"How do you know it was because of your race?"
September 23, 2018 8:20 AM   Subscribe

How best to respond when my experiences with racism as a person of color are questioned or dismissed by white people?

In conversations with white acquaintances, I will, in response to their curiosity, describe my lived experiences of racism and implicit bias. They will then question whether my experiences were really a function of my race and not, say, my behavior, random personality clashes, or happenstance.

Most of my experiences with bias and racism do have plausible deniability baked in. I do often wonder whether X/Y/Z happened to me because of my race or not. So I will hesitate, not wanting to rock the boat, and concede that yeah, I guess I wonder the same thing. And leave it at that.

These people are usually very progressive in other ways (actively reduce their carbon footprints, anti-consumerist, vegan/freegan, sex-positive, etc) but mostly associate with other white people. They are also people I will likely interact with again, so I don't want to burn any bridges if it can be helped.

I feel most upset at myself for not challenging this invalidation of my experience and I wish I were better at standing up for myself in uncomfortable situations. I also want to expand my social circle and persisting with this effort likely requires learning how to gracefully respond to microaggressions along the way. I realize I will probably never able to be good friends with people who dismiss my experiences in the way that I have described, which makes it a helpful filter but not any less frustrating. I live in a very white area.
posted by jnrs to Human Relations (40 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
It has increasingly become my feeling that if a person of color tells me, a white woman, that something is about race, then it is about race. Each time your friends/acquaintances place you in the emotionally heavy role of teacher, they are questioning your lived experience, your truth. They don't need to understand, like, or get it, but they do need to accept it.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 8:36 AM on September 23, 2018 [36 favorites]

I'm a white woman, and something that helps me see inside the experience of being a target of racism is to think about parallel experiences of sexism. You won't help when dealing with white men, but with white women, it might help to ask them to reflect on times they've been targeted by sexist behavior that was hard to describe to a man in their life.

Ultimately, they have to be open to recognizing that as white people, even well intentioned progressive white people, we're psychologically invested in NOT seeing racism, because of its implications for us if we start to see the scope of it. A recent book -- White Fragility -- addresses this well. With people who want to be closer to you and understand racism better, perhaps you could outsource some of the 101 training to that book?
posted by spindrifter at 8:42 AM on September 23, 2018 [31 favorites]

Ugh white people. This brand of consciously/visibly progressive white-person who likes to tell people of color how to think and feel is just as damaging as the brand of white-person who compliments you on your English. If you are a member of the PansuitNation facebook group, you might have seen this come up over and over when a person of color tells their story and so many white women chime in to white-splain that the mods have to shut it down. Frankly, it's exhausting.

Given the possibility that they are blinkered but are generally teachable, maybe try just pointing it out to them. The words you use in this question are pretty good: "Hey, that's dismissive and invalidating of my lived experience as a person of color navigating spaces of whiteness." And then just wait in the awkward silence. Or they might be receptive to the idea that what they are doing is a form of gaslighting: a person in a position of privilege telling a person who has less privilege that their interpretation of events is wrong. Basically, hold up their signifiers of wokeness as a mirror.

I'm sorry this is happening to you. Good luck.
posted by basalganglia at 8:43 AM on September 23, 2018 [34 favorites]

If someone asks you about your experiences, you tell them, and then they try to deny your perspective, that's incredibly rude and you can deal with that however you deal with rudeness from acquaintances. They think they can be rude to you because they're white and they have been taught implicit white supremacy. It's all part of the same game. I know because I have been in their shoes before and I am grateful to my friend who called me out about my behavior.
posted by muddgirl at 8:52 AM on September 23, 2018 [8 favorites]

Ask them if they believe implicit bias exists. Ask them if they believe only card-carrying members of the KKK or Stormfront can exhibit deliberately racist behavior. Ask them why they assume you can’t possibly have more experience interpreting your experience with racism they do.

