“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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: “What to Do When Slavery Lessons Put Black Kids on the Spot”