If a person is anything except for a cisgendered, heterosexual, Caucasian man, then chances are pretty good that, at some point in their lives, they’ve been asked to explain and justify their feelings about their own oppression. Chances are even better now considering the past few months of a Trump-tinted election cycle and the upcoming four years of Trump’s America.
People of color are questioned about why we bring up race. Women are questioned about why they bring up gender. And queer people’s concerns are all too often dismissed because, you know, we’re sometimes on TV and can legally get married (for the time-being). For some, these moments are opportunities to educate those unable to recognize and accept others’ truths at face value. But for many others, these confrontations are ultimately demands for one-sided intellectual and emotional labor that the other person is too lazy to participate in.
In a recent Slate roundtable of black folks who regularly write and speak about race, class, and politics publicly, Virginia Commonwealth University professor Tressie McMillan Cottom described how tiring it is to field questions from white people looking to work through their feelings about race—how she isn’t there to act as a sounding board at their beck and call.
“My job is to teach the willfully ignorant, to a certain extent,” McMillan Cottom wrote. “I teach race 101 for my day job. I refuse to teach it in my personal life or even to my colleagues and peers…I only owe people as much good faith as they extend to me. Part of that good faith is Googling before you waste my time because you value me and my time.”
Here’s a tip for white people: Rather than @-ing people of color, demanding they explain themselves, listen to what they have to say.
The significance of McMillan Cottom’s point about the wonders of Google can’t be overstated. The world would be a much better place if people bothered to run a few thoughtful searches before compulsively @-ing someone on Twitter or banging out a strongly-worded e-mail. From McMillan Cottom’s perspective, the urge that white people (and non-black people of color) sometimes have to aggressively demand explanations from black people often stems from the fact that they simply don’t know all that many black people personally. And so, black people in public forums like Twitter end up being burdened.
Here’s the thing, though.
As we move closer and close to Trump’s America™ becoming an everyday reality as opposed to an abstract concept, and people of color continue to voice their concerns about the ways in which racism are intensifying, here’s a tip for white people: Rather than @-ing them, demanding they explain themselves, listen to what they have to say.
In his comic Your Black Friend, for instance, Ben Passmore tells a story about the sorts of casual, everyday racism and microaggressions that virtually every black person has experienced at one point in their lives and distills it into a simple scenario that even the most un-woke white person can understand. A black man overhears one white woman talking to another about a “sketchy” black man she saw coming out of a house. The second white woman just so happens to know the “sketchy” black man who, as luck would have it, is actually the owner of the house.
“Your black friend would like to say something but doesn’t want to appear ‘angry.’ He knows this type of person expects that from him and he will lose before he begins,” the titular black friend thinks as he watches the scene play out. “This is why he has white friends. White people are allow’d to be ‘angry’ when he is expected to be calm and reasonable.”
Your Black Friend is but one story about a very particular (and yet very common) kind of racially-charged situation, but it’s one that often goes misunderstood by non-black people. This comic, though, like the essays, explainers, and art of other people of color, is meant to be consumed so people can better understand the perspectives of others and, in an ideal world, lead to intelligent, empathetic conversations.
So, the next time that you read a headline or see a tweet from a person bemoaning the fact Muslim women are being physically attacked in the street, swastikas are being sprayed on walls, and Black Lives Matter is being falsely accused of encouraging hate crimes, rather than asking these groups to explain why these things are bad, start by reading up.
What’s that, you say? You’d like a list of things that be helpful to consume in your journey towards understanding the perspectives of others? Start with this primer of essays and podcasts. And please, for the love of God, refrain from @-ing them.
“The Racism Beat: What it’s like to write about hate over and over and over ” – Cord Jefferson
“I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People” – Brit Bennett
Code Switch blog and podcast produced by NPR
The Read – a comedy and culture podcast produced by the Loud Speakers Network and hosted by Kid Cury and Crissle West.
About Race – a culture and politics podcast hosted by Anna Holmes, Baratunde Thurston, Raquel Cepeda and Tanner Colby.
Represent – a film and culture podcast produced by the Panoply network and hosted by Slate’s Aisha Harris.
Still Processing – a culture podcast produced by The New York Times and hosted by Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris.