Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

The more I learn about racism, the more I realize how hard it is to argue against racist ideas. It’s not hard to oppose them, but it’s hard to say something that will get the other person to at least stop and think, let alone change their mind. This week I read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. A lot of the ideas below were triggered by the excellent explanations and sometimes painful truths in the book.

I try to find a balance between consuming new ideas and staying informed and getting depressed from seeing too much hatred and ignorance online. It’s a thin line to walk on and I often get it wrong. Some of the discourse online scares the hell out of me. A good example is an article on a Dutch news site about the unmarked order troops in Portland who pick up protestors from the streets without identifying themselves and take them away in unmarked rental vans. The comments below that article are filled with remarks that what these troops are doing is justified and that the BLM protests and “Antifa” pose a serious threat to these cities and communities. After all, Trump declared that Antifa is a terrorist organization.

Antifa stands for anti-fascist. A definition of fascism is “a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition”. The word was originally used for Mussolini’s party and has since been generalized to include those with similar believes. Against that background and definition, I consider myself to be Antifa. I hope and even assume that most people commenting on the article would not identify as fascists even if some might not identify as explicitly anti-fascist.

Moving away from this specific example, how do you explain to someone who feels picking up BLM protestors of the street is good and just that black people have to deal with systemic and unjust racism and that they are right to demand structural changes? I don’t think many people who aren’t sympathetic towards the BLM organization and protests are afraid of losing their white privilege at this point. I think in many cases they are just scared of change in general. They want things to go back to “normal”. Where normal means that everyone accepts the world that we have today, inequalities and injustices and all. I think. Maybe?

The push for quiet and complacency isn’t new. In 1963 Liberation Magazine published an article by Martin Luther King, Jr that included the following statement: ‘First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” ‘Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.’
I’m ashamed to say that I don’t think we’ve made much progress in this area since 1963. That’s 57 years and two generations! Can you blame black people for getting frustrated with a society, government, and white people from both the left and the right not caring enough to make some real changes?

Part of the challenge of making society less racist is that the changes can’t be made by black people. Racism is about power. It’s about being a position to negatively impact other people’s lives. Lasting changes will have to be made by those in power. Unfortunately, those at the top also benefit the most from the current racist, misogynist power structures and thus have the most to lose. They will only change things when they are forced to. In places where quotas about the number or percentage of women that are being hired or women that are part of boards and leadership teams are enforced the number of (white) women is increasing.
Going forward we don’t just need quota on the number of women, we also need quota on the number of black people that are being hired and that are being promoted into leadership positions.

Many oppose quotas, stating that “the best person for the job” should be hired. But if you think that the homogeneous flock of middle-aged white men currently clogging the upper echelons of most professions got there purely through talent and hard work you’re fooling yourself. We don’t live in a meritocracy, and to pretend that simple hard work will allow people of all skin colors, genders, religions, etc. to achieve the same level of success is an exercise in willful ignorance.

To change racist laws and regulations we need a different approach as no institution can force a government to make changes. Keeping the status quo needs to lead to a structural loss of power or money to enforce changes. This could be achieved if the protests last long enough and through means like the broadly supported bus strike in Montgomery, Alabama between 1955 and 1956. It can also be achieved if those demanding change get so much support that not meeting demands means losing elections.

Even if you’re not keen on protesting you can contribute to the push for a more just world from the comfort of your own home. Especially if you are white. You can help spread the call for change to racist laws and institutions on social media, through letters to newspapers and among your friends and family. People who are not racist, but even people who are anti-racist are often moderate and polite about the issue.
The far-right don’t hold themselves to the same standards. They use bold claims, fear-mongering, and often lies. They use all the platforms they have access to, regardless of whether that’s a “decent” thing to do. They reach a lot of people with these tactics and speak to fear, which is a powerful tool. Their sympathizers don’t nod passionately at their screen when they read these lies, they amplify these right-wing voices in all the ways they have available to them. And they don’t fight among themselves even if they might not agree on all the nitty-gritty right-wing details.

