How White People Shouldn't Talk About Race

What Women Really Think
July 25 2013 5:22 PM

How White People Shouldn't Talk About Race

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Protesters in Chicago react to the Trayvon Martin verdict.

Photo by Mira Oberman/AFP/Getty Images

Jessie-Lane Metz has written a searing piece for the Toast on what she calls “Ally-phobia”—what happens when white writers foreground their own experiences in the conversation about racism in America, instead of stepping back and supporting the black voices that have more urgent and meaningful things to say. Her anger, she is the first to acknowledge, is scalding, though fiercely eloquent. She looks at how white feminists in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict have grappled with prejudice by exposing—painfully—their own fears around black men. Such confessionals frame themselves as “ally work,” she says. But they privilege white perspectives and inflict pain on the black readers forced to confront fresh instances of racism—in print, from the brains of self-aware and reluctant feminists, but no less real.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

I’ve reached out to Metz to talk about her piece and will update this post if I hear back. But in the meantime, here are a few quotes.

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On Trayvon Martin and white allies:

I want to emphasize that the Trayvon Martin murder trial and aftermath is not about having better white jurors. It is about ending racist laws in a racist system that target Black people in terrible ways….This is not about being the “best” ally. Being the best ally one can be should already be a given at this point. This is about centering and discussing racism, with Black people leading this discussion.

And:

This [the verdict] seemed to be a clear moment for Black people to be the voice of authority on a topic entrenched in our reality, while those who sought to be helpful could support our voices.

On a blog post by Steph Guthrie (now deleted):

My first critique is that this post, and posts like it, re-centre whiteness. When a person of colour speaks to their own experiences of racism, they are speaking to a collective pain, and speaking truth to power. When a person with white skin privilege gives an anecdote about racism, whether their own or someone else’s, they are exposing more racialized people to this discrimination, and reasserting their own privilege. The narrative is no longer about Black victims of racist crimes and a deeply flawed justice system, it is about white feelings about Black bodies and their experiences.
At the beginning of the article Jessica provides an example of terrible anti-Black racism that she was privy to in conversation with another white person. Similar to my critique of Steph’s article, I find myself asking “how does exposing Black people to another racist anecdote constitute anything other than an act of racism?”

If I understand Metz correctly, white people can help by ceding the floor to those whose testimonies about racism deserve more attention than theirs. These stories deserve more attention both as a kind of recompense for what the victims of racism have suffered and because they are more illuminating. I accept both premises: Black voices have earned—and continue to earn—the right to dominate our dialogue about racism, and what they have to say is more valuable than what white voices have to say. One person’s pain merits more of our collective mental bandwidth than another’s pity or dawning comprehension. Still, you can privilege one set of experiences without excluding all the others—and I don’t share Metz’ view that white people writing about race, even wrestling with their own racism, is a bad thing.

Telling writers like Steph Guthrie and Jessica Valenti not to speak honestly about prejudice cuts us off from legitimate insights about the world we still live in. Yes, such confessionals focus on the (white) person confessing, but they can also be instructive. I wasn’t sure when I first started writing this post how to calculate the trade-off between hurt and revelation—if the same piece of information harms one person and enlightens another, what do you do? What if the knowledge both stings and informs? But Guthrie and Valenti confronted the poisonous white woman/black man narrative in good faith. Their transparency—their willingness to publicly interrogate flawed beliefs—is a step in the right direction.    

We’re taught in school to respond to other people’s suffering by empathizing. In practice, I think this means imagining ourselves in various situations, and also examining what we have done to create or nourish those situations. It is hard to read about when empathy backfires, becoming appropriation, becoming self-indulgent. I don’t want to be someone who borrows another person’s history in the interests of personal growth. “I am willing to have a conversation,” Metz writes. “Not as a service to you, but because of your responsibility to me.” I want to ask her: Can it be both? I don’t know how to write about these issues without being a white woman writing about these issues. Or how to think about racism without being a white woman thinking about racism. I want to ask the question, “where should I start?” though I suspect the answer has something to do with taking the “I” out of the equation.

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