Most of the things I know about racism, I learned and continue to learn from being called out for my unhelpful attitudes and actions. In classrooms, on social media, in friendships, and in casual conversation with people who were basically strangers, people have pointed out to me that my perspective is not neutral; it is shaped by my whiteness as well as other particularities of my social position. Some of these people have been gentle and gracious. Some of them have harshly instructed me to shut up and check my privilege.
Both of these approaches have been immensely helpful to me.
Sometimes I have needed someone to come alongside me and help me navigate the unfamiliar waters of discussing race and racism, and my friends who are not white and who live this as a daily reality have sometimes been willing to add my education to their burdens. For this I am so very grateful.
Sometimes I have needed to be knocked abruptly out of my assumption that my perspective is accurate or has primacy, and I’m grateful also for the people who took the enormous risk of challenging me in this way. I recognize now, although I didn’t always at the time, that it was a risk, especially in spaces that were predominantly white, or where I held more power than the person critiquing me.
The rest of the things I know about racism, I learned from reading the books and articles that were recommended to me by the people who called me out.
None of this was particularly pleasant, because people weren’t always polite and gentle about their challenges. Plus, who wants to be wrong? Who wants to discover that their perspective has serious blinders? Who wants to learn that they carry a legacy of oppressing others, or that they benefit from systems that exploit and abuse others? I certainly didn’t. If no one had ever called me out, I would not have realized it was necessary to dedicate my time to learning things about myself and my culture that are unpleasant, unflattering, and in opposition to the values I claim to espouse. But the people who called me out impressed upon me that I could learn and change, or get defensive and continue to participate in a system that actively harms people who aren’t white. Yikes, what a choice!
And then I learned that the choice isn’t a one-time thing. It’s every day, every situation. Part of the whole white privilege thing is that I get a choice; I can opt not to do the work of dismantling racism, and not suffer any noticeable ill effects. So, somewhere along the line I decided that I would not give myself permission to opt out.
That means that sometimes now I am the person doing the calling out – because one of the things I’ve heard over and over from people of color (and marginalized people in general) is that they are absolutely exhausted from giving their time and energy and risking themselves to not only preserve their own lives, but also educate people like me along the way. Once they’ve invested that time into me, they have said, the best thing I can do is talk to other white people, so POC don’t have to be the only ones spending their time and energy and risking themselves to talk about racism. So yes. If I encounter other white people wielding their whiteness in unhelpful ways, I’m going to call that out. It’s uncomfortable and people don’t like it, but oh well. It is not always possible to tell someone, “Stop being unhelpfully white,” in a manner they will find acceptably pleasant.
And I still get called out, because I still don’t get it right all the time. But that’s okay, because after it happened a few times and I learned from it, it didn’t hurt so much to be called out. It just became part of accepting that I need to be knocked off my privilege pedestal from time to time. Defending my own goodness or rightness is not the only response option.
I can listen.
I can believe POC when they tell me something is a problem for them.
I can use my hurt feelings as motivation to do some self-examination rather than as a reason to disbelieve or discredit POC.
I can restrain myself from insisting that my intention was good, or that my character is good (see: “not all white people”), or that my perspective is neutral and therefore I get to define what is offensive.
I can do some work, and read/watch materials from POC.
I can apologize and change my behavior in the future.
I can choose to learn something.
Or I could just get mad about being called out.