You’re probably here because you’ve responded to my provocative title. You may have shared it or commented on it without actually reading this, but for those of you who have ventured in, I hope you’ll bear with me. This merits some explaining, but I think it’s worth a read. First, before you go on the defense, let’s talk about…
Some things white people often do care about:
- doing the “right” thing, with varying, subjective definitions there
- contributing to the common good
- justice and fairness
- one or more individual, specific persons of color
- sympathizing with people who are in similar, but not identical, predicaments to their own (as women, GLBT, the disabled or neurodiverse, yadda yadda)
- being a respectful, thoughtful and harmonious person, the likes of which you generally want to have around.
Here’s what’s missing:
- roots in majority black, or even majority POC communities of any kind. Even “the poor” are mostly white and largely segregated by race.
- stakeholder status; the sense that our own personal outcomes are truly tied up in the success or failure of racial parity.
- true, penetrating fear of racial transgression; the idea that if you fuck up, you might really be punished in a way that matters.
Why does this matter, and why would you boil those three items to not caring about black people?
I think these three bulletin points I’ve elucidated are what generally enables people to throw up their hands and walk away from a dialog with people of color. Even when white people care about justice, freedom and the american way, even if they have a black son-in-law or friend or coworker or teacher, even if they really really want to be good and helpful and right; at no point are they truly protecting their own and at no point are they obligated. I think a lot changes once that dynamic is addressed. I live in a majority black community and there was a long time that I wasn’t a very active member of it. Once I started to integrate into my own community (and my work is not done there), I began to understand that the social dynamics at work here really directly affected the well-being of my community. I would have always found it sad that a young man was shot and killed, but now that is has many unfortunate times been one of the neighborhood kids; that is no longer a passing feeling of sadness. That is an emergency. Not because I fear for my own child, but because this is a community and the adults are responsible for protecting the children. I feel some legitimate stake in these children that is not the direct ownership that their parents have, but enough to feel that I personally have failed them. After having this experience, that feeling is something that can be triggered by others who aren’t members of my community, although to a somewhat lesser extent.
I’m not trying to brag on my own enlightenment. Like many white people of actual good faith, I am a work in progress and I’m awkward and have moments of real wrongness, but I am starting to understand that it is enormously important (to me) when I do find myself in the wrong. There are no real apologies to give in that place. You break the trust of people who knew it wasn’t a great idea to trust you in the first place, and that’s it. It is totally feasible that you only get one chance, and when you carelessly cross someone, you just lost that person forever.
Are you all suggesting we go gentrify black neighborhoods?
Hell no. When I moved here, it happened to be close to work and I had the same basic income as my neighbors. My station has improved since that time, but I’ve been careful to be an acceptable guest here who patronizes old neighborhood-owned businesses, does not invite menace on my neighbors by collaborating with racist police and neighborhood watch and does not “flip” my home so that it’s twice the value of all others on the block. Most people can’t resist those temptations in my experience, so just skip it. You don’t have to live in a majority black community to participate in one. Also, there’s something to be said for skipping activities and communities that are really far majority white. Many activists of color ask people to do that and I agree. There are some communities that are mostly of color that will accept white guests. If you’re a churchgoer, perhaps switch to a more diverse church. Think about your socially-oriented hobbies and interests and consider whether there are more diverse communities in which you could participate. The obvious exceptions are safe spaces, though. Sometimes people of color need a breather. There are measurable stressors that are so noxious that they actually shorten the lives of people of color. Even just the sight of a white face can be triggering. You should take some time to carefully consider whether the place you’re interested in entering is a safe space, because they must truly be respected in order to preserve the health and well-being of people of color. Also, if it needs to be said, you must be the most polite, gracious guest you could possibly be. Be very understanding of cultural differences and absolutely do not confront people that appear to be problematic to you unless you are given direct permission to do so or they are white. Any community determines its own standards. Do not demand attention or consideration or invite yourself to behave intimately with people you don’t know and haven’t initiated that kind of context with you.
In general, follow the rules that a well behaved child from the 50s would follow at an adult function:
- make sure that you mostly speak when spoken to as opposed to out of turn. Don’t expect that everyone wants to engage with you.
- say please and thank you. You might laugh, but I swear to god, this needs to be said
- keep your hands to yourself. Again, you might laugh, but…
- don’t speak when someone else is speaking
- don’t change the topic of conversation to yourself.
- don’t overstay your welcome. If you get the feeling that the “grownups” want to have a private chat, migrate elsewhere.
- clean up after yourself.
- when still in doubt, ask.
- don’t mock anyone or attempt to “blend in” by imitation
That may all seem really enragingly condescending until you realize that people of color abide these rules day in and day out in white communities. And they don’t have a choice. What a crock of shit, huh?
Some way or another, integration must be achieved, although absolutely with caution, humility and tentatively at first. We still live in a very segregated world, despite what the history books would say and that provides us with a very convenient escape hatch out of race issues; notably one that people of color don’t have.