Today we have not just one conversation, but two! Or rather, one conversation that sparked another. These comments from Karyn and V show two perspectives I often see in the white and the black communities so it’s nice to be able to present them both in one place.
Karyn is so racked with white guilt (seriously, however bad you think white guilt is for some people, double it, then double it again) that she’s convinced herself that racism is her personal responsibility.
V, on the other hand, has been taught to be so distrustful of white people that she thinks manipulating that guilt is the only way to make any progress on racial issues.
If you’ve read my work, you’ll know I think both of these outlooks are wrong. But understanding where they come from is the key to changing them.
I'd like to ask a serious question. I've come to terms with the fact that my complacency and blind eye to systemic racism has made me complicit in the problem. I've learned to be cautious about finding ways to help - mostly sticking with explaining things to other white people so you don't have to. I would like to do more. Do you truly believe that asking us to sit on our hands is constructive? I get that there are lot's of "don'ts." How about giving us some "dos?"
Fair criticism. This article was more of a rant than an attempt to give advice. But seeing as she asked, I thought I’d try to clear up a few things.
I've come to terms with the fact that my complacency and blind eye to systemic racism has made me complicit in the problem.
Hi Karyn, please don't take this as an attack, I know you're getting a million conflicting messages about racism. I know it must be frustrating constantly being told you're doing it wrong. I know you're genuinely trying to help. But let me say this:
You're not that important.
What I mean by that is that your complacency has had absolutely no impact on the systemic racism I or other black people have suffered. You're not to blame. You didn't build these systems. You didn't ask for them. There are plenty of black people more guilty than you are for perpetuating them and plenty of others doing less than you are to tear them down. Don't try to carry that responsibility.
If you want to help, examine yourself. What are your prejudices? What are your biases? Do you turn a blind eye to racist comments when there are no people of colour around? Do you react diffently to a black person walking behind you than a white person? If so, then do the best you can to change that.
Also, you don't need to explain things on our behalf. In my opinion, black people who refuse to talk to white people about race are a part of the problem. Of course, some disagree with me. That's the point. There is no singular "black truth" to explain to other white people. Say it how YOU see it. Do the best YOU can. Be willing to change your mind, but don't be bullied into doing so just because a black person tells you to. Ask questions, challenge assumptions. Black people can be wrong too.
Again, please don't take any of this as an attack. It's genuinely heartwarming that you care enough to try and to ask for advice. This is mine. Others will say different things. If you care about fighting racism, and you clearly seem to, then trust yourself a little more.
This reply remains one of my most replied to and applauded comments. And while I’m happy that I was able to say something that resonated, I’m sad that the ideas I’ve presented here are rare enough to warrant any praise.
How is this not the most basic common sense?
V offers us a clue.
Thank you Steve for writing about this this extremely important issue. I agree with much of what you have said to Karyn but I didn't get the sense that she was complacent, in fact just the opposite. And I was stunned and deeply distressed by your statement, "your complacency has had absolutely no impact on the systemic racism."
If everyone took that approach to systemic racism (or any other form of injustice against those who have few ways to defend themselves in the face of overwhelming forces and we are all in that position now) given how many racists are in power determined to preserve the status quo every single person who believes social and economic injustice is wrong needs to stand up. And if there ever was a time for us to do so it is now.
No meaningful change has ever occurred by doing nothing. Change only occurs when people act. We create the world we live in and it shouldn't be left to those who would take all for themselves and oppress the rest. What each of us does or chooses not to do do - has an impact - it matters.
Complacency and the belief that others will make the changes we need is exactly how and why we came to be in the mess we are today. I am utterly mystified that you don't seem to understand that.
We’ve gotten so used to thinking in terms of “us” and “them” that some people really can’t see where the enemy is. I have conversations every day with white people who are certain I think they’re evil oppressors because I’m black. And here’s V, insisting that Karyn is an oppressor because she’s white. We all need to do better if we’re going to make any progress.
No meaningful change has ever occurred by doing nothing.
I couldn't agree more, but I'm not suggesting that she or anybody else do nothing. I'm just not willing to blame a random woman for an entire system of racial oppresion because of the colour of her skin.
There have been white people fighting alongside black people to end racial oppression since the days of the Underground Railroad. We don't need to rely on guilt by association to encourage them to act. In fact, what that seems to do among the "woke white" is push them towards empty virtue signalling instead of real work.
My advice to Karyn was to examine herself and her actions first. That's where the work begins for people who don't have a personal stake in racism. Then she needs to talk and listen, but ultimately think for herself.
If she's in the comments of my articles asking how she can do better, she's already doing more than most. I'd rather have her working from a place of true solidarity than guilt and that means having a little faith in her.
That’s all I heard from V. It’s often unclear whether I’ve gotten through to people in these online conversations, but I hope I did.
Tribally speaking, black people have reason to be suspicious of white people. But tribal thinking can’t get us where we need to go. If race relations are ever going to improve, we need to learn to have faith in each other. We need to act out of true solidarity, not out of guilt. We need to judge each other by our actions, not our skin tone.
As everybody knows, the promised land lies in a place where we judge each other not by the colour of our skin but by the content of our character. We’re not there yet. But we can get there if people like Karyn and V learn to trust each other and themselves. As V says, we create the world we live in.