Friday, June 5, 2020

Arguing With White People

The author and her husband, standing in front of Preservation Hall in New Orleans
I spent a lot of my adolescence and beyond arguing with my father about racism. Basically as soon as I was old enough to understand the concept, I started challenging him about some of the stuff he said. It was probably in our top five disagreements along with the place and role of women, when he thought I should get up on a Saturday morning, and mowing the grass which I flatly refused to do. (Cut grass makes me itch and break out in red welts).

I have argued with plenty of other people about it, too. I have heard it all. I have heard weird shit you would never have thought of, because the ideology of white supremacy runs deep in this society and it has its own mythology and apologetics. There's a social ecology that supports it that is complex and has tendrils extending to many areas of life, including education, the church, literature, and yes, law enforcement and the judicial system. It has to; you can't maintain an artificial imbalance of power without a whole lot of propaganda. The same, incidentally, applies to sexism, homophobia, rigid gender ideology, et cetera. And the completeness of it is what makes it seem "natural."

It can be extraordinarily difficult to have those conversations, and not just because of fear of making a scene or being "that person" at work.  Those are real fears, albeit ones people need to learn to address and move through.  One of the gifts my father gave me is that he didn't get angry or punish my admittedly snotty adolescent righteousness, so I got to get past the scary part without any repercussions except being expected to remain civil and back up my assertions.   But even if you did not have that kind of fortune, or you do in fact suffer repercussions when you decide to start opening your is absolutely crucial that you do so.  For the lives of others, and your own liberation.

The other big problem is that it's like fighting sand in a windstorm.  It's everywhere, it gets into everything, and you tend to wind up tired and angry with nothing much to show for it.  Do it anyway.  The results you get hardly ever show up immediately, but they build up over time.

Listening to people who are at the pointy end of white supremacy and reading about the subject is essential, especially the specific history of racism against African Americans in this country and how it functions. You can't argue a case you don't understand, and your feelings (shaped by the same white supremacist cultural propaganda that I mentioned earlier) may not be a reliable guide.  You don't have to re-invent the wheel, either, and people have spent many decades and lots of thought on analysis of the problem.  You can benefit from all of that for the price of picking up some books or following some blogs.

On the other hand, I think for white people trying to talk to other white people about racism, we need to carry the ball ourselves past a certain point.  People of color often spend their whole lives thinking about the subject, have formal education on the topic in many instances, and have lots of experience arguing with white people about racism....but it's still different when the call is coming from inside the house.  Or not as different as people might think, in some cases.  I don't think people in general really realize how quickly and sometimes violently other white people will turn on you, though the white people who died during the Civil Rights movement and the current existence of a website dedicated to doxxing white women who date outside their race should offer a clue about that. Again I say:  Do it anyway.  Just realize that your fears can be valid and exaggerated because of white supremacist cultural brainwashing at the same time.

One advantage you have is that you can easily speak in terms that other white people understand...though it has limits.  There are plenty of black people, who because of their upbringing or profession, can do that too.  Biracial people frequently have lots of experience trying to get their white relatives to see the light, unfortunately. Sometimes people enter interracial relationships either despite their parents' vehement opposition, or in some cases because of it, which can lead to some screwed up family dynamics.  Even when it's not that pointed, just because someone loves their biracial children or grandchildren it doesn't mean they have thought very deeply about race, and it is a topic that requires reflection before you can have any chance of getting the sand out of the gears.  All of the biracial people I know, including my husband, have stories about wtf moments with family or friends.  They also all know how to bridge the gaps and speak in language that their white relatives understand...and have run into situations where that simply was not enough.

Then there's the advantage granted to you just by being the person you are, in the body that you're in; what is otherwise called "privilege."  It's not a magic wand or a cure-all (as any white person who grew up poor can tell you) but it is power nonetheless.  It's a little bit of extra authority sprinkled on your voice and actions.  It won't fix everything, but that's not your job.  Your job is to speak.

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