Why whitesplaining about how to end racism is not going to help you win an argument

If you hadn’t heard yet, America voted misogynistic, rape-y, able-ist, blowhard Donald J. Trump to the presidency last month. And, while the initial reactions from those who opposed him were to blame Black and Latinx voters for this outcome, later findings have shown that it was actually white people who overwhelmingly supported Trump especially those in the Rust Belt and Midwestern regions of the country. Following this tragedy, well-meaning white people have taken to the Internet to tell people of color how best to deal with racists, bigots, and other deplorables as we continue to work to eradicate racism.

It’s time we address this problem directly.

In an article in NYMag last week called “Calling Someone ‘Racist’ Is Not Going to Help You Win an Argument,” a writer named Drake Baer white-man-splained exactly how we should proceed in discussing racism with racists. He says, “just about the worst way to get someone to open up enough to think critically about their views is to call them something they find offensive. (Cut to: basket of deplorables.) Racist in particular holds a charged and ambiguous space.”

Through his discussions with a sociologist and language expert, Baer suggests that the central issue in getting racist people to understand that they are racist is that they don’t like being called out for it (shocker). So, instead of explicitly identifying them as racist (a term he italicizes and puts in quotes far too many times for me to take him seriously on the matter), we should instead describe certain actions, words, and behaviors as racist thereby protecting the racist individual’s personhood and feelings.

Essentially, he suggests we coddle the very people who wield confederate flags, praise the police especially after they kill Black people, prefer a status quo that harms Black and Latinx folx more than anyone else, and ignore the conditions of oppression and repression facing people who don’t look like them.

Later in the piece, Baer says “Still, if what you’re trying to do is actually relate, getting at the structures and viewpoints underlying racism without getting the conversational bridge blown up by the emotional charge of “racist” looks like the best way forward.”

In his well-meaning, reductive way, Baer seems to think that getting at racism and all of its vestiges is really about having conversations and winning “arguments.” If only it were that simple.

There are many reasons why articles like these are problematic. The most obvious one is that the writer is a white man who has no clue what he is talking about. In his clear lack of experience with understanding the centuries-long institutional effort to codify and maintain white supremacy and racism, he believes that conversations, feelings, and interpersonal interactions are enough to dismantle the very system within which these byproducts of the racist structures of the United States are encapsulated. So, there’s that. But, beyond that very real fact, pieces like these foreground several problems with many white peoples’ understanding of racism and racial dialogue in the US.

First, it is not the job of those who have been oppressed in this system to perform solidarity or protection of those who would happily oppress them again. In fact, it is not our job to do anything for these people. This is yet another instance where white people would rather that people of color carry the burden of correcting their aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, brothers, sisters, and parents on their racist ways than actually step up and do the work themselves.

If people of color are angry, frustrated, and tired of the marginalizing conditions they face, they have every right to express those feelings to the very individuals responsible for their position. This is part of democracy and our (not often honored) commitment to free speech. Any suggestions otherwise only reinscribe the systems we are attempting to tear down.

Second, in a related point, many white people spend more time policing the justified indignation and rage of those of us who frequently have to face the hatred, threats, and vitriol of racists than they do actually trying to stop these people altogether.

Malcolm X once said: “I tell sincere white people, ‘Work in conjunction with us- each of us working among our own kind.’ Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do- and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people!”

I couldn’t agree with this sentiment more. Well-meaning (or “sincere”) white people should not be sitting behind computer screens, plucking keys explaining how other people can do a better job of fixing racism. They also shouldn’t be performing other empty and symbolic acts like wearing safety pins to look like good allies. Rather, their time would be better spent learning about how systemic oppression amounts to much more than chatting over coffee, building “conversational bridges”, and making racist white people feel good about themselves just because they stopped using the n-word.

In the end, this is so much graver than winning an argument. It is much more serious than interpersonal interactions. We are talking about a system, a webbing of socio-political processes and norms that have taken generations to mold. Winning doesn’t look like converting individual white people. It looks like unsettling the very processes and structures that oppress us with or without the support of semi-racist do-gooders.

If writers like Baer want to actually move the needle on social change, they might do well to learn about the complexities of our fight for liberation rather than taking the oft chosen position of Ally In-Chief. Until then, shutting the entire f*ck up works pretty well too.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.