White Friends who have Thought a Lot about Anti-Racism Work
You may feel hurt, misunderstood, angry, judged, worried (I usually do). I would strongly suggest that you reach out to a white friend who is engaged in anti-racist work – they tend to post a lot about it on Twitter and Facebook. Talk through your emotions with them. Chances are they have made the same mistakes and experienced many of the same emotions.
While it may be tempting to call up your friend of color and process with them. It is not every person of color’s job to help white people learn about racism. Frankly, it is tiring work and most of our friends are not being paid for it.
But processing your feelings is an important step because you need to acknowledge and deal with your feelings or they will get in the way of real learning and reconciliation.
But processing your feelings is not the same as learning what you did wrong. So once you are in a better head space…
Step 4. Do Some Research
Research will go a long ways towards keeping you from making the same mistake in the future. It will also show the offended person that that you cared enough to listen and learn. That you value them and legitimately want to do better.
Try Googling your question – although be careful to read article written by people of color.
Phoebe Robinson rules BTW
Step 5. Have Another Conversation with the Person You Hurt
Now this is how I tend to approach this conversation. I am not you, so you will need to read the situation as best you can. But I can tell you that listening is the key.
Once I am calm, non-defensive, have a better grip on why I offended the person, and how I plan to change…I contact the person I hurt and ask to connect.
I start by thanking them for being willing to talk to again. I say this because I have had a few relationships where I was never given a second chance.
I may need to start by apologizing again for not reacting well when they named my racism. Then I ask them how they are feeling and listen. Really listen. I ask if they have any suggestions for how I can improve our relationship going forward. I thank them for their suggestions and tell them I will incorporate this feedback into our future interactions. Sometimes the research I did comes up – sometimes it doesn’t. But I try not to force it into the conversation.
We Can’t Be Perfect, but We Can Do Better.
Cross cultural friendships are hard. There are more chance for misunderstandings and more chances to offend. But they can also be exciting and fun and make the world a genuinely better place. So don’t give up!
We need white people and people of color working together to solve our worlds most pressing issues.
We need white and black and Latino and Asian American and Native teachers all working together in our schools to help shape and mold the next generation of leaders.
We need diverse business people working together to help create a vibrant middle class of color.
We need diverse marketing and writing teams to help create better ad campaigns and TV shows.
We need to figure out how to work through those tough moments when we say and do racist stuff. Because it is going to happen, the question is – how are we going to respond?
It’s not going to be easy, but I’m rooting for you.
Thank you to Rev. Lawrence Richardson for his help with this post.