We need to do the same. We need to share our passion for equality and anti-racism with the world. It’s uncomfortable and it might mean we end up in the occasional online shitstorm, but agreeing quietly at home isn’t helpful at this point. To weather the shit storms and limit the number of storms we need to also form a left-wing, anti-racist front. We are too happy to shout at people whose opinion is slightly different from ours while we avoid engaging with people who have a wildly different opinion. Let’s suspend our internal disagreements. They are, frankly, not relevant at the moment. We have bigger fish to fry.

Let’s agree to work together for now and amplify the voices of minorities. The mess we are living in was created by people, it can be dismantled by people, and it can be rebuilt in a way that serves all, rather than a small hoarding few. It won’t be easy but we have to keep working at it. And just as important: we have to continue to believe that we can achieve real change. Because if we lose hope they win and we’re f*cked.

How to be an Antiracist

Yes, it’s another one about racism. We’re not done learning yet. We probably never will be. And you don’t get to complain about having to deal with racism until you’ve had to endure it for dozens of years as black people have.

Besides continuing to learn about racism, I’ve also learned something about books about racism this week. Literally for every book about racism that I’ve read or am considering to read I’ve seen people in my social media timelines explaining why the book is no good, doesn’t explain the issue correctly, or even corrupts the debate. I’ve also seen significant praise about all these books. At first, I felt discouraged by this and wondered what the point is, but after contemplating how to find the “right” books I’ve decided that as long as you’re not just reading one book and keep thinking critically, you’re probably going to be ok. Reading different perspectives can help you to shape your ideas. Those ideas can and should then be adjusted as you absorb more information.

The main insight that I got from Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracists is that there are different kinds of racism. When you read about it, it makes sense. But I’d never thought about racism as anything other than just a single concept. The easiest to define and understand types of racism are:

  • Biological racism – the ideas that there are genetic racial differences and that these differences create a hierarchy. If you want that properly debunked I can also recommend reading Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist. Even if that book doesn’t really explain how to argue with a racist unless they are using pure biological racism, which I think is rare.
  • Bodily racism – portraying and treating black bodies as more animal-like and violent than others
  • Cultural racism – creating and imposing a cultural standard and imposing a cultural hierarchy. A proponent of this is suggesting that black people will be better off if only they adopt white culture. We consider white customs the norm and anyone with different customs slightly or not so slightly barbaric.
  • Behavioral racism – is about making individuals responsible for the perceived behavior of racial groups and projecting the behavior of individuals onto entire groups.

Antiracism is to actively work against racism and racist ideas. This can start with simple things (theoretically simple at least). Behavioral racism is probably the type of racism we are all guilty of most often. When a white boy isn’t paying attention in school and getting back grades the boy is considered a bad student. Probably undermotivated and undisciplined. When a black boy is getting back grades and isn’t paying attention in school the behavior of the boy is extrapolated to all other black boys. Black boys aren’t worse students than white boys. But we do often feel that the bad behavior of one of them confirms our ideas about the behavior of the entire group. The fact that many white people believe this is problematic, but what’s worse is that these boys internalize those ideas too. And it’s been proven many times that if you believe that you are not as smart as the people around you, your results will suffer because of it.
Ibram Kendi writes that he grew up having many racist ideas himself and that he was sabotaging himself and his future opportunities because of them. He felt that if he messed up he was failing all black people. Can you imagine a white kid feeling like they failed all white people when they do something wrong?

We also extrapolate the positive achievements of individuals to the groups we identify them with, as many immigrant professional athletes can attest to. If they win, they are seen as an integrated part of the country they represent. If they lose they are referred to by their original nationality. This isn’t just true for black people. As a tennis fan, I know that Andy Murray has commented multiple times on the fact that he is called British by the British media when he’s won and Scottish when he’s lost. Of course, his achievements are his and not related to his country of birth or residency.
The same is true for black athletes. Usain Bolt is the fastest man on the 100 and 200 meters because he was a very dedicated athlete, he worked very hard, was very disciplined. He wasn’t an extraordinary athlete because he was black “and black people are better sprinters”. This idea is biological racism. The fact that there are more world-class black sprinters has to do with culture, role models, and motivation. Not with an innate ability to run faster.

