Maybe this has happened to you before: I was sitting in a middle seat on a plane ride into San Diego next to an older white man and a younger white teenager. The older white man was in conversation with the younger white teenager when I took my seat and they continued to talk around me, which was fine with me because I put in my headphones and prepared for take off. As the plane got ready for takeoff they ended the conversation and the older white man mentioned to us, the younger teenager and myself, that he was going to drink. My gut was telling me that this man was going to be a problem and I should have switched seats right then but I was so close to the front! My gut was proved correct as the plane lifted off and he received his drink: Jack Daniels, straight. It hadn’t even been 30 minutes into the flight when he started engaging me with the usual small talk: Where do you work? Where are you going? Where are you from? I politely respond to his questions and go back to ignoring him. I’m usually pretty damn good at avoiding small talk, it’s a skill, but somehow this guy, who’s name I find out is Eddie, engages me in conversation yet again this time on the topic of Trump and we get to talking about our general dislike for the administration. The conversation died down for a second time and I took this as my cue to put in my headphones again when, and this is the good part, he says “Can I ask you something? As a Black person, what’s your take on the current state of America?
Or maybe you’ve had this happen: In September I was at a training for work centered on undoing institutional racism. I didn’t mean to keep count but I couldn’t help but notice that I was one of five Black attendees in the room, not including the presenters who are also Black. The rest of the group is a mix of middle aged and young nonprofit white professionals and professionals of color. We go around in a circle for introductions and then set community guidelines which we are encouraged to hold each other accountable to throughout the two days of the training. After participating in a large group discussion and presentation we break into smaller groups for discussion on the ways that institutional racism shows up in our lives. Being one of two Black people in a group of ten I am justifiably apprehensive about joining the conversation. My apprehension is proved correct when someone, a white woman, brings up rap, blackness, and images in the media and tries to correlate hip hop to the reason why stereotypes about Black men exist. As one of the two Black people in the group I’m thinking one, why is this white woman so comfortable speaking on Black issues? And two, should I respond?
Everyday Black people and non Black people of color are placed in the position to educate white people on our continued oppression in this country by sharing personal anecdotes about our lives. And when you’re in the nonprofit sector in Seattle working with other organizations with people who are also passionate about social justice, equity, and critically thinking about oppression, conversations about race will happen. What concerns me the most is the assumption that not only is it okay, but it’s required for people of color to share personal, sometimes traumatic, sometimes triggering, aspects of our lives to our white peers for their own educational benefit. It needs to be said that it’s not okay to ask for or put people of color in the position to share our personal experiences for the sake of educating White people.
So, if you’re a person of color who finds yourself caught in the middle of a conversation with a white person about race, how do you determine whether the conversation will be worth your time, emotional, and intellectual energy? Some questions, written by Trudy Hamilton on Gradient Lair, that I’ve started to ask myself when caught in any conversation with another white person, ally or not, about race are:
- Is there an understanding of White supremacy?
- Do they understand White privilege outside of financial wealth, fame or class?
- Do they know that “Reverse racism” doesn’t exist?
- Do they understand that discussing Whiteness, as an ideological construct does not mean I am accusing them of being racist?
Of course, this does not guarantee that the conversation will be worth the risk and the option to disengage might not be an option for every conversation but these questions can be a useful tool in determining when to step in or step out of a conversation, exactly how you would enact that would depend on context: where the conversation is taking place, is the person a friend, family member, coworker, or is it a relationship you are deeply invested in?
Some of you may be thinking that Eddie’s question was worse than the comments the white woman made during the training, but the truth is there is no difference between Eddie and the well intentioned white woman attending the training on undoing institutional racism. I know we’d like to think there is, but there isn’t. And here’s why: Eddie asking me point blank about the “Black experience” proved that, not only did he think of the Black experience in America as monolith he also revealed himself as a white person who is apathetic to the plight of Black Americans. If he had been at all in tune with either, the question about “my experience” wouldn’t have been up for debate. The woman in the group discussion did something similar. She spoke metaphorically about Blackness, albeit that is one of the only ways Whites can relate, she completely missed the actual Black people in the room who have actual real life experiences. In the end both viewed and prioritized their own learning over the humanity of the Black person breathing the same air as them.
I guess the morals of my stories would be: White people, people of color don’t owe you insight into our experiences. We’re not your personal Wikipedia on racism and oppression and to treat us as such is telling You don’t get bonus points for allyship when the impact of your actions are just as harmful as non allies. Don’t be like Eddie.
To the readers who are people of color, I want to know:
What are some ways that you determine whether or not to participate in a race conversation with another white person? What are some instances in your life, be it work or personal, that you’ve had similar situations happen to you?
About the author: Jaleesa Smiley is the Development and Operations Fellow at Rainier Valley Corps. She is a recent graduate of Western Washington University with a BA in American Cultural Studies with a focus in Education and Social Justice. Jaleesa comes from a legacy of brilliant, self-determined, and ingenious black women and she carries their spirit with her wherever she move in the world. Jaleesa is involved in this work because of her passion for racial equity, social justice, and community involvement. She is excited be involved in work that has an impact on communities, specifically communities of color.
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