I’m sorry this is happening to you. You might have to get some new friends, because this shit is exhausting, especially coming from people who are supposed to have your back.
posted by rtha at 8:52 AM on September 23, 2018 [8 favorites]

Do they believe in climate change? Maybe something like:

You know how "weather is not the same as climate change"? You cannot point to one 500-year storm or one 120ºF day or one drought and say, "this is happening because of climate change," but when you have all of them happening all together much more frequently than should be expected... something isn't right. Likewise lot of my experiences are probably like that individually ("yeah that's not great but it could happen to anyone"), but taken within the context and pattern of seeing myself and other POCs treated a little or a lot differently than white people over and over again... something isn't right.

And definitely don't engage with these people on your experiences if they're not going to approach your responses with genuine care and openness.
posted by obfuscation at 9:02 AM on September 23, 2018 [74 favorites]

Personally, I choose not to discuss my trauma and vulnerabilities with people who haven't proven themselves trustworthy. That means that, like the book title, I don't usually talk to white people about race (in person. I discuss it freely online, where it won't impact my ability to keep my job etc).

Progressivism is no guarantee of empathy; plenty of people are "progressive" because they grew up in a white, liberal, educated, upper-midde-class environment and that's the default position, but it's still a position of privilege that doesn't necessitate thinking deeply about any of these topics. In fact, even vehement "allies" are often more hurtful than helpful- they're often people always after the next crusade who will view a minority as A Minority rather than an individual to get to know. That is, they're racist.

It's pretty apparent that experiencing racism is unpleasant at best and literally deadly at worst. It's also very apparent that a visible minority in a predominantly white area stands out as being different and may have experienced racism. Asking someone about their probable trauma, and deliberately pointing out their obvious minority status, is incredibly rude and tactless and disrespectful. Following that by debating or questioning their response is even worse.

Thinking it is okay to be rude to someone to satisfy yourself at their expense, just because of their race, is racism. I don't engage with racist behaviour.

If someone starts discussing racial subjects, apropos of nothing, with me, I say "that's not a subject we are going to be discussing", or I say "why do you ask?" Or "I don't want to talk about this", or "that's inappropriate", or "that's rude". Or I just don't respond at all. Silence is powerful. Sometimes when the conversation goes in a direction I don't feel comfortable with but it's not directed at me or I feel powerless to stop it, I just find excuses to escape altogether and try to stay away long enough for the conversation to naturally divert/ create a diversion on my return.

I'm sorry I don't have a better answer for you. This is what I do to protect myself. Feel free to memail me any time you need to vent or want to talk. Take care.
posted by windykites at 9:08 AM on September 23, 2018 [15 favorites]

How best to respond when my experiences with racism as a person of color are questioned or dismissed by white people?

I mean, you've correctly identified that this is a microaggression. So when you're talking about this in the context of wanting a wider social circle, I would say that it's largely a mistake to try to enlarge your social circle with the sorts of people who you've already observed engaging in microaggressions of whatever variety. They don't actually tend to be as harmless as they look on the surface. There is a difference, then, between burning bridges and just not being friends with these people, and that's to really pick your battles. I no longer argue this stuff with people who I don't know well enough to know that they're really going to be receptive to change.

Just so you know what to watch out for, a lot of the things you identified as "progressive" really do in my experience have a heavy overlap with racism, especially the idea of being anti-consumerist rather than anti-corporate and focusing on the individual level of issues like environment through things like spending and diet in ways that are largely inaccessible to poor and nonwhite people. These may not actually be the social circles you want, is I guess what I'm saying. I'm definitely not saying that all vegans/etc are racist, just that my experiences trying to integrate with very white and publicly "liberal" people went a similar direction and I'm happier now that my social circle is more people who are living less optimal lifestyles but also marginalized in their own ways, because they're more likely to get it.
posted by Sequence at 9:12 AM on September 23, 2018 [21 favorites]

Whoa mod, you deleted someone else’s comment that similarly mirrored mine. Not sure if I agree with that delete.

I’m a POC and it’s tough when people invalidate your experiences. But at the same time we’re in an age where a lot of bias can be oversimplified as the explanation of one - so its confusing.