Ibram Kendi argues that the source of racist ideas isn’t just ignorance and hate, it’s self-interest. Racist ideas are a by-product of racial policies. Getting rid of the policies is proving to be so hard because the people who have to adjust them have a self-interest in keeping them in place. The people in charge benefit economically and politically from the current system that benefits white people disproportionately.

An example that makes it relatively easy to explain is how schools are funded in the US. Schools are funded by property taxes in the school’s neighborhood. Property taxes are based on the prices of houses and when many black people live in a neighborhood, housing prices plummet. As a result schools in black neighborhoods are underfunded. This could be resolved by designing a different system by which to fund schools. But the people in charge are mostly white. Their kids live in white neighborhoods and go to white schools. Implementing a system that would allow for better funding of schools in black neighborhoods would mean that there will be less money for schools in white neighborhoods. The self-interest of the people in power ensures that the school funding system will not change anytime soon.
This video explains the school funding system very nicely

School funding is just one example. For most racist policies you’ll find similar self-interests keep them from being overturned. This means that the most effective way of protesting is to make it in the self-interest of those in power to change the policies. That’s very hard to achieve and can’t just come from black people. This fight gains more weight when both black and white people in power stand up against racist policies. But these people also have the most to lose. Will enough people be able to accept losing part of their privilege to enhance equality. Remember, when you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. A lot will have to change before we can overturn policies and power structures that support racism today. It will take many self-less people and a lot of time, energy, and courage. I hope we’ll get there and I realize that just reading and writing about racism isn’t enough to contribute in a meaningful way. I also have to examine my privilege and get comfortable with the idea that I will have to give it up to ensure that we all have equal opportunities and resources.

I have been extremely lucky in my life and it’s time to share that luck with as many other people as possible.

White Fragility – Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism

As I was working on this post, I realized that I’ve read several books by black authors in the last few months. Unsurprisingly, the number has increased even more in the last three weeks. But even though I’ve read several, I’ve not written about books written by black authors, and the book that I’m talking about today is written by a white woman too. I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot. Why don’t I choose these books to write about? A lot of them are classics, they are great reads and they have taught me about other people’s experiences.

My hypothesis about why I’m not writing about these books is that I don’t feel qualified to comment on black people’s experiences and I’m scared to get it wrong. I’m afraid of being called out for getting it wrong. But not writing about books by black authors is a form of racism too. And not wanting to be called out for having racially problematic ideas is part of my White Fragility and what the book with the same title by Robin DiAngelo is about.

Our society is inherently racist. It’s in our institutions and our unconscious. Because our society is inherently racist, we are all socialized to be racists too. You can’t escape it even if you try. Yet if we’re centrists we feel that the people protecting statues, waving confederate flags, and shouting abuse at black people either online or in real life are racists. When we’re progressives we feel that people saying that all lives matter are racists. Yet if you ask the people in both of these groups if they are racist they will probably say that they aren’t. We see racism as a thing of the past. Slavery was ended a little over 150 years ago and we feel that inequality also ended back then. Being called racist triggers a strong defensive response in all of us. Even Trump claims that he is not a racist.

Most of us find it hard receiving critical feedback regardless of the topic. With racism, this feeling is even stronger. I find it hard to receive critical feedback of any kind and I would be mortified if I were called out about having said or done something that’s racially problematic. We have learned that racists are bad people. This means that we feel that a good person can’t be a racist. And surely we’re good people?! When someone informs us that something we said or did was racially problematic we get defensive, angry, or upset. We often retreat into silence and we feel anxious.
By thinking that all racists are bad people, we’re creating a false dichotomy. For most white people, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and by making it impossible to talk about it, it perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them. Racism isn’t black and white. Even if we’re good people with good intentions we might say or do things that hurt black people or people of color. Even black people or people of color themselves might have internalized racist ideas because that is what society has taught them.

