Authors: Ijeoma Oluo
If you are a person of color who is being shamed or criticized by privileged people for your tone, please remember this:
You have a right to your anger, sadness and fear.
These are natural reactions to the unnatural system of racial oppression.
You were born deserving
equality and justice.
Nobody should be able to take that away from you. Your humanity does not have to be earned.
You are no less important than those who try to put preconditions on your humanity.
Nobody has authority over your fight for racial justice.
Those who tone-police you are trying to manipulate you into thinking that their validation is required
to legitimize your desire for racial justice. This is abusive behavior.
You deserve to be able to speak your truth, and you deserve to be heard.
Conversations about race and racial oppression can certainly be tough, but that’s nothing compared to how tough fighting
against racial oppression can be. Our humanity is worth a little discomfort, it’s actually worth a
But if you live in this system of White Supremacy you are either fighting the system, or you are complicit. There is no neutrality to be had towards systems of injustice—it is not something you can just opt out of. If you believe in justice and equality, we are in this together, whether you like me or not.
T WAS ONE OF THE MOST DISGUSTING MOMENTS OF
my presidency,” George W. Bush declared earnestly to Matt Lauer.
Two years after his presidency, during which he started two wars that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and destabilized an entire region of the world, the former president was talking about the moments that had stood out to
him. And there, in his list of “the most disgusting moments” was the time that Kanye West said that George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people.
In his book
, Bush talks further about how hurt he was by Kanye’s accusation. It was, in his words, an all-time low of his presidency: “I faced a lot of criticism as president. I didn’t like hearing people claim that I lied about Iraq’s
weapons of mass destruction or cut taxes to benefit the rich. But the suggestion that I was racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low.”
I remember at the time feeling shocked and a little amused by this. After all the atrocities that George W. Bush saw in his presidency (terror attacks, unjust wars resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, the largest recession
since the great depression, and so much more) having someone insinuate that he was racist was the all-time low. How out-of-touch. How self-centered. I remember thinking that it was yet another sign that the former president was a weird emotional child who was not at all qualified for the presidency (this was, of course, before Donald Trump showed us all what “weird, emotional child not at all qualified
for the presidency” really looks like). But I thought of this mostly as a funny aberration.
That was, of course, until I started writing about race.
If you write about race or talk about race, you will quickly realize that GWB’s reaction to the insinuation of racism is disturbingly common. To many white people, it appears, there is absolutely nothing worse than being called a racist, or someone
insinuating you might be racist, or someone saying that something you did was racist, or somebody calling somebody you identify with racist. Basically, anytime the label of racist touches you at all, it’s the worst thing to happen to anybody anywhere.
I remember once after sharing an article on Twitter about racism in the US, when a white Canadian tweeted back, “You should move to Canada, we
aren’t racist here.” I pointed out that, according to recent news of the reluctance of government officials to fully investigate the murders of dozens of indigenous women, the controversy over “carding” of black
Canadians by police, and the testimony of my Canadian friends of color—Canada was plenty racist. This white Canadian stranger kept insisting that no, there was no racism in Canada because
he had not seen it. When some of my Canadian friends chimed in with helpful links about high-profile incidences of racism and investigations into systemic racism in Canada, the white Canadian continued to insist that they were wrong, and that racism doesn’t exist in Canada.
I pointed out the irony of stating that racism doesn’t exist, while talking over, belittling, and denying the lived experiences
of Canadians of color.
His response was quick: “Are you calling me racist? YOU CUNT.”
Mr. Friendly White Canadian then proceeded to harass me on social media for weeks, until his account was suspended. For hours each day he sought out anyone who commented on one of my Tweets, informing them that I was a “reverse-racist” who “hated white people” and “loved calling innocent people racists.” After
I blocked him on Twitter, he would log on from other accounts he created just to continue the harassment. He did not appear to be, from his Internet history, a professional troll or serial harasser. Something about my insinuation that his actions may be racist had triggered a deep rage inside of him, and he was going to make me pay.
This is perhaps a slightly more extreme example of the racial
confrontation formula: a white person does something racially insensitive and harmful, it is pointed out to them, and they go nuclear. People have tried to get me fired from gigs, have tried to organize protests of my public events, have sent me threatening emails—all for pointing out how their actions are hurting others.
And I’m not alone. When I asked a group of people of color what they feared
most when talking about racism, their number-one concern was retaliation. One friend knows of at least two websites dedicated to smearing her because she called a white woman’s language racist. One friend was fired from a job after a Facebook argument in which she said an associate was acting racist. One friend was subject to a months-long campaign to turn her community against her after stating
that someone’s actions were insensitive to people of color. Countless friends have had emails sent to their employers and educators by white people incensed that someone would insinuate that their actions are racist.
Even when the words “racist” or “racism” are never said—even the slightest implication can shift the entire conversation from “Hey, this hurts people of color” to “DID YOU JUST CALL
ME RACIST? I AM NOT RACIST! I AM A GOOD PERSON HOW DARE YOU?”
