Gillibrand’s Racial Elephant in the Room

During the Democratic debates in Detroit, Kristen Gillibrand, a white woman of privilege, talked about racism. She complained that it shouldn’t be just Cory Booker and Kamala Harris talking about race.

White liberals generally have a strange way of talking about racism. We dodge, we couch, we leave the heavy labor to black folks. We speak wistfully of a post-racial, color blind era.

That wasn’t the gist of Gillibrand’s comments, though. She talked about white privilege, and about how she as a white person was better situated to talk to other white people about racism. She described telling white women that what protects their sons in times of trouble is their whiteness.

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As a white person who has been vocal about anti-racism, I have struggled on how to properly frame my message, and whether I should have a message at all.

On the one hand, white people have long dominated conversations on just about everything. It is extremely important that other voices be heard. Does the national dialogue really need another white voice? Won’t that drown out black voices and other voices of color?

On the other hand, white people do bring a different, and important, perspective. The main problem isn’t that we’ve been talking, it’s what we’ve been saying.

We’ve been offering solutions to help people of color overcome racism. As if we have a better perspective than the targets of systemic racism.

We’ve been dictating the parameters of what constitutes racism. When a person of color complains about something being racist, we’ve explained why it isn’t, over and again.

We’ve been offering perspectives on how well-intentioned white people are. Even though we’ve been raised in a system of racism, we’re decent people. We generally mean well.

“We’re not racist.”

That’s our mantra, our panacea for all things racist: “We’re not racist.”

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So I stopped addressing my perspectives to people of color. They don’t need it. I need to hear theirs, and I need to listen to their criticisms of mine, but there isn’t a proper dialogue there, and there shouldn’t be. I should listen to any voice of color that is willing to speak to me. I should accept and reflect. I should keep my “buts” to myself.

My people have hurt them enough. I have hurt them enough, through my complicity and casual racism.

But fellow white people, we need to talk. Amongst ourselves. About how to address this awful mess that we’ve inherited, that we’ve been raised in, and that persists in the face of our complicity. And that needs to be happening now.

A recurrent message I’ve read from people of color is exemplified by Dr. Neal A. Lester writing for Teaching Tolerance: “I am exhausted by the repetition of having to speak to this same thing—American racism, both overt and covert—over and over again. … To be clear, I am not asking anyone to speak for me or on my behalf, but rather that allies boldly engage in their respective corners.”

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We white people have trained ourselves to think that us talking about race is in itself racist.

Here’s a thought experiment. You’re a movie director, and your stars are Morgan Freeman and Martin Freeman. You have some dailies for Morgan, and you call your assistant over to deliver them. Your assistant, having a temporary lapse of memory, asks, “Which one’s Morgan?” How do you reply?

In my utterly non-scientific Facebook survey, my white readers generally said something about God, or “the older one.” The first response from a black reader was, “The black one.”

I’d like you to sit with that. If you’re like most white people raised in the United States, there’d be at least a moment of hesitation for you. Often, when we feel the need to describe someone as “black,” we sound like the Fonz from Happy Days trying to say “I was wrong.”

“You know who Mabel is, she’s… you know… blll…” (covered mouth, in a whisper) “black.”

It sounds like we think blackness is some sort of disease that is not discussed in polite company.

I stumble, too. I know where my heart is, but I also worry that if I’m too bold with using that word, other white people will think I’m racist. The irony is, the more self-conscious we are using the word, the more we look like we have a problem with someone’s blackness.

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Under our discomfort is a deeper problem of not being able to talk comfortably about race at all.

Which is a major problem. If racism is something that only the victims can talk about, it won’t ever get better. Those of us who have gotten advantages from institutional racism also need to be honest about those advantages.

We need to be talking to each other, though. Because, as Ibram X. Kendi writes, “the opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist’” (look for Kendi’s new book, “How To Be An Anti-Racist,” coming August 13). Simply living our white lives without addressing racism isn’t enough.

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There’s a common act of white guilt piety which consists of white folks railing to black audiences about how much we hate racism. After the election of Trump, there was a movement to wear safety pins to show the oppressed (including black folks) how safe we personally are.

Anyone can do that, though. It doesn’t mean we’re safe.

Until we can look at each other and talk to each other in open, frank, vulnerable ways, until we can acknowledge that we ourselves have struggled with being racist, those are just a bunch of words.

On Twitter, Fras Ppl’s Choice (@fras99) wrote: “Dear White Politicians, do not go to black churches and tell them how much you hate racism. Go to white churches and tell them.”

That’s what Kristen Gillibrand was doing. That’s what Robin DiAngelo does. That’s what we all need to be doing.

When we talk, let us remember that we are not perfect ourselves. For white people, it is not that “those people are racist” and we’re the non-racist good guys: We all have blind spots, bad habits, and moments in error. “Being an antiracist,” writes Kendi, ”requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.”

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As white people, it is not our sole responsibility to talk about racism. The main focus of anti-racist efforts must be the voices of color. But, as Gillibrand notes, it is also our responsibility to talk about it.

Talk we must.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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