Since the Ferguson grand jury decision was released on Monday, November 24th, my Facebook newsfeed, like my life, has been awash with messages in support of Michael Brown. The people notably missing from these discussions, however, are my white friends. None are saying anything racist, but very few are saying anything at all.
I actually remarked on this in a Facebook post of my own, saying “All my white FB friends not talking about #Ferguson. Why not? It makes you uncomfortable? It better make you uncomfortable. Get over it.” You can imagine my surprise when the people who “liked” that post were same white friends who had yet to say anything about Ferguson.
So of course I made another post, calling these people out on their hypocrisy. “All my white friends liking my FB post saying they should post about #Ferguson… without actually posting about Ferguson,” I said. And they “liked” that one too.
I was actually pretty spot on with my first post. The reason a lot of white people don’t comment on race issues is because they’re uncomfortable. In fact, I’ll be the first to admit that talking about race makes me uncomfortable. Last semester, I took a course on the APA (Asian/Pacific American) experience. Being the only white person in my class, I felt pretty uncomfortable on a regular basis. This wasn’t a bad thing – actually, it makes sense. Any other freshman could tell you what I was experiencing: stereotype threat.
Our summer reading was Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele, a book that explains the theory of stereotype threat as it applies to academics. In one particular case, a white student in a Black Studies course at a prestigious university found his grades suffering due to how uncomfortable and frustrated he felt in class. He was afraid to participate, as he didn’t want to say something wrong and be seen as racist.
While discussing race, gender, and sexuality in my APA class, I as a straight white man have made some incorrect assumptions. I’ve been corrected, and I’ve learned from every one of those mistakes. And that’s really what white people have to do in discussions of race.
We have to put ourselves out there, and get over being uncomfortable. If we’re uncomfortable because of our part in the racist structure of society, then it’s clearly our job to do what we can to help dismantle that system. And if we’re uncomfortable because we’re afraid of being seen as racist, we will never learn what is and isn’t okay to say if we keep everything to ourselves. Guilt and discomfort are what happen when you identify with the perpetrators. To speak out is to distance yourself from them
At a Black Student Union meeting after the “All Lives Matter” incident, I said that “I came to Amherst because it looked like a place I could feel at home. But when other people don’t feel at home, because of racial or gender discrimination, then neither do I.”
How can any person feel at home in a nation where people are not safe in their own homes? As I said earlier, by not speaking out we implicitly uphold the system which allows these things to happen. Racism is our problem because, if we do not take action to deal with it, we are the ones who are perpetuating it.
But this isn’t just about us. It’s also about the effects of our silence on others. A commonly echoed sentiment at the same BSU meeting was that students of color had no idea if the white students sitting next to them in class approved of the “All Lives Matter” movement.
By speaking out, we can show our peers that they have nothing to fear from us. We can create a safe space, making it clear that the classroom they’re sitting in overwhelming supports their pursuit of equal rights and condemns those that would hinder it.
This isn’t something any one person can accomplish on their own, but every individual who stands up and publicly says “I condemn this injustice” is another instrumental piece of the movement. The goal over time is to change the culture to one that can talk about race and truly celebrate diversity.
And these discussions are needed. The more discussions there are on race, the more everyone begins to understand, or at least get a glimpse of, everyone else’s experience. When we see the problems we are all facing, we know what we need to do to rectify those issues together.
This isn’t just my belief – there’s factual evidence for it too. While race is taboo in America, the Holocaust is a massive topic of public and academic discussion in Germany. They have a Holocaust Remembrance Day, and passionately defend their treatment of the subject. We avoid our legacy, not wanting to admit our role as white people in perpetrating this oppression in the past, and continuing to do so today.
This dooms us to a never-ending pattern. By refusing to face our past, we can never discuss what needs to be done to stop it from happening again. Germany will never forget the Holocaust, because it lives in their public discourse, in their plazas, and in their museums. White Americans may never forget slavery either, but not for lack of trying.
So no matter the reason, white people are obligated to speak out. Not out of any sense of doing our duty, or liberating the oppressed, but out of the need to shake the mantle of oppressor from our shoulders and do the right thing. As long as this nation isn’t a home for everyone, it isn’t a home for us either. So let’s make it one.