It’s not as if it’s easy for people of color to call out racism. When we decide to talk about these things, not only are we having to confront our own feelings of hurt, disappointment, or anger, we know that we are also risking any of the above reactions and more. When we decide to talk about racism, we know that it could indeed end
our friendships, our reputations, our careers, and even our lives. The response to our complaints of racism or racial insensitivity are not always met with such violent reactions, but no matter what, it is never a pleasant conversation for people of color to have. I do not know a single person of color who does not broach these conversations with a very heavy heart, and they almost always leave
with one even heavier.
So why do we talk about racism if it’s so risky and so painful?
Because we have no choice. Because not talking about it is killing us. Because for far too long, the burden of racism has always been on us alone. If you are white, and you are reading this and wondering why we bother if these conversations are as bad as I say, think of how bad the alternative—continued, unchecked
racism—would have to be in order to get you to risk that much, and you’ll know a little more about the reality of life for people of color.
HIS CHAPTER IS FOR WHITE PEOPLE
F COURSE, NONWHITE
people will read it as well, and I hope that it is informative to most and perhaps validating to others. But I am aiming this chapter at you, the white person who is afraid of being called racist. Who
may well be avoiding further investing in the fight for racial justice because you know that one wrong move may have you labeled as a white supremacist. If you see even a little bit of yourself in this, you need to keep reading. If you are convinced that you are past all of that, you should probably still keep reading—because these defensive impulses run deep and may take you by surprise, just when
you thought you had gotten past all of your discomfort around race.
Who are you?
You are, at times, kind and mean, generous and selfish, witty and dull. Sometimes you are all of these things at once.
And if you are white in a white supremacist society, you are racist. If you are male in a patriarchy, you are sexist. If you are able-bodied, you are ableist. If you are anything above poverty
in a capitalist society, you are classist. You can sometimes be all of these things at once.
You do, as Walt Whitman said, contain multitudes.
I know that the above is all that some people need to chuck this book out a window. “Typical,” some might say, “Another Social Justice Warrior who thinks all white people are racist.” But you’ve come this far and already invested so much in this process—please,
consider sitting with your discomfort for a while longer, and see where this chapter takes you.
We like to think of our character in the same way it is written in our obituaries. We are strong, brave, and loyal. We are funny and creative. We are what we strive to be. While if we sit and reflect, we can provide a more nuanced description of ourselves, in our day-to-day lives our self-esteem reads
in synopsis: “Mary was a kind and loving mother. An avid gardener.”
But life is a series of moments. And in reality we are both the culmination of those countless moments, and each moment individually in time.
Say you get drunk in a bar and punch a stranger in the face, spend the night in jail, realize that your life has taken a turn for the worse, get treatment, stop drinking, and dedicate
your life to anti-violence work. To the person that you punched that night, you may forever be the person who assaulted them. The person who made them scared to go into bars for a while. The person who made them feel violated. To the people you have helped since, you may always be a hero. The person who made them safer in the world.
These are both who you are, they are both valid and do not cancel
each other out. If you run into the person you punched years later, they may well still be afraid of you, they may react with anger. They will treat you like someone who punched them, because you are. And even if you respond to that anger and fear like someone who abhors violence, because that is also who you are, you have no right to demand that they see you differently.
Why all of this talk
about the ways in which we can all be both an abuser and a healer? Because you have been racist, and you have been anti-racist. Yes, you may now be insisting that you do not have a racist bone in your body, but that is simply not true. You have been racist, and will be in the future, even if less so.
You are racist because you were born and bred in a racist, white supremacist society. White Supremacy
is, as I’ve said earlier, insidious by design. The racism required to uphold White Supremacy is woven into every area of our lives. There is no way you can inherit white privilege from birth, learn racist white supremacist history in schools, consume racist and white supremacist movies and films, work in a racist and white supremacist workforce, and vote for racist and white supremacist governments
and not be racist.
This does not mean that you have hate in your heart. You may intend to treat everyone equally. But it does mean that you have absorbed some fucked-up shit regarding race, and it will show itself in some fucked-up ways. You may not know why you clutch your purse a little harder when a black man walks by you, but in the moment you do, you are being racist. You may not know why
when you see a bad driver on the road and you recognize they are Asian a little voice inside you goes “Aha!” but in that moment, you are being racist. You may not know why you are pleasantly surprised that the Latinx person you are talking to is “so articulate” but in that moment, you are being racist.
And that racism informs a lot of your decisions in ways that you are not aware. It informs
how you vote, where you spend your money, whom you hire, what books you read, whom you socialize with, what social concerns you will pay attention to. And that racism does real harm to real people, both immediately and systematically. To the person you harmed in that racist moment, you may forever be the person who harmed them, because you did. You may also be other things to them—you may also be
a friend, a coworker, or a neighbor. And you can decide that you don’t ever want to be a racist to anyone else, and you can work toward that goal, but you cannot tell someone to deny the harm you’ve done to them.
And that sucks. It sucks to know that to some people you will forever be the person who harmed them. It sucks to know that someone you have harmed in the past may one day read in your
obituary “John was a generous and loyal friend to all he met” and disagree. You’ve tried so hard to be a good person, but your intentions cannot erase the harm that your actions cause.