We must get used to the idea that we all have been socialized to be various levels of racist. Not seeing the color of someone’s skin and not wanting to talk about racism also means we can’t recognize the inequality in our society.
Robin DiAngelo is a diversity coach. She works with groups of people (mostly at the request of the companies they work for) to talk about diversity, racism, and equality. In the book, she explains that as long as she’s talking about racism in a general and abstract sense, white people might get uncomfortable, but they can bear it. However, as soon as it’s pointed out to them that something that they said or did was problematic, the anger comes. There might be tears. People might walk out of the training or retreat into themselves. I can understand that response. But I can also see why that’s not a helpful reaction. If we would be able to receive feedback on our problematic racial patterns we could use it to learn and grow.

Because we have been socialized in a racism-based society, we have a racist worldview and deep racial bias. There’s no point feeling guilty about this. We didn’t choose to live in this society or for society to be based on these racist ideas. We had no way of avoiding our biases. This doesn’t alleviate us from the responsibility to work to unlearn our behaviors. We should try to identify our internalized feelings of superiority and how they are manifesting themselves. We have to be willing to get racially uncomfortable and be willing to examine the effects of our racial engagement. This includes not indulging in the anger, defensiveness, or self-pity that is often our knee-jerk reaction to a racially uncomfortable situation.
Let’s get away from the idea that there’s a good/bad binary when it comes to racism. Let’s accept that we all have a racial bias instead of seeing this claim as a deep moral blow, and let’s work to disrupt it.

I think all white people should read White Fragility.

Black Lives Matter

I wasn’t looking forward to writing this post. I didn’t want to feel the pain, anger, and frustration that I knew would be part of writing it. I could have chosen not to write it. And that is the definition of my privilege.

If I get off social media and avoid the news I can even in these extraordinary times avoid being confronted by and having to think about racism. I can only do that because of my white privilege. Several times this week I have been brought to tears by what I watched online or read on social media and in the newspaper. It’s tempting to wish things go “back to normal”. For many black people, “normal” means having to deal with prejudice, being called names, and having to be afraid of the police. For black people, racism is always there. If things go back to normal the only difference is that it will no longer be in the news.

For Europeans, it’s tempting to think that racism happens far away or that it happened long ago. Slavery around the world officially ended around 150 years ago. In some places, it’s not even that long. The Netherlands was one of the last countries in Europe to abolish slavery, after being pressured to do so by the British.
Once slavery was officially abolished not much changed, other than people not officially being someone’s property anymore. Governments felt bad for the slave owners, who had been accumulating wealth for a long time by working people to death in inhumane circumstances without paying them or even treating them like human beings. Because slave owners had suffered so much (yes, I’m being sarcastic), governments compensated them for the loss of their “property”.
Slaves, who had nothing, were in many cases forced to continue work on the plantations of their former owners while still hardly receiving any payment for their work, let alone compensation for the fact that they had been working in inhumane conditions and for free for years.
Remember, this was all only around 150 years ago.

We have to be honest with ourselves and recognize that racism is still happening everywhere. The idea that black people are worth less or deserve less has been part of our culture for centuries and it has been institutionalized too. In The Netherlands, we feel like we’re nice and progressive but I’m a lot less likely to be stopped by the police or have my tax returns reviewed than a black person is. I’m never asked where I’m from and I’ve never been refused entrance to public transport. Oh, and there are still plenty of people who feel “black Piet” is folklore and because of that can’t be racist. If you are a white person I challenge you to watch this short video (Being Black by Jane Elliott) and answer the question that Jane Elliot is asking honestly. Then ask yourself why you deserve to get treated better than most black people. It’s the skin color that you happen to be born with that earns you that privilege. It’s not an achievement. It’s pure luck. And (institutionalized) racism.

Now is the time to stand up and speak out against the injustice of racism. You might feel that you are only one person. That you won’t be able to make much of a difference. But you can help. Everyone can.

