Friday, February 23, 2018

Centering whiteness

I have noticed something about myself, and I wonder if you, fellow White parents of Black children, will find this familiar. I notice that in conversations with Black adults about racism they have experienced, I have a tendency to try to signal that I am “a good White person.” I don’t do it consciously, and I usually don’t realize it until after the conversation is over, when I reflect on it and say, “damn it, I did it again.”

I have found it only slightly helpful to let go of the goal of not being racist and acknowledge that as a White person in America, I have been steeped in the toxic teacup of White supremacy so long that it’s impossible to not be stained by it. I will, whether I want to or not, at some point do or say something racist. There is no point in beating myself up over it, I need to acknowledge it, learn from it, and try to do better the next time.

But this has been only slightly helpful because in the end, it still makes the conversation about racism about me. It’s either “I’m a good White person,” or “I acknowledge White people's racism.” Either way, a conversation that began about racism against a Black person has now become about the White person’s feelings.

Centering whiteness – it’s a real thing.

Last week a Black child was the target of hate speech at my son's school and his mother came to me about it. My response was to speculate about what actions the White school administrators might take and to offer to go to the school with her for support. This response was not useful. What she really needed were my connections to the specific members of the school board who could most help her. But she had to push me to get what she needed because instead of focusing on her, I had once again centered myself and other White people. 

I had to sit down to figure out some concrete steps for how to stop doing this. Here’s what I came up with. It’s something really simple but I’m already noticing it changing my conversations. Now, when I am talking to a Black person about racism, I ask myself:
  1. What is their goal? Their goal might be, as in the situation above, to get help for their child, or to blow off steam, or to offer advice about raising my Black sons. I guarantee their goal is not to measure how good or bad a White person I am. Asking myself what their goal is keeps the focus where it belongs, on them.
  2. How can they use me? The syntax of this sentence is really important. Not how can I help them but how can they use me? Keeping “they” as the subject of the sentence keeps the focus where it belongs. If they can use me, great. I'll do what they need me to do. If they can’t use me, then I'll back off.
Like I said, very simple, but I notice it making a difference. What about you? How do you combat the centering of whiteness in your conversations about racism?

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