It’s hard to say. It depends on your relationship. If it were your boss, a distant father in law, I would probably leave it at that. But if you’re having this conversation you’re likely trusting that person - so if it’s a friend whose opinion you care about - I would just be honest. “You know, you may be right or you may be wrong. But I feel uncomfortable when others, especially those that are not my race, tell me what may be happening. I also feel uncomfortable telling you this as I value our friendship.” Or whatever your feelings are.

Leading with feelings is a really effective way to have tough conversations. It’s valid and yours and no one can argue about that but people can argue all day about what caused what whether there was bias or not.

A lot of these answers are escalating the conversation and not really creating an environment that everyone feels safe.

I feel your discomfort and want to let you know that I’m here for you in solidarity!
posted by treetop89 at 9:14 AM on September 23, 2018 [7 favorites]

Ugh. I’m white, but I’ve had negative experiences that I believe are because of obesity. I’ve given up on telling that to thin people though.

These people are asking about your experience and then arguing with it? That’s obnoxious, but maybe gives you a way to deal with it. “You asked about my lived experience, and I’ve told it to you. When you contest my experience, you’re negating it. If you’re looking for studies on racism and bias, those exist, but all I have is my own experience. I don’t have a control group.” I think comparing it to sexism might work with some white women.

I would not dream of contesting a POC telling me about racism, but I did just see something similar in comments about the photographer who did the Wait Watchers project, taking photographs of herself being fat in public and recording the facial expressions of people around her. So many people said she didn’t know the looks of disgust and the laughter were because she was fat.
posted by FencingGal at 9:16 AM on September 23, 2018 [8 favorites]

I'm not sure why they're asking you to talk about your experiences with racism at all. In my experience (as a white person, so grain of salt), people of non-oppressed groups who ask members of oppressed groups to describe their experiences of oppression (outside a formal conference/process group on race or something) rather than just assuming that given that we live in a racist society, every POC has dealt with racism, are exactly the kind of people who are then going to think they can judge whether those experiences are "really racism."

You might want to think about shutting down the conversation earlier. "I don't really want to relive all my trauma for you right now, thanks," might be one way of doing so. White people have no right to your stories, let alone to judge your stories from some on-high emotionally removed stance.
posted by lazuli at 9:17 AM on September 23, 2018 [8 favorites]

"How do you know it was because of your race?"

"Because I've been {race} my entire life. How much experience do you, White Person, have being {race}?"
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 9:22 AM on September 23, 2018 [39 favorites]

I think the simple facts are that you will never know for sure whether it was/was not implicit, institutional (or occasionally explicit) racism/biases and they will never know for sure whether it was/wasn't. And at different times with different people it might not even be the same experience. Experiences are experiences and can not be completely rationalized/intellectualized. One might simply tell your well intentioned/progressive friends/acquintances this it is a discussion you prefer not to have. You can not be a spokesman for others and there is no compelling reason you need to feel a need to explain or justify your own experiences. Friend will understand--most acquaintances will accept this and others will thnks what they think. Discussions that starts by challenging/minimizing/dismissing anothers internal experiences are probably going to end up creating some increased distance between the parties. Cheers
posted by rmhsinc at 9:31 AM on September 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

In conversations with white acquaintances, I will, in response to their curiosity, describe my lived experiences of racism and implicit bias. They will then question whether my experiences were really a function of my race and not, say, my behavior, random personality clashes, or happenstance.

"OK, so you clearly think you're better able to make that kind of call than the person who has actually been right there on the scene every single time, taking in every little detail, seeing every little facial expression, feeling every bit of body language, hearing every bit of tone. Why would you think that? Is it my behaviour? Is it happenstance? Are we just having a random personality clash right now? Or do you actually have remote-reading superpowers for people you don't know and never met? Because if all you're doing right now is running yet another round of whitey knows best at me, you're doing your own argument no favours."
posted by flabdablet at 9:43 AM on September 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

If they are very good friends with whom you want to have an ongoing relationship, recommending these 2 books may be useful:
So You Want to Talk About Race
And maybe
White Fragility (I haven't read this yet but reviews are good).

