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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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.

In this particular situation, in which you’re friendly with the two people discussing racism within earshot, why not ask questions instead of attempting to swoop in and settle the debate? Something as simple as, “Wow, do you mind if I ask what kinds of things you experienced in Boston?” would be a great start.

You also don’t have to limit yourself to stumbling upon conversations about race and racism and finding ways to insert yourself. I’d offer advice here similar to the tips I gave to the reader who wrote, “Help, I’m a Racist and I Don’t Want to Be.” Talk about race. Start out with a private exchange between yourself, your conscience and whatever you can find on the Internet. Then link up with one of the many groups of white people who are committed to anti-racism. Next, try working through your ideas and whatever activism they might inspire in a more diverse setting.

Once you do this, you’ll have a better framework for understanding these conversations and a language for participating in them. You’ll also be much less likely to find yourself in another awkward situation where you’re caught off guard, over your head and literally in the middle of a discussion about something you don’t spend much time on in your daily life. That’s understandably unsettling.  

“That White Guy Who Will Explain Racism to Black People” and “That White Guy Who Never Wants to Talk About Racism” are, respectively, the domains of those who are arrogant and afraid. There’s a middle ground—a big one—between those poles. Much like the effort you put in at the gym, the process of getting there will take work and will be uncomfortable at times, but my guess is that will make you into a version of “That White Guy” whom you like a lot better.

The Root’s senior staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.

Need race-related advice? Send your questions to racemanners@theroot.com.

Previously in Race Manners: “What to Do When Slavery Lessons Put Black Kids on the Spot