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It’s Time For White People to Have Tough Conversations With Their White Friends and Relatives

11 minute read
Nolan is Executive Director of the Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley School of Law. Her new book is Don't Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender and the Body. You can follow her on Instagram and on her blog.

I recently had dinner with a white friend. He mentioned having completed the Me and White Supremacy workbook—Layla F. Saad’s extraordinary set of exercises for people who hold white privilege and want to interrogate its role in their lives. “How was it?” I asked, sipping my wine. “Exhausting,” he proclaimed. And it is exhausting, the slow, painstaking, write-it-down process of examining how racial hierarchy shows up in one’s conscious and unconscious beliefs, in one’s desires, fears, friendships, and communities. The upshot was that he was doing “the work.” I was happy and, being a person of color, relieved. I also immediately wondered whether he’d insisted that the white members of his social circle—friends, spouse, parents, siblings—do the work, too. But I didn’t ask. I was afraid to learn that he hadn’t.

I know a lot of white people. A lifetime of private schools, three years at an elite law school, a job in academia, a house in the suburbs, my own family—I’m surrounded. The vast majority of them are progressive and, as of the last couple years, eager to be allies. They were sickened by George Floyd’s murder. They posted photographs of Breonna Taylor’s gentle, sweet face. They set up recurring donations. They bought books, and they bought them from Black-owned bookstores, and then they read them with pens in their hands. Books like Me and White Supremacy, So You Want to Talk About Race, White Fragility, and The New Jim Crow. They were hellbent on personal transformation, on becoming not merely not racist but anti-racist, not only benign but of benefit. And God bless them for it. I applaud them (silently), and I don’t take their willingness for granted. But, very often, these white people and their efforts disappoint me. They frustrate me. They make me sad.

They disappoint and frustrate and sadden me because their work—as earnest and crucial as it is—frequently fails to demand the participation of the white people with whom they have the tightest, most honest, most intimate relationships. Their husbands, their parents, their wives, their children, their best friends. The people with whom they have the most currency, the most likelihood of creating a long-term trajectory of change. The people who are most exposed and connected to their (racialized) desires and fears, their conscious and unconscious beliefs, their choices and preferences—the heartwood of the very racial hierarchy they say they want to address. Time and again, I’ve observed white people approach “the work” with heartfelt intensity—but no clear, persistent will to spread it to the most significant white people in their lives.

I didn’t say this surprises me.

I think of whiteness primarily as a collection of habits and behaviors premised on the assumption that you don’t have to deal with race, and if you choose to deal with it at all, you can do it on whatever terms suit you (in a given moment and over the course of your life). Behaving as if you are exempt from things that are “racial” is one way this manifests. Another way it shows up is the habit of doing things that give you the feeling or appearance of caring about racial justice without having to pay much of a cost. I sometimes think this explains a chunk of the white votes for Barack Obama—it gave some white voters a feeling of being progressive on race—or “color blind”—but did not require them to reckon with or personally sacrifice much of anything. I also wonder if these white habits explain the popularity of movies and television depicting black pain; they allow a white viewer to feel sympathy, or empathy, maybe even cry cathartically over the horrible workings of the racial hierarchy, without having to do anything about that hierarchy. They give white people, from directors to audiences, a chance to feel as if they deeply sympathize with the plight of black people.

Maybe these habits—the sense that ultimately race is someone else’s problem, the belief that one is entitled to engage “race issues” on whatever comfortable terms they want—inform why so many white people seem to “do the work” alone, separate from their closest loved ones. It gives them a feeling of participation on the right side of history, of having their grip on the moral arc, without actually requiring them to rock their most significant boat—the one packed with family and friends. To be fair, even doing the work alone does require something, sometimes a lot. For instance, facing the lessons in Me and White Supremacy is, I can only imagine, a humbling, uncomfortable, relentless encounter with your shadow side. But how much does that encounter generate in terms of tangible change if you don’t push your fellow white Americans to commune with their shadow sides, too?

Because here’s the truth: whiteness is not a solitary state. Whiteness is a system. Whiteness is a social phenomenon—as in communal, collective, community-based, and often family-based. Whiteness is rooted in relationships. Its rules and benefits are built and transmitted, in ways subtle and overt, between white people. Its habits and behaviors are only so powerful because they’re enacted by many white individuals, together, at the same time and across time. If you want to untangle the net, you have to work in tandem with other white people. A white person who “does the work” in isolation is like a pianist playing in a sealed room. They hear the music, and that’s great. They may be personally transformed—but they shouldn’t expect the world to start dancing.