With So You Want to Talk About Race, I found that Oluo explains systematic racism in incredibly clear and relatable terms. I suspect that her experience growing up with a white mother and spending much of her childhood in white dominated spaces and more recently as a parent, allow her to express these ideas in a way that may be easier to digest for some white folks. I've since given it to a few people and even considered assigning it to undergraduates.

Also Oluo may be a known personality to progressive people that spend time on the internet. This may be impacted by me living in the same city as her or being in some anti-racism Facebook groups, but it seems like some white folks outside of anti-racism circles recognize her name. Or maybe they've seen this book referenced before. That might help.

I don't know exactly how it would work to recommend the book... Depends on your friends and relationship of course! But maybe something like, "Hey Tammy, the other day when we were talking about that situation at the Cafe and we discussed what might have been the deal with it... And I said that I believed that it was cuz I'm [race]... And you said that you didn't think so. Well, Tammy, that hurt my feelings. I deal with this every day. And I know it matters. You're my friend and I care about you and it would be amazing for me if you and our other friends were more on my team about this stuff. So I got you this book... It is really well written and fun... But it gets at the heart of what I experience. I'd really appreciate it if you could read this and then we talk about the book." (I just made this up for what I'd say and/or how I would want to be approached in this situation... If any of this seems inappropriate, I'm sorry!)
posted by k8t at 10:40 AM on September 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

When I was in college 25 years ago I (a white girl, now a white woman) obliviously asked an African American friend "oh, why do you think XXX was about race?" when she was describing something to me from the news. I was stupid about my position, genuinely curious and obliviously thought we'd have a detached intellectual discussion about why XXX was or was not about race. We were walking side by side, talking in profile. She stopped, and turned to face me with a silent expression combining burning anger, pity, and a kind of contempt, and walked away. I understood what she meant in a single moment and it was a lesson I could never forget. I realized in a single moment that I was privileging my seemingly removed, just-thought-of-it intellectual curiosity over her actual lived and much more thoroughly and deeply thought-through authority. I'm glad she didn't try to cushion this for me with nice words because in my position I needed to be ashamed of myself to really get it and to change how I thought of my own seemingly innocuous but actually implicitly racist mode of debate.
posted by nantucket at 11:10 AM on September 23, 2018 [29 favorites]

"Yes, I don't know for sure if that incident was because of my race. But every time it happens, I have to wonder, because sometimes it is. When it happens to you, how often do you think it was about your race? Exactly." (As a white guy, I had the same reaction sometimes as your aquaintances, until I realized "How can you be sure?" completely missed the point.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:25 AM on September 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

I should add to my previous comment that it is no one's job to educate their acquaintances, and if they've already been rude to you, there's probably not much point in trying to do so.
posted by muddgirl at 11:35 AM on September 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks to all the white folks in here who specifically talked about experiences in which they learned & changed themselves -- especially muddgirl and nantucket. <3


As a POC - to me, these conversations are easiest if I have a sense of trust with someone. This often means that I don't actually have these conversations as often as I want, because I worry that my white friends will either:
1) Be defensive and upset, which is obviously unhelpful
2) Be overly guilty and feel deeply bad ("I'm a racisssttt"), which just focuses the conversation back onto them.

Only when I feel like a friend is open-minded, and sturdy enough to not collapse under the weight of their own guilt, do I feel free to talk.


If I'm talking to a white woman, I will try to compare it to other injustices they've had: "How do you know something is a result of sexism?"

A few times, I've reframed the question as "When can you remember an experience when something good happened to you because you were white?"

This focuses the question on how rarely white folks perceive about their whiteness at a level of lived experience, not conceptual politics. A followup question might be: "If it's harder for you to remember specific experiences where being white has benefited you, wouldn't you imagine that you're less sensitive to how race and racism affects others' lived experiences?"

Lastly, to me, this is true, and it's often helps to frame things this way:

Everyone is racist, including people of color, white women, etc. How could we not be, considering the history of the USA, media representation over the past few decades? If you've lived in the world, you are. I know that, as an Asian-American, I'm racist (against Asian-Americans also). So I'm racist; you're racist, everyone is by default racist.

The question isn't "is someone a racist", it's "do I/you/we actually realize in what ways you're racist?"

