What Do White People Know About Race?

Featured image: design by K.C.Otenti, Assets by kropekk_pl on Pixabay and Andrew Rybalko on Shutterstock. Audio: recorded with Voice Recorder by quality apps, edited in Audacity.


4 for Now

I’m not an expert on the experiences of Black folks (or any Person of Color) and I have no authority (nor do I intend) to speak for anyone but me. I am a white woman sharing what I’ve learned from a variety of sources through my perspective. That said, it’s important for anyone learning about race and racism to consider certain things when turning to other white people for answers.

First, we just don’t get it. As members of the race in power in the U.S., we haven’t been oppressed based on our skin like folks of color have. True, there are other privileges we may not enjoy (we can’t all be white cis hetero Catholic men). But these different discriminations happen in addition to racism for people of color.

And white folks are here because our ancestors chose to be here. Descendants of enslaved people are here because our ancestors forced their ancestors here to help the so-called founders of the country build and maintain wealth (while not even being allowed to enjoy basic freedoms). You may sometimes feel like a “slave” to your job, but you’re making money to maintain a lifestyle Black folks in the U.S. weren’t allowed for centuries.

Second, we’ve been socialized and educated not to see or admit systemic-level racism. The history here is a massive topic, but briefly: to stay in power, white people created racism to justify the horrible things they did to Black people. They can only keep their power if everyone is on board (or if they can control those who aren’t).

And, as author Ijeoma Oluo has said, it’s easier for people to perpetuate interpersonal racism when there’s systemic support. If you have something personal against Black people, when your school or work or government enforces that belief, you feel validated and spread your seemingly “correct” ideas.

So the powers that be lie to us, and after generations of propaganda, people stop questioning. Now it’s “the way we’ve always done things” or “our heritage.” Those who speak out are shamed for betraying their country. And the mass delusion that everything’s okay continues.

Finally, our perceptions of ourselves often differ from how others see us. You may feel cool as a cucumber while your friend wonders why you’re so worried you’re biting your fingernails. Psychologist Steve Ayan says that contemporary psychology questions the idea that we can know ourselves objectively. I mean, when we’ve been conditioned our whole lives into racism, how can we be confident that we’re not hurting Black folks even though we “didn’t mean any harm”?

The lesson here is to not blindly accept a white person’s opinion on race without asking questions. Is it one person’s perspective or is it a fact? Are there other sources that can back it up? Are they trying to speak for someone else? I speak because the onus doesn’t fall on oppressed people to educate their oppressors. But be sure you’re listening to them, too.

4 for Later

  1. For a story illustrating the difference between Black and white childhoods, see Clint Smith’s How to Raise a Black Son in America (5 minute Ted Talk).
  2. For additional stories of the Black experience, see LeVar Burton’s video series, This Is My Story (six videos, each 2:30-3:30 minutes long). Be warned: he uses NSFW or kids language!
  3. Ten Things You Don’t Know About Yourself by Steve Ayan illustrates why it’s hard to be objective about ourselves. (20-30 minute read)
  4. Ijeoma Oluo speaks to NPR’s Noel King in What Systemic Racism Means And The Way It Harms Communities (7-minute audio with transcription).