Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race

I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates our experiences. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals like they can no longer hear us.

This emotional disconnect is the conclusion of living a life oblivious to the fact that their skin colour is norm and all others deviate from it. At best, white people have been taught not to mention that people of colour are ‘different’ in case it offends us. They truly believe that the experiences of their life as a result of their skin colour can and should be universalised. I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do. They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white- so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact; they interpret it as an affront.  The journey towards understanding structural racism still requires people of colour to prioritise white feelings. Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their mouths start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you but not really listen, because they need to let you know that you’ve got it wrong.

Even if they can hear you, they’re not really listening. It’s like something happens to the words as they leave my mouth and reach their ears. The words hit a barrier of denial and they don’t get any further.

That’s the emotional disconnect. It’s not really surprising, because they’ve never known what it means to embrace a person of colour as a true equal, with thoughts and feeling that are as valid as their own.  Watching The Color of Fear by Lee Mun Wah, I saw people of colour break down in tears as they struggled to convince a defiant white man that his words were enforcing and perpetuating a white racist standard on them. All the while he stared obliviously, completely confused by this pain, at best trivialising it, at worst ridiculing it.

I’ve written before about this white denial being the ubiquitous politics of race that operates on its inherent invisibility. So I can’t talk to white people about race anymore because of the consequential denials, awkward cartwheels and mental acrobatics that they display when this is brought to their attention. Who really wants to be alerted to a structural system that benefits them at the expense of others?

I can no longer have this conversation, because we’re often coming at it from completely different planes. I can’t have a conversation with them about the details of a problem if they don’t even recognise that the problem exists. Worse still is the white person who might be willing to entertain the possibility of said racism, but still thinks we enter this conversation as equals. We don’t.

Not to mention that entering into conversation with defiant white people is a frankly dangerous task for me. As the heckles rise and the defiance grows, I have to tread incredibly carefully, because if I express frustration, anger, or exasperation at their refusal to understand, they will tap into their pre-subscribed racist tropes about angry black people who are a threat to them and their safety.  It’s very likely that they’ll then paint me as a bully or an abuser. It’s also likely that their white friends will rally round them, rewrite history and make the lies the truth. Trying to engage with them and navigate their racism is not worth that.

Amidst every conversation about Nice White People feeling silenced by conversations about race, there is a sort of ironic and glaring lack of understanding or empathy for those of us who have been visibly marked out as different for our entire lives, and live the consequences.  It’s truly a lifetime of self-censorship that people of colour have to live. The options are: speak your truth and face the reprisal, or bite your tongue and get ahead in life. It must be a strange life, always having permission to speak and feeling indignant when you’re finally asked to listen. It stems from white people’s never questioned entitlement, I suppose.

I cannot continue to emotionally exhaust myself trying to get this message across, whilst also toeing a very precarious line that tries not to implicate any one white person in their role of perpetuating structural racism, lest they character assassinate me.

So I’m no longer talking to white people about race. I don’t have a huge amount of power to change the way the world works, but I can set boundaries. I can halt the entitlement they feel towards me and I’ll start that by stopping the conversation. The balance is too far swung in their favour. Their intent is often not to listen or learn, but to exert their power, to prove me wrong, to emotionally drain me, and to rebalance the status quo. I’m not talking to white people about race unless I absolutely have to. If there’s something like a media or conference appearance that means that someone might hear what I’m saying and feel less alone, then I’ll participate. But I’m no longer dealing with people who don’t want to hear it, wish to ridicule it and frankly, don’t deserve it.

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27 thoughts on “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race

  1. Reni, thank you a thousand times for a brilliant piece of writing that so clearly maps the emotional lives of PoC living in white societies. I urge all readers to tweet, like and all those other social media things. My own exasperation, with the same feelings of banging my head on the white wall, is far less well expressed but, after a lifetime of it since the 1950s, I now just feel exhausted.

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  2. BAM! This. is. BRILLIANT. A dear friend and colleague told me years ago that people of color need to into one room and celebrate, and White people need to go into another room and deal with their unexamined racism and White privilege.

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    • At a recent Racial Justice seminar I attended we did this exercise. When the time arrived that we were to divide into our groups, it was a decided a 3rd group was needed. One for the white people who didn’t understand the need for separation and were less comfortable with the reality of white privilege. Even within the white community, vast differences of levels of understanding and experience.

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  3. @teachermrw – yes it certainly feels like that would be a good idea sometimes. But, as a mixed race person, I have experienced the downsides of separatism when I once went to a club that had unoffically segregated bars and I could not get served in either. I was also in the odd position of often being asked at work ‘what does your community feel about..’ while being told I was too white to be in the Black Employees Support Group (though a few years later I was appointed to chair the group). Nevertheless, I really notice how when in East London I’m, treated completely normally in shops and so-on (predomonantly staffed by non white people) while in Devon there’s often an odd comment, odd look or body language that really means ‘go away’ so i sometimes feel seperatism would suit me just so I could have space to ‘be’ as it were.
    .