And what a loss! Because it’s the very closeness of these relationships between white family members and white friends that makes them fertile ground for transformation. It’s within these close relationships that so many of the stereotypes about black inferiority and undesirability are summoned and used, even unconsciously, and racial hierarchy is therefore performed, cemented, and reproduced. What neighborhood will we live in? Where will our kids go to school? What aesthetics will guide our cultural consumption? Even choices made alone by individual white people are often made with awareness of other white people’s normative preferences—should I wear my hair curly or straight to this interview? And so on.

I’m not naive. I get it: it is also the closeness—the primacy—of these white relationships that makes messing with them risky. The social punishment associated with asking any member of a privileged group to deal with their privilege can be very, very real. Such a white person risks identifying themselves as an outlier, as the person who has stepped out of Plato’s allegorical cave only to return with disruptive, dangerous, unpleasant knowledge. They also risk seeing a side of loved ones that they don’t want to see—the side that maybe doesn’t care about their own relationship to white supremacy enough to interrogate it, or is so undereducated that they don’t believe they have a relationship to white supremacy worth investigating. No one wants to peer too deeply into a loved one’s shortcomings. That’s human, and it’s understandable. I myself pick and choose which aspects of white supremacy I am willing to surface when it comes to my white friends and family. But I have to believe that there are white people who resist doing the work when it’s proffered to them by near-strangers, but who, on hearing from a sister or son or spouse that their failure to engage would impact a cherished relationship, just might show up. So why can’t more well-meaning white people insist and demand that their family members join them, or face some consequence? No risk, no reward.

I know that what I’m suggesting—asking for—is going to be unattractive for many white folks. In the microeconomic sense, at least, giving up comfort and privilege chafes against most people’s self-interest. There is little incentive for any white person to insist that another white person address how white supremacy shows up in their lives. There is little reason to risk the harmony in your dearest relationships in the name of something that, you believe, barely even impacts you.

But it is also, possibly, what’s missing. Have you ever heard of interest convergence theory? It argues that Black people’s rights advance only when that advancement is in white people’s interest. Brown v. Board of Education is illustrative. According to the theory, Brown happened because it advanced white interests, too. School desegregation provided a timely and strategic answer to Communist propaganda that exploited the U.S.’ hypocrisy on issues like “freedom” and “equality.” Eventually, however, when the interests diverged, enforcing civil rights slowed to a halt: Brown was hollowed-out, and schools remain intensely segregated. (Think about it: if mere moral epiphany were enough to end racial hierarchy, it would have ended long ago.) One way to make Black and white interests converge long-term is to increase the cost of white complacency, of white apathy. And one cost that might actually matter to complacent, apathetic (and progressive) white people is the respect, esteem, and affection of the white people they care most about. As the saying goes: people don’t change when they see the light, they change when they feel the heat.

What should this cost look like? Cutting ties or the silent treatment isn’t realistic, nor is it proportionate, nor, for the most part, desirable. But how about something? How about, for instance, honest, repeated conversations? How about good old-fashioned I-statements, now and again? Such as, “When you mostly ignore opportunities to do anti-racist work, I feel worried that we have a different world view or a different set of values.” Or perhaps, “I know we’ve talked about this before, and you’ll make your own choices about how you spend your time. But when you stay out of this fight, so to speak, I feel surprised and confused. I know you care about justice.” There’s no need for a scorched-earth approach to racial politics, especially between people who love each other. We can be more subtle, more nuanced, and more gracious with each other—even as we hold the line, even as we persist. And by “we,” I mean all of us—but I mostly mean you. White people. Because this is your work. These are your relationships. This thing—whiteness—is yours, not mine. You make it, not me. If you mean well, don’t let someone else’s white apathy make you apathetic.

I don’t want to discount the work that individual, average white people are doing by themselves. (Including my friend, who I know to be sincere, active and committed, and who may, indeed, be doing the kind of close-to-home proselytizing I’m suggesting; I don’t know because I didn’t ask.) There’s no question that isolated personal transformation can support small-scale, here-and-there moments of racial equity and transcendence. The problem is that we’re far beyond the need for isolated, small-scale, here-and-there moments—we’re about 400 years and many millions of souls beyond it. What we need is change that doesn’t happen in isolation; change that is systemic, collective, communal. Change that is communal enough to fundamentally alter the (re)creation of racial hierarchy.

If we want this cooperative, connective transformation—and I believe we do—it’s time to increase the heat. That increase needs to come from white folks, and it needs to be directed at the white people they love more than anything. It needs to be real, and sustained, and, not to get too misty about it, rooted in love. Love for the relationship (no scorched earth necessary) and love for something bigger. Bigger than power, bigger than privilege, bigger than whiteness. Otherwise, I fear an unabating status quo. I fear a waste of effort and good-will. Many white people are working, but so long as they work without implicating their closest bonds, I fear we’ll lose much of the harvest. We can’t afford that anymore.

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