There are only two kinds of people:
- racists that don't know that they're being racists, and
- racists that realize that racism has been ingrained in their society, their culture, their social groups, their education, and their thinking, and are trying to change it.

(the same goes for sexism, transphobia, other forms of oppression.)
posted by suedehead at 11:35 AM on September 23, 2018 [16 favorites]

It's not your job to school them. Perhaps remind yourself of this when you hear these kinds of questions, take a moment of silent justified rage, then say, "interesting question, but that's another conversation." If they actually want to have that conversation, let them be the ones to approach you.
posted by Morpeth at 11:37 AM on September 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

I can understand your frustration. Is it possible that some of the people asking you this aren't necessarily dismissing your concern, but rather just trying to make you feel better by putting you in the mindset that maybe there were other reasons (and these reasons don't necessarily have to do with you). I know this might sound counterintuitive, but people do it all the time. It's similar to when single people complain they can't find anyone and their annoyingly happily coupled friends tell them they're hallucinating it all and there's someone perfect right around the corner for them. Even if the annoying couple knows there happen to be lots of people who never actually do find anyone and there's no reason you might not be one of them- they tell you it's all in your mind because they want you to feel better and they also want themselves to feel better because they don't want to feel sad about you having to be lonely. The fact that this behavior often actually makes the single person feel a little worse doesn't usually compute. Keeping this possibility into consideration might help you navigate what to say in a less reactive way which can hopefully lead to your friends learning out to respond more mindfully.
posted by fantasticness at 11:43 AM on September 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

This may not always be helpful depending on what sort of support you're looking for, etc., but it maybe useful to frame things in this way sometimes: "You're right that I can't know for sure if this specific incident was about race. But given how often similar incidents happen to me, and how comparatively rarely they happen to the white people I've known in similar situations, it's overwhelmingly likely that most of the time it's about race. And the fact that I can't be a hundred percent sure about which individual incidents are racially motivated - even though I know a lot of them are - and which might be coincidences just makes it more frustrating."
posted by waffleriot at 11:43 AM on September 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

"How can you be sure?" completely missed the point

The fact that no one can ever know for sure is not an excuse - part of the oppression. White people need to understand that. Maintaining ambiguity and deniability in our racist acts is one way we continue to perpetuate racism.

As a white women who has definitely been oblivious to microaggressions and racism I was committing in life, suedehead's strategy - "when you have been aware of benefitting by your whiteness?" - would be something that got through to me.
posted by Miko at 12:18 PM on September 23, 2018 [12 favorites]

"I was there. You weren't. If you don't trust my analysis of the situation, I think we're done talking about it."

"No, I just mean that maybe--"

"OK, we're done talking about it."

This is of course for situations where you're talking to people you consider at least moderately decent otherwise. That kind of abruptness will be a marker to them that they are being personally offensive, which may reach them where a more intellectual approach will just entangle you further in the deflection going on. That is, they need to see that what they are saying is hurting you personally and is not just a matter of abstract analysis of a situation. I think that gets through in a different way--if anything is going to get through. (Speaking as a white woman here, trying to think of what's gotten me to reconsider something.)
posted by praemunire at 12:25 PM on September 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

As a white person who is only gradually becoming aware of the vast range of subtle biases and hidden forms of prejudice that permeate our society, a response that might allow you to speak up without unduly rocking the boat would be to agree but then add a new perspective.something like
They say "How can you be sure?" "Yeah! I know! That's what makes it so hard to deal with! And in most cases the other person may not even realize what they are doing is shaped by their hidden biases. But I've been [minority] my whole life and I've compared my experiences with others and I know that overall, racism is real even if I can't be certain in each and every case."

Only use if you want to be gentle, if you think they might hear you.
posted by metahawk at 3:11 PM on September 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

"Because I've been {race} my entire life. How much experience do you, White Person, have being {race}?"

This times 100. And just keep repeating it if they keep asking.

The following is an idea I provide with the caveat that it is probably only appropriate/safe in certain environments, and you'll know from your own experience and comfort level/boundaries what those environments are. I cannot take credit for it- Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter talked about it on an episode of "Politically Reactive" with W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabalu. So, h/t to Alicia Garza!