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  4. Thank you for writing this Rene. I’m a white mum of three mixed race children. I know I can’t fully understand what it is you describe, but I just wanted to say that it resonated deeply. I have done my best to engage with and understand the different journey that my children and husband must navigate through our society. As I’ve tried to share this learning with other white friends and family, I have experienced exactly those responses you describe – ‘eyes hardening’ and ‘treacle in ears’, right through to very abusive responses from certain people when broaching the topic of structural racism and white privilege. That battle is not mine I know, but my children are my heart, and through them, I get as close to it as I can. Regarding the two rooms described by @teachermrw – to a certain extent I agree, and I feel there is a role for some of us in the ‘white room’ to help initiate and steer conversation towards better understanding. That’s something I am committed to doing. I would really miss my loved ones though, so as long as it we were just in our rooms for a time, before coming back together.

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  5. Heart-breaking. Thank you for writing & for the link to the film
    As I said to a White guy friend ‘but it’s NOT the “knuckle-dragging racists”, it’s US’

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  6. @Nick
    I live in Devon, and yeah I know what you’re talking about. I don’t think it’s done just to PoC, but if a person is of colour then yeah they’re going to find it always done to them. Which I am ashamed of really, as a white person living in Devon.

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    • Interestingly, the three most serious life-threatening attacks I’ve experienced personally were in the countryside where mixed race people represent about 0.05% of the population and PoC about 1%. In cities the unease has been far less prevalent except near where I once worked in Watford – not far from the old National Front HQ. Several Oxfam shops were fire-bombed and, just prior to me moving there, our local shopkeper was murdered after speaking out against racists.

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      • I wanted to talk some time before I replied. Life threatening attacks are rather a step up (understatement) from what I read in your original comment. What I read in your original comment I had come across – it’s the general distrust of outsiders that I have seen whilst living in small villages in Devon.

        Hearing that you have been put in life-threatening attacks causes this reaction in me – I want to learn more about how I can help ensure that others don’t have to suffer like that out here. So I will be educating myself on tackling racism in rural areas and do more. Because I feel that whilst PoC are getting attacked down here it’s not enough for me to just education and affect change within myself. I want to live in a world where minority groups get heard, people can celebrate their differences, and where we can all get along.

      • Part of the dynamic of feeling uneasy is the knowledge that situations one has already experienced might be repeated. If it was just the odd looks and the comments on their own then I expect we would feel a bit annoyed but not actually frightened. It’s not always possible to know when and how an attack might happen so one adopts a kind of hyper-vigilance. Many of PoC’s mental health issues are caused and prolonged by very long periods of time in which the fight or flight mechanism is on high alert; and it doesn’t necessarily require previous personal experience of violence or bad treatment either – we have a sense that many encounters with racists are purely random. The problem is also exacerbated by treatments for mengtal health problems, such as CBT, that rely on showing people’s fears are unfounded when, in fact they are totally founded in reality. As well as issues of colour there are issues of culture, community and so-on that also contribute to the unease of the outsider or the ‘other’.

      • That fits in with my experience as trans; knowing stuff has happened before and therefore might happen again. We white people have destroyed your trust in us. Yeah, people like myself need to be doing more to be the change we want to see in the world so that trust can be rebuilt again. I do feel strongly about my desire to rebuild trust, probably because of my own background. My grandmother was born half way round the world and lived there for the first 30 years (thereabouts) of her life, before becoming a refugee (WWII) and then ending up in the Channel Islands simply because her husband had family there. Luck of the draw my ancestors were white British but I’m still only here because of a refugee.

  7. It is heartbreaking that we have yet to reach the point that we cannot recognise differences, whether it be colour, faith, abilities, sexual et al, without acknowledging individuality and without preconceptions.
    I wait impatiently for the time when we say of ourselves and others “This is me, this is you. We share some commonalities with each other, we share some traits & experience with some groups. For every single one of us though, the journey is unique and that’s okay.”

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  8. This does remind me of trying to engage men about feminist issues. Even when it’s coming from another straight white guy, the symptoms mentioned in the intro of this piece all kick in.

    I think SWM have a lot of trouble thinking outside of their life being the default and therefore the only one that matters. They also seem to take any discussion about institutionalised racism, patriarchy, etc. as a personal attack on them as an individual. I wonder why?

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    • thanks for the background history but i can assure you that I already know it. you might be able to tell from any piece my of writing exactly where my political affiliations lie. it should be glaringly obvious from my writing that I don’t co-sign the politics of every woman who put the money in to start it. I hope you don’t think so lowly of me as to assume i’m a brainless lemming or a sheep.

