I Don’t Want to Be ‘That White Guy’ When Talking About Racism

Race Manners: There’s plenty of room between ignoring racism and inserting yourself into others’ conversations about it.

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“I’m a white guy. One morning I was at the gym, changing at my locker, when two black guys next to me got into a discussion. I don’t know either of them well, but previously I’ve had a lot of casual conversation with one of them and a little bit with the other. One says our city is the most racist place he’s ever been; the other says it’s the least racist place he’s ever been. I am literally in the middle of this conversation: One is standing immediately to my left, another is at my right. 

“I’m thinking that maybe these guys mean different things when they’re using the word ‘racist’—I know that they come from very different backgrounds—but I don’t want to butt in and sound like I’m ‘That White Guy Who Will Explain Racism to Black People.’ But I’m in the middle of changing, their conversation continues, and before long it feels like I’m conspicuous in my silence, being ‘That White Guy Who Never Wants to Talk About Racism.’

“I kept my mouth shut, but I’ve always wondered if I could have done something better, and I hate not being able to sort it out.” —Locker Room Lurker

You were right to go with your instinct and not barge in as an uninvited moderator of a conversation about other people’s experiences. That’s not a race question—that’s a general politeness question made even more obvious by the sensitive nature of the issue being discussed.

I do understand the feeling of getting antsy when people are having a conversation in which it seems to you that they’re talking past each other and could use a translator. I can imagine you were thinking, “Wait, maybe you two don’t actually disagree. Locker Room Guy 1 is referring to deeply entrenched systemic racism that led to the racial segregation in Washington, D.C., and Locker Room Guy 2 is talking about the type of overt anti-black sentiments one might encounter in the Deep South.”

Maybe you could have gotten your two gym buddies to agree by helping to define the concept that was being discussed—but again, no one asked. It’s also worth considering that this conversation was as much about therapeutic venting as it was about coming to a consensus or officially naming the most racist city in the country.

Still, your other instinct—wanting to avoid becoming “That White Guy Who Never Wants to Talk About Racism”—is also a good one, in my opinion.

I’m not in the “Shut up, don’t say a word, listen and let nonwhite people talk about racism” camp. Beyond the practical barriers to that—for one, there is no giant “mute” button to silence people who don’t have personal insight into what it feels like to be marginalized—I believe we’re all in this together, and dismantling racism is not something people who have experienced it can or should have to do alone.

Plus, I’m well aware of the very sad and panicked guys behind things like the “White Man’s March” who are working hard for the support of people from your demographic who—whether it’s reasonable or not—have had their feelings hurt by conversations that don’t center on their needs or the America they believe is slipping away. I’d rather you chat with us than with them, frankly.

So I don’t think you should butt in and tell people what they’re getting wrong in the locker room, on Twitter or anywhere else. But if you’re interested in the actual substance of the conversation about racism and how your friends experience it (versus their language and argumentation tactics), there are ways to get into the dialogue.