So. If you happen to have a squad of (actually woke) white friends who you trust as accomplices in actively working to dismantle white supremacy, I think you should refer these folks over to THEM for further questions - if that is something you want or need. There is no reason that you should have to every single time expend the emotional labor to explain to white people, when you don't feel like you want to or should have to, that your experiences as a POC are valid and real. White people made this clusterfuck and white people need to fix the clusterfuck they made. This means talking to one another and calling each other out. I am *not* saying this to advocate removing your voice from the conversation. Your voice should be central, if and when you want it to be. And when you don't? Tell them to talk to your white friends who don't dismiss your experience as a POC.
posted by nightrecordings at 3:11 PM on September 23, 2018

Ugh, this is super rude and ignorant. I'm sorry you're experiencing it. I'm white and not sure if this will be helpful, but two ideas come to mind for your consideration.

Before you even describe your experience, you could essentially warn them not to do this, something like "I sort of hate telling this story because I feel like half the time, people then ask me if I'm sure it was because of race, and of course, it's impossible to know for sure, but that was my instinct, and it's one I almost never get. So then I just feel like they didn't believe me anyway, and rather than feeling understand and connected to the person, I feel doubted and divided from the person." This puts them on notice that questioning is uncool. It pre-acknowledges that you can't be positive so that you get that out of the way without invalidating the specific experience. And by being open about the emotional impact that the invalidation has on you, you're in effect sharing another instance of race impacting your relationships, so it's maybe a good screening tool. And it protects your deeper stories for a smaller group of people who hear this and say things that make you want to share the full story.

Another possible comeback would be "oh man, I was afraid you were going to say that / hoping you weren't going to say that. This conversation always feels really weird to me." Like the other one, it shines a light on their behavior in the conversation as being a problem and changes the subject from your own story and perceptions to the problems with saying such a thing.
posted by salvia at 3:44 PM on September 23, 2018

In conversations with white acquaintances, I will, in response to their curiosity, describe my lived experiences of racism and implicit bias. They will then question whether my experiences were really a function of my race and not, say, my behavior, random personality clashes, or happenstance.

Ugh I am sorry you are dealing with this. To me (a middle aged white lady) this is sort of the difference between mainstream liberal "just world" thinking and more radical "things are fundamentally broken and fucked" thinking. Because it's sort of normative white person defensiveness (along the lines of the other shitty thinking like "what was she wearing?") to try to get in your head and nitpick your experience. So maybe with your nearest and dearest friends, with whom you feel totally comfortable, might you want to get into a "well actually" conversation, but with some rando, no.

I have these sorts of conversations with my well-meaning (male) partner about sexual harassment, the idea that harassers specifically do shit that is either plausibly deniable or out of sight/sound of people who could back up the report of the harassee. This is Part of the Problem! So your "friends" who are nitpicking your experience are part of the problem, making PoC doubt that what they are experiencing is part of institutionalized racism and feeling maybe it's something they could have caused or done something differently to avoid. And it's hard for you because they're simultaneously trying (in their own falling short way) but also reinforcing the inherent racism in society.

And I've thought about this a bit because I have a black friend who also has some mental health challenges. She sometimes gets in scrapes with people and ascribes it to race. And she sometimes gets in scrapes with people that I am totally sure are racist (the lady at work that wanted to touch her hair, fuck off lady). And unless she flat out asks me "Do you think this is a racial thing?" (which she mostly does not) my job is to just be sympathetic, listen to what she is saying, tell her it sucks, and help her figure out how to manage it. And I can do almost all of that without us talking about my feeling about "What racism is" or "What is racist" because in these moments it very much doesn't matter what I think or feel and anyhow my own feelings are informed by this racist society that we all grew up in and so are likely not useful. Being a good friend is important to me. If I were in your situation I might tell people

1. "I don't feel that this questioning is the point here and I am not looking for your opinion actually"
2. * complicated discussion of institutionalized racism and your experience with it which informs your current experience *
3. As you've suggested, find a place where the allies are really acting like allies

Best of luck, and again sorry about this stupid society.
posted by jessamyn at 4:04 PM on September 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm not the original poster. However, I think it would be incredibly helpful if the white folks here commenting would specifically draw on what a person of color has said to you that made you change your perspective within the OP's situation, or what some attitudes you hold while talking to poc folks.