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      • I think very highly of you which is precisely why I can’t reconcile your involvement in a project that has such a ‘big’ feminist, hierarchical structure (an ‘editor’ ??). White feminists sitting around, parasitically encouraging other women to provide the site with content is a problem, yes. They didn’t have a clue when they launched. Now they know that to keep going they need the kudos you and people like Roz Kaveney provide. I’m not talking about people who put money in I’m talking about those ‘in charge’ who wouldn’t even know how to spell intersectionality never mind understand it. It’s the perfect proto-capitalist experiment: present women with a vaguely feminist ‘themed’ site and the promise of a magazine that will never materialise. Get the people who put money in to also provide you with the content (for reason above) sit back and congratulate yourself on being a first class ‘media’ feminist . (See Dzodan for recent definition of this) Hopefully your presence might mean we will see a regime change at FT, either that or we should start a project that has genuine integrity.

  9. I’m so damn sorry you have been made to feel like this. It’s spot on, unfortunately. As a white person I’m painfully embarrassed by the systemic privilege we deny and enjoy on a daily basis. And painfully embarrassed that I didn’t even realise it myself until about ten years ago. Beautifully written.

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  10. The psychological hurdle that is Whiteness needs first to be overcome before White people in general can deal with Racism; on the level of understanding it as a structural bias. Unfortunately, most of the time it feels that the only way to tap into such psychology is by means of a lobotomy. Hammer anyone? Peace, respect, and thank you.

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    • I think too it’s a practical hurdle because the families, institutions, places of work, religious groups and social circles all rely on an over-emphasised sense of team loyalty, tribalism, nationalism, localism and so-on that is threatened by any form of internal criticism. So while individuals might abhore racism/sexism/homophobia etc, it is often made clear within the group dynamic that reciprocated loyalty from the group to the individual is dependant upon putting the psychological comfort and social status of group before the needs of the outsider. I think most people have a sense of what it might mean to be ostracised and so very few anti-racists actually properly support anti-racist positions.

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  11. I understand. I know that I’m a racist, I’m a product of a fundamentally racist society and I make snap judgements about people based on their skin colour. When I realise what I’m doing I’m ashamed and I do all I can to see the person, not the skin colour, but how can I undo the programming and my own personality? I try to be aware of my bias and make sure that it’s only ever a problem for me and not the person I’m facing but most of all I try to listen to people like you because if I can listen to someone who experiences prejudice I stand a hope of understanding it and maybe I can stop it being passed on any further. Don’t stop explaining, some of us know that what we don’t want to hear we really need to be told. Sorry.

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  12. We are but here for a minute, and the thing we most struggle with is skin color? God will surely judge us harshly if this is the sum of our commitment to one another. I am my brothers keeper!

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  13. Hi, I hear you. I am white and I refuse to take the “white is neutral” bullshit. Don`t stop talking to white people, your voice is clear and important, and there are ways of getting through. Have you seen Bryan Stevenson`s “We Need «to Talk About Justice” TED Talk? I showed it to a group of mostly white junior college students. Some reacted the way you describe in your post, shutting their ears and hearts. Others were profoundly shocked and told me something clicked in their heads. I spread the message around. I support you.

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  14. As an (ex) environmental campaigner, it’s become clear that green politics is now closed to me almost entirely because of the obsession that many green campaigners have with racist Anthroposophy. Hardly a day goes by without my campaign (to expose racist Anthroposophy and its apologists) being threatened. Just today, this spat unfolded on Facebook when there was a post about BBC bias against science and climate change and in favour of mysticism (such as racist Anthroposophy). Before you know it, I’m threatened with legal action by another commenter attempting to defend Anthroposophist organisations. You can read it here.. https://www.facebook.com/maurice.spurway?fref=ts

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  15. @Stevie The (fashionable?) rise in intersectional politics is helpful in bringing people together who have in common the experience as being treated as ‘other’ in ways that impact negatively on their lives. I’m hoping this might be a turning point in which white, male, cis, straight capitalist patriarchy might start to feel some pressure to change. But my fear is that economic hardship will turn attitudes to the right both fiscally and socially and, as a result, prejudice and bigotry might well increase; especially if UKIP do well in the the upcoming elections.

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  16. The dreaded words vaguely disguised as reassurance: “But, I’m not like that!”.
    1) It’s a way to try making the topic about them.

    2) So what if they’re “not like that”?! The topic isn’t about people who aren’t! It’s about people who ARE like that! Stop being defensive! Not everything is about you! (them)

    3) LISTEN! Learn that while you may want to comment with what you think will benefit the conversation, if you are not effected by what the conversation is about, it’s most important to listen. Comment AFTER if you must. Conversations like this come about because people who aren’t heard desperately want to be. HEAR them! Give them that chance!

    4) I’m white (minus that minuscule % that may or may not be depending on if the family tales are true) and I can try to understand the best I can! It’s not difficult! I grew up not knowing my privilege. I learned! I strive to keep learning! It in no way diminishes any aspect of my life! I don’t say this to get a pat on the back. Being a decent human does not deserve reward. It’s basic.

    5) We’re all human, damnit! Treat each other as such!

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