What Happens When a White Person Talks About Race?

Two weeks ago, I shared an announcement on Facebook about a speaking engagement I am co-headlining which focuses on creating more opportunities for women of color. Fifteen minutes later, I received a message that read: “Good for you. As a white person, I can tell you that I’ve gotten nothing but headache every time I’ve tried to talk to black people about race. You must have the juice.”

Frankly, I wasn’t surprised by his response. After all, I’ve observed this before; white people being dismissed or criticized for talking about race. But like most things in this world, there are details that paint a more complete picture. As such, I decided to ask him some follow-up questions.

  1. When you say ‘headache’, what did that look like?
  2. When you say ‘every time’, how many times have you found yourself talking to ‘black people’ about race and what has been the context of the discussions?
  3. When you are not doing the talk, what are you doing to help the cause?
  4. Are you presuming that ‘black people’ are the only people that will be in the audience?
  5. What do you mean by ‘juice’?

As my questions turned into discussions and several pounds of frustration on his end, a few things became painfully clear to me. First and foremost, this specific gentleman wanted a lot of credit for his attempts at helping ‘black people’. Second to this, while he cited that he ‘always’ tries to help them, he could not give me day-to-day examples; only specific teaching moments where he was trying to mentor or inform them from a position of power or influence. Lastly, the headaches he described came through in the form of eye rolls and questioning over his use of generalizations and negative assumptions. In other words, he was not very helpful. Nor was he ever really invited to have the conversations, a fact that he interpreted as “they don’t truly want help, even when they say they do”.

What happens when a white person talks about race? That will and should have everything to do with how they talk about race, even when they are not talking.

Relatability Reality Check — One of the key phrases that continuously poured from his lips was the oft-used and inappropriate, “It’s not like I don’t know what they’re going through” This attempt at relatability or empathy, while perhaps well intentioned, smacks of ignorance and naivety.

The Opportunity Cycle has spun in favor of Caucasians for over two hundred years. As TLC would say, this is actual and factual. In this, when a Caucasian uses phrases that infer some form of relatability or knowing in reference to the experience of non-Caucasians, frustrations will rise. Not only do they minimize pain and create a false sense of connection, they also simplify the experiences and subsequent repercussions that are still resonant today.

Means of Engagement — We can talk to people, talk at people, or talk with people. This is true regardless of the topic. When a white person talks about race and delivers their words in a condescending manner or presumes a higher level of knowledge or understanding, people will get upset; understandably so. Even the most academic and historically inclined white person does not and cannot know everything there is to know about race and struggle. As such, talking with people is key in bridging knowledge, experience, and relationship gaps. This means:

  • Using words and body language that demonstrate an equal footing between you and everyone in the room.
  • Inviting alternative opinions and views with an open mind and an open heart
  • Being authentic through it all

This is not performative or for show. It is because everyone is equal in potential if given the same opportunities.

Consistency of Character — Who is someone when they are not under the lights? What do they do in the everyday when it comes to the treatment, sponsoring, and recognition of others? In organizations the world over, leaders are feeling shunned because they cite their support for something, only to make no momentous decisions or changes, take no meaningful steps to back-up it up.

Example: A Black History Month event is going on and senior leaders sit in the front row to show support; only to walk out and never step foot into the diversity and inclusion terrain until the next event.

People are measured by their consistency of character in so many walks of life, this being no exception. As such, if a white person is going to talk about race but do nothing to demonstrate a consistent care for race issues, they will likely be summarily dismissed. This is especially true if they have done or said things that run counter to whatever advertised support they show in the form of Diversity and Inclusion mission statements or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. memoriam e-mails.

All in all, discussions about race are not easy but they start with demonstrating some basic human tenets:

  • Demonstrating empathy, not sympathy or false relatability
  • Talking with people, not at them
  • Showing authentic care, not positional participation or caring for the sake of publicity
  • Listening to understand, not listening to respond

In a world where race issues are back in the forefront and movements are creating positive seeds of change, we need people who are in the conversations for the right reasons and with the right degree of humility and self-awareness. This particular messenger, like so many others, wants to be seen as a voice but refuses to give a voice to others.

And yes, white people can talk about race — I do it every day. But how I talk will and should overshadow what I talk about because it will tell an audience everything they need to know about my intent, my sincerity, and my consistency of character.

P.S. He never told me what he meant by ‘juice’.

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