If you haven't actually ever been in the OP's situation and are operating from a position of conjecture or "I heard...", it verges dangerously on whitesplaining. Surely I can't be the only person wary of white people advising a person of color on how to talk to white people about race?

I mean, imagine if a lot of men were explaining to women on how to talk to men about sexism.
Versus men saying: "I'm a man, and when a woman explained it like ____ to me, it really helped me understand."

I'd rather white folks share their lived experience in what worked for them, not conjectured advice. Everyone's lived experience is really important, and the way people who are white can help support is to talk about what worked for you and share your experience!


And to refer to actual advice: Making explicit parallels or analogies with sexism has been helpful (as I just did above, wink wink). I've consistently found that people are currently more literate/emotionally understanding of sexism. If I frame things by creating an analogous situation that deals with sexism, people are more likely to go 'ah ha' on a personal, emotional level.
posted by suedehead at 4:09 PM on September 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

the way people who are white can help support is to talk about what worked for you and share your experience!

With what I said above, about white people not having the right to POC's stories (let alone the right to judge them), came from it being explicitly pointed out to me in multiple ways (generally though an ongoing reading of online discussions) that the telling of such stories of trauma (even micro-traumas) was in itself traumatic, and that I did not have the right to demand that other people traumatize themselves so that I could satisfy my curiosity, because that's a pretty sadistic dynamic. Which is why I suggested pointing that out to people who are asking you to do so.
posted by lazuli at 4:17 PM on September 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

“How important is it to you that I be wrong about this?”
posted by Etrigan at 4:36 PM on September 23, 2018 [19 favorites]

How can you be sure?? That's the thing - half the time microaggressions come from someone who is so oblivious about their own racial bias that the aggressor themselves didn't know it was about race. It's about race because you, the person with the strong feelings about the event, feel that it was about race. If something resonated with you because of past experiences with racism, then it was undeniably about race, because that is the button that got pushed. So someone questioning your experience by asking whether or not the person intended to push a racism button is beside the point - the button was pushed, it's about race.
posted by aimedwander at 8:12 PM on September 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

As a black guy who grew up in America and is approaching age 50, I've developed a fairly philosophical approach to these situations, i.e. I'll be seeing these people again and need or want to be on somewhat civil terms.

My response is based on the understanding that people are basically narrow-minded and selfish and can generally only see things from their perspective. More or less everyone is like this, on just about any issue, so it doesn't make much sense to get upset about it. Either than or I'm just emotionally spent about the issue and can't be bothered to get all upset/down about it anymore, lol. That's not a real LOL, more like like shaking my head at the absurdity of it all.


Some variation of "Well, I've been black all my life and talking with other black people has brought up similar patterns, so I'mma go with that. If you have any personal experiences of living as a black person, I'm all ears."

I.e. it's not my problem or issue to deal with, so it's up to the other person to decide if they want to be civil and friendly with me after that exchange. I got too much other shit to deal with on a day to day basis.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:01 AM on September 24, 2018 [14 favorites]

Oh, reading that back, it sounds like the delivery is nasty or rude, but I do try phrase as just a matter of fact, usually add something like "Oh you know how it is, everyone wants to tell the plumber how to do their job, but the plumber is the most experienced person in the room when it comes plumbing! We all usually forget about that 'cause we're all just concerned about the price or the stranger in our home and the 10,000 other things we think is related to the issue, but to the plumber it's pretty straight forward what the problem and how to fix it."

I also don't expect instant understanding, enlightenment or conversion. If they want to argue about it, I switch the subject, 'cause ain't nothing productive or interesting coming from that.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:18 AM on September 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

Middle aged liberal white person here, probably like your friends, if they are mostly clueless and not intending their comments to be as dismissive as they are.

