White people: Why are they afraid to talk about race?

Cadence Paramore – Opinion Columnist

For many white students–and that is a large majority of our campus’s population–conversations about race look a lot like fear: fear of saying or doing the wrong thing and offending someone. And, yes, it’s good to be conscious of how our words and actions can have a negative impact on our peers, but the root of fear around conversations of race is inherently privileged. It is a privilege to live our lives not worrying about the impact of our words and actions until now. It is a privilege to be so afraid of being wrong that we choose not to say anything at all, and this privilege is catastrophic because it centers around our comfort as white people over racial justice and equality.
I’ll admit that I’ve made many mistakes in my own journey. I have asked inappropriate questions and gotten defensive and spoken up when I should have shut up and stayed quiet when I should have said something. There is no guidebook, no “How-to” when it comes to anything in life. All we have is trial-by-error, and nothing is simple. Nothing is, “This is wrong, and that is right.” Messing up doesn’t make you a villain, just like doing one good thing (or even multiple) doesn’t make you a hero. There is a lot of gray area, and the best we can do is admit to our mistakes and grow from them. Question everything. Where does your fear stem from? Fear of hurting someone, or fear of looking like a bad person? Do you care more about how your white peers will view you than how your words, or lack thereof, are negating the existence of people of color?
It is privileged to be more focused on our own images than the livelihood of others, which places our appearance value as white people higher than lives that people of color are living. I am not knowledgeable enough to speak on every aspect of this multifaceted issue, but I will say this:
No, you cannot speak for someone else and their experiences. Yes, you can say, “I don’t know enough to comment on that” when someone asks for your opinion. No, you cannot play “Devil’s advocate.” Yes, you can (and should) hold your peers AND professors accountable, especially as white students on campus. It is not the job of students of color to educate us.
I started writing this article out of frustration that stemmed from a conversation in one of my classes, but as I began reading “How To Be Less Stupid About Race” by Crystal M. Flemming, I realized how ignorant I was being to focus more on asking white people to speak up than focusing on shutting the hell up and listening. Flemming discusses the concept of ignorance being bliss at the beginning of her book, “Living in a racist society socializes us to be stupid about race.”
We grew up with textbooks that centered on the white experience, perpetuated white savior–ism and erased the contributions the BIPOC community has made to our country and the world. We grew up with teachers who, most of the time, were uneducated themselves or “miseducated about the history and ongoing realities of racial oppression,” Flemming said. If we don’t understand race and racism, then we can’t fight it. This lack of education is intentional. This lack of education is racist.
Flemming continues on saying that having conversations about race without understanding it is harmful. That might seem obvious to some of you, but let me repeat that again. Entering into conversations about race without properly being educated on it is harmful. White people‒we need to talk less and learn more. There are already professors teaching classes, social media influencers holding virtual lectures and people writing books. All the tools are already here for us if we just reach for them. I’m still reading Flemming’s book, a book that’s an incredibly easy and quick read, and I’ve already learned so much. All I had to do was shut up and listen.
You’re afraid to talk about race. I understand, but it’s important to be uncomfortable. In fact, we should be uncomfortable. Being comfortable isn’t the goal nor is it an endgame, just like simply being an “ally” isn’t enough. Passive allyship is dangerous and a lazy way out. Simply saying, “I’m an ally” and doing nothing more is once again placing your appearance value over people’s lives. Letting go of our image, of our ego, is an important step in active allyship‒in anti-racism, but as you know by now racial understanding doesn’t just come from talking– especially white voices talking. It comes from reading, listening and watching. It comes from hearing.
Right now you may be asking, just like I’ve asked myself, “But now what? What can I do? How do I know when I should speak up and when I should stay quiet?”
Listen. That’s as good of an answer as I can give you‒actively listen. Sometimes talking about race involves less talking from white people. Listen when someone asks you to help them. Listen when someone speaks from a place that you don’t understand. Listen to your peers when they tell you that something you did hurt them. Read, watch films and then read some more. Invoke empathy. Try to understand perspectives beyond your own. Be a sponge, but not a passive one waiting to be picked up.
Our world has been waiting too long for us to join the conversation. Jump in head-first and leave your fear at the door. We’re living through two plagues‒COVID and racism. Along with your COVID self-screening, do a racism self-screening every day. It doesn’t stop existing, in our society or in ourselves, just because we acknowledge it. That’s the first step.
And there is no last step, no “The End,” no completion. To quote from professor Jill Locke, “It’s a chase to be man enough, to be white enough, but there is no ‘there’ so we end up hurting others in our attempt to prop ourselves up.” In our attempts to be enough, whether it’s man enough or white enough or straight enough or “ally” enough, we’re harming others and losing our own humanity. There is no destination where “enough” lies. “The goalposts keep moving,” Locke said.
To quote from James Baldwin in his essay, “On Being ‘White’ And Other Lies,” there is no white community. “No one was white before he/she came to America . . . the people who, as they claim, ‘settled’ the country became white‒because of the necessity of denying the Black presence, and justifying Black subjugation” (page 178). If this is all new to you, have you asked yourself recently WHY you’re holding onto a past education written from the perspective of white men desperately trying to keep you in the dark, and not expanding your knowledge? You’re in college for a reason. You’re getting an education for a reason‒so LEARN.
No one likes to be wrong, to not know things, but we never reach a destination where we’re “finished” or where we know everything. We’re going to make mistakes and be wrong our entire lives, the only important thing is if we learn from them. Our fear is holding us back. Acknowledge the racism, shed your ego, actively listen, check yourself and your friends, and be willing to join in on the conversations and do the work.

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