This is real harm that has been done and you have to accept that if you do not want to continue harming people by denying their lived experiences and denying your responsibility. This does not mean that you have
to flog yourself for all eternity. The pain you’ve caused is real, and if you have a conscience, the recognition of that will likely sting a little whenever you think about it. But everything else you’ve done, all of the effort you’ve made to be a better person, that is just as valid and deserves equal billing in your obit. Your mistakes or your achievements will never on their own define you. But
you can only do better if you are willing to look at your entire self.
All of this is to say that if you have been called racist, or something you have done has been called racist, by a person of color, you cannot simply dismiss it outright—even if that accusation is in direct opposition to all that you try to be. Not if you are truly committed to racial justice.
Now is an opportunity to learn
more about yourself, to see yourself and your actions more clearly, so you can move toward the person you truly want to be. The question is: do you want to
like a better person, or do you want to
a better person? Because those who just want to look like a better person will have great difficulty with the introspection necessary to actually be a better person. In order to do better we must
be willing to hold our darkness to the light, we must be willing to shatter our own veneer of “goodness”
So if you’ve been confronted with the possibility of your own racism, and you want to
do the work
, here are some tips:
First and foremost, if someone is telling you something about yourself and your actions and you feel your hackles raising, take that as a sign that
you need to stop and listen. If your blood pressure rose too quickly to really hear what was being said, take a few deep breaths, ask the person to repeat themselves if necessary, and listen again. Don’t add to what the person is saying, don’t jump to conclusions, don’t immediately think “Oh you think I’m a monster now,” just try to actually hear what they are trying to communicate to you.
Set your intentions aside.
Your intentions have little to no impact on the way in which your actions may have harmed others. Do not try to absolve yourself of responsibility with your good intentions.
Try to hear the impact of what you have done.
Don’t just hear the action: “You consistently speak over me in work meetings and you do not do that to white people in our meetings.”
That is easy to brush off as, “I just didn’t agree with you,” or, “I didn’t mean to, I was just excited about a point I was trying to make. Don’t make a big deal out of nothing.” Try to also hear the impact: “You bias is invalidating my professional expertise and making me feel singled out and unappreciated in a way which compounds all of the many ways I’m made to feel this way as a woman of color
in the workplace.”
Remember that you do not have all of the pieces.
You are not living as a person of color. You will never fully understand the impact that sustained, systemic racism has on people of color. You will never be able to fully empathize with the pain your actions may have caused. Nothing will get you there. Do not discount someone’s complaint because their emotions
seem foreign to you. You may think that someone is making a mountain out of a molehill, but when it comes to race, actual mountains are indeed made of countless molehills stacked on top of each other. Each one adds to the enormity of the problem of racism.
Nobody owes you a debate.
It is very hard on people of color to call out racism. Sometimes, that is the most they can do. And
while you may really want to get it all
sorted out right then and there, understand that when you ask to “talk it out” you are asking for more emotional labor from somebody who is already hurt. It is nice if you get it, and you should be grateful, but it is not owed you. You can still give this serious thought. You can still look deep inside yourself, you can still Google for more insight (remember,
it’s highly unlikely that anything you’ve done has not been done before), even if the person who brought this to your attention does not want to engage further.
Nobody owes you a relationship.
Even if you’ve recognized where you’ve been racist, worked to make amends, and learned from your mistakes, the person that you harmed does not owe you a relationship of any kind. In a hostile
world, people of color have the right to cut off contact with people who have harmed them. They do not have to stick around to see all the progress you’ve made.
Remember that you are not the only one hurt.
Yes, it hurts to know that somebody thinks you are being racist. But you were not the first one hurt here—it is the deep hurt of racism that forced this person to confront you.
Do not make this about your pain at being called out.
If you can see where you have been racist, or if you can see where your actions have caused harm, apologize and mean it.
Think about how you can make amends if possible, and how you can avoid those same harmful actions in the future. If you cannot see where you have been racist, take some more time to seriously consider the
issue some more before declaring your actions “not
racist.” There have been conversations I’ve had about race with white people that ended in absolute denials, only to have that white person come back to me months later to say that they finally realized that their actions were racist and they were sorry for the harm they had caused, not only by their actions, but by their vigorous denial of my
If, after a lot of careful thought, you still do not see your actions as racist and feel strongly that this is simply a misunderstanding, do not then invalidate that person’s hurt.
A true misunderstanding isn’t so just because your intentions were not racist. A true misunderstanding is when your actions do not actually have a racist impact even though somebody thinks
they might. If I hit you but do not intend to hit you, that is not a misunderstanding about whether or not I hit you. The situation you are in may be a misunderstanding—it does happen, even if it happens less often than you think. But even if it is, the pain of the person confronting you is real. Do not deny that. Do not call it silly. Explain your viewpoint if you feel it’s necessary, and hope
that explanation sheds light that helps that person see the situation the same way that you do, but don’t deny someone’s lived experience. Your goal is to find out if you are being racist, not to prove that you aren’t, and to resolve a painful situation if possible.