For me, Brandon Blatcher has it half right when he said, "Well, I've been black all my life and talking with other black people has brought up similar patterns, so I'mma go with that. If you have any personal experiences of living as a black person, I'm all ears."

That second sentence would come across like a slap in the face and a rejection of what I thought was a friendly, helpful conversation. OBVIOUSLY, I'm not a black person, clearly you just want to shut me down. I would feel hurt and insulted (which seems to be what you want to avoid in this particular social setting)

However, the first part, if offered on its own might get through. It's not that my "helpful" suggestions couldn't possibly be true, it is that you have the lived experience of hundreds of these interactions and the pattern has taught you that statistically this is highly likely to be racism. And that thought wouldn't have occurred to me since, if the same thing happened to me, statistically, it would be most likely to be one of those other things and, in my life, assuming positive intent on the part of others has been a useful strategy (yay for privilege!)
posted by metahawk at 10:16 AM on September 24, 2018

That second sentence would come across like a slap in the face and a rejection of what I thought was a friendly, helpful conversation. OBVIOUSLY, I'm not a black person, clearly you just want to shut me down. I would feel hurt and insulted (which seems to be what you want to avoid in this particular social setting)

As a person of color, I find comments like this pretty frustrating. Try to empathize here: someone acted in a racist way to me (which I hope you understand can be frustrating, humiliating and sometimes traumatic), I confided in you about it and you basically denied my lived experience and told me that you know what it feels like to be me better than I do and now, I have to be extremely careful about how I speak to you about it so your feelings don't get hurt? Especially since the text that Brandon Blatcher wrote seems pretty gentle to me. What you're describing here is white fragility and it's not the responsibility of people of color to police how they speak to protect you from it.
posted by armadillo1224 at 12:50 PM on September 24, 2018 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: A big thank-you to everyone who took the time and spared the mental bandwidth to engage with the question. I wanted to invite responses to a specific situation without adding more context than needed, and just see what would come up. I know this can be a deeply uncomfortable topic. I appreciate everyone navigating that in order to contribute something here.

I have gotten a lot out of this, and hope others reading this have too. Please also feel free to continue to contribute if you have anything else to say.

Some people commented on setting boundaries, and I just wanted to respond to that for anyone who is interested. I engage in conversations about inequality and other charged topics but am not used to bringing my own experiences into them in an explicit way, and especially not with acquaintances. It feels like changing up your workout and feeling the strain later and realizing, oops, you overdid it. I think it is important to spread awareness about oppressive dynamics that draw their power from invisibility. So in asking this question, part of me was curious about how other people have done it, if they do it. But taking care of myself is important too, and in a lot of situations protecting yourself and confronting bias will ultimately be incompatible objectives. So all that to say: thanks for the self-care reminders, sometimes it is a blind spot.
posted by jnrs at 2:17 PM on September 24, 2018 [5 favorites]

“How do you know that happened because of your race? Maybe it was just *excuse*.”

“Good question - I know because I’ve lived with this kind of situation for *age* years, which makes me an expert! Also, it fits into a pattern of oppression/microaggression/racism that is extensively documented in scholarly studies of our culture and society. If you want, I could send you a few resources to start reading about this sort of thing so you can understand too.”

Engaging with the gaslighting as though it were an honest question keeps you on the high road, and puts the ball back on their court, forcing them too either own up to their implied racism, or back down. And on the off chance they’re just a bit ignorant, it might even lead to an honest attempt to improve on their part.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 2:54 PM on September 24, 2018

I usually don't make any explicit claim of racism. I'll just tell the story of how the doorman at my grandfather's building asked me to whom I was delivering, and let people draw their own conclusions. As you say, each individual instance could be easily denied; the problem is the trend.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:08 PM on September 25, 2018

What you're describing here is white fragility and it's not the responsibility of people of color to police how they speak to protect you from it.

This is true, but do remember that white fragility is real and experienced. That doesn't mean you should be sympathetic, but your white associate's fragility will inform their responses to you. This is not to say that that you are obligated to be the custodian of their emotions but rather that, as someone currently in conversation with them, you will be forced to handle the fallout.
posted by Going To Maine at 1:18 PM on October 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

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