In my List of Demands, I said this was a special moment, a chance for some non-black people to have their first real conversations about race. I meant that. I mean that. But there’s more to the story, more in the picture than is visible at first glance. Because I also said I wouldn’t be doing anyone’s homework for them in order for them to join the conversation. And I meant that, too. But maybe I need to be clearer about what that means.
When I read Brit Bennett’s excellent essay, “I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People,” I felt myself exhale. The essay had the warm, deep resonance of familiarity — my excellent, supportive supervisor … who assumed I’d been born out of wedlock, my generous, volunteered-in-Africa-every-winter doctor … who assumed I must have plenty of children — and her tone echoed one I hear in my own voice as I try to have conversations these days.
I don’t think my white friends are looking for any kind of kudos for being the nice, intelligent, funny, caring, supportive people they are. I don’t think they expect me to thank them for not being racists. I don’t think any of that. But I do find myself running aground in some conversations, and I’m struggling to figure out what to do about it, how to keep the conversations going while keeping my friendships going.
People have told me that reading my latest writing has pushed them to think about their responses to things in new ways, to think about issues of race in new ways. That seems good, like something I’d want to be an outcome. At the same time, my writing, and the articles I’ve chosen to post on FB, have been seen as challenging, have been met with responses that fall into the “But what about me?” category, that seem to want direct acknowledgement of individual goodness. I had a two-hour phone call last week that started as a discussion of structural racism and quickly got mired in “what about me?” talk.
So I’ll say again that I don’t think my white friends are looking for a cookie, or a medal, or any of the other patronizing prizes folks have mentioned in response to the “what about me?” conversation. I believe the pushback is coming from a sincerely honest place of “You can’t possibly see me that way!” … but that place bothers me in a way I have yet to fully articulate.
Several white friends — And can I say here how strange and unkind and false it feels to be identifying any of my friends in this way? Still. — have prefaced their comments to me in a way similar to my two-hour-phone-call friend: some version of “I don’t want to talk about black people and white people. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather just be referred to as a person, not as a white person.”
Yes. I hear you. I get that.
But I want you to see the luxury of that. The privilege. I’d like to be referred to as a person, too. Living in a society that is normed on white experience, however, robs me of that right. It means that 99 times out of 100, what I am is added as a modifier to whatever other way I am perceived. I am a black writer, a black shopper, a black tourist. And I am all of those things. Of course. But you, my white friend, are described as a writer, a shopper, a tourist. And the fact that you can’t see that, can’t think that, before you tell me you want to be referred to as “just” a person? That’s a problem.
It’s a problem that makes my conversations with you difficult. But let’s be clear: it’s your problem. I cannot fix it for you. And if I could fix it for you, I wouldn’t. Because this is what I meant when I said I wouldn’t do your homework for you. This is your problem to fix.
I want to have this conversation, but more and more I have been wondering if I can, if I am able to do this without convo-killing displays of my anger, without me telling some of my (white) friends to step off, that I cannot be the lantern that guides them through this forest.
Last night I had dinner with a dear friend, and we tried to talk about some of this. we did talk, and it felt good and real and honest, even if I couldn’t put words to all the things I was thinking, even with my tangential digressions.
That gives me hope.