I am someone who spends a lot of time thinking and writing about race. I am also someone who finds themselves in conversations (in-person, virtually) with white people on race. And while these conversations can sometimes be intellectually engaging, they are often frustrating and unproductive. These types of questions (“why do I find something to be X?”) are some of my favorite and after giving it some thought, I figured it out: these conversations involve white people who refuse to engage with their whiteness.
The notion that whiteness is often treated as neutral is not new (critical whiteness studies addresses this concept much better than I could). But what’s fascinating to me is when white people, who are seemingly committed to understanding issues of race, default to this approach when confronted about their whiteness in conversations on race.
Despite all of the work society does to convince us that white people are neutral, they are not. They engage with the greater world as a white people. They might not think of themselves as white in the same way I think of myself as Native, but they are white. And because of this, whiteness informs all of their interactions with others. For example, in conversations on police in schools, white people often defer to the notion that police (or “good” police) can serve an important function in schools. But this perspective is informed by the relationship white people have with the police. Even when white people are vehemently against police brutality, they can remain silent on the dozens of other ways police enact white supremacy.
Because of this presumed neutrality, white people usually make comments that are centered in whiteness. Sometimes when I confront them on this, they reflect. But other times, they double down on their whiteness and will state something like, “I’m just making an observation,” or “I’m just playing devil’s advocate.” These comments are meant to distance themselves from their whiteness–when in reality, all of our observations or devil’s advocate stances we take are informed by our racial positioning. You aren’t just making an observation, you are making an observation as a white person. Therefore, before you comment on something as a white person, I think it’s helpful to ask yourself a few things…
- Is this appropriate for me to comment on as a white person? I’ve been in classes where Brown and Black students share their experiences with race, and a white person will comment in ways that negate the person’s experience because “not everything is about race.” Perhaps it’s not for white people because whiteness is treated as the rule but it is for the people who are frequently racialized.
- How does sharing my white person’s perspective add to the current conversation? I’m involved in a lot of conversations on Native mascots. White people love to comment on Native mascots. Unfortunately, their comments often reinforce whiteness or attempt to make the conversation about their feelings as white people. This is why it’s important to think about what you’re adding to the interaction. This is not to say that white people can’t have perspectives on Native mascots, but do those perspectives add, in any way, to the conversation taking place?
- Should I, as a white person, do more research/reading/reflection on this topic before I comment? I realize that this could be a habit I developed as an academic, but before I comment on most anything, I check my facts, make sure I understand the topic, and ask if my voice adds to the conversation. I encourage white people to do the same, particularly when entering dialogue on race.
I realize that this post might create some defensiveness among my white readers. I hope that’s not the case, but if it is, I thank you in advance for sitting with your defensiveness. It’s not easy, but is necessary for those who want to dismantle white supremacy.
I also want to note that while these questions are probably worth asking in any type of commenting situation–this is not an observation that needs to be made. Making this type of observation (“but everyone should do this!”) is an attempt to de-center whiteness. Please don’t do that 🙂
Thank you for reading.