  • You could join one of the protest marches around the world. These huge marches are made up of a lot of people who are all just one person looking to make a change.
  • If you are in a COVID-19 risk group and can’t be outside in crowds at the moment or if you’re simply not the marching type, you can go onto social media and make sure you extend your filter bubble a bit by also following some black people. Listen to them and believe them when they share their experiences. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Then share their stories. Your friends are probably not all following the same people, so by sharing you’re extending people’s reach.
    If you’re not on social media you can help by calling out racism in your friends and family. Not by calling them a racist. No one has ever been convinced to change their opinion through name-calling. Have a calm conversation with them. Explain why you feel their views are problematic.
  • To be able to talk to your friends and family and to increase your understanding of the challenges black people face make sure you make an effort to educate yourself.

I have put together some resources that you can help to educate yourself. Many of these are mentioned all over social media at the moment and Google is your friend. If you don’t live in the US or the UK you might have to work a little bit harder to find local resources, especially if you want to donate.

If your thing is reading consider one or more of the following books. The first three are fiction, the last three are non-fiction.

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
  • Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • How to Argue With a Racist – Adam Rutherford
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • How To Be an Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi

The last title has an important message that you might have heard more often in these last few weeks. We are at a point where not being racist isn’t enough anymore. You have to be anti-racist. Which means taking a stand and calling out racism when you see it. At the very least.

You can also watch the following films or documentaries.

  • 13th
  • The Central Park Five
  • I am Not Your Negro
  • 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets
  • And so many more that it’s easier to have a look yourself

Or if you prefer podcasts you could listen to

  • About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • Code Switch by the NPR
  • The Stoop with Hana Baba and Leila Day
  • Momentum: A Race Forward Podcast
  • Scene on Radio Season 2 – Seeing White

You can also donate to help out if you have the financial means.

Whatever you do please help make sure things don’t go back to “normal”. Let’s work together to use the current momentum to bring about lasting change. It won’t be easy or quick, we have to undo hundreds of years of cultural and institutional racism. It won’t be comfortable either. We will make mistakes and be called out for it. It will hurt. Hopefully, we’ll learn from it and do better next time.
Also realize that we are so used to our privilege that equality might feel like oppression. Continue to challenge yourself. There is no excuse for treating one group of people better than another.

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter2

The Inheritance

When reading the book of a play it can be hard to get into the story. The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez doesn’t have this problem. The way the story is told is very smart. It’s understated. The topics are heavy but they are dealt with in what feels like an almost breezy way.
A group of men want to write a book and we are following along as their story takes shape. When things get rough, we pop out of the main storyline to the writers talking about the story and the characters.
The book is intense and peaceful at the same time.
The writers remain unnamed. They are young man 1 to 8 without specific backgrounds and stories. It’s the characters they create that are being brought to life.

In the end we’ll all become stories. But the same life can end up being a wildly different story depending on who tells it and what is put into focus. We naturally see the world from our own point of view. We are by definition the literal center of our own lives. Do you see yourself as the hero or the victim? Are you the star or the supporting character?

In the book Toby wants to be the hero. He wants his life to be grand and compelling. If the past or the present aren’t grand enough he will tell the story so that it fits his narrative. Eric is one of the very few people who know Toby’s real story. He loves Toby and supports him in his attempts to become a successful writer.
Eric feels that his own story is unremarkable. He is happy to let Toby take center stage and to allow him to shine.

Eric likes to stay in the background and let other people grow. It’s a pattern that repeats itself throughout his life. I’d like to argue that it’s often those who feel unremarkable who go on to do extraordinary things. They don’t do it for glory. They might not even realize that what they are doing is special. When you point out their achievements to them, they often reply with “but I only” as a way to downplay their efforts and impact.
People like Eric are good company. They bring selfless joy to others while the glamorous and extravagant mostly think about themselves.

People focused on winning and being successful might not even notice who they are hurting while trying to achieve their dreams. I don’t think they are malicious. A lot of them are driven by insecurity and a need for affirmation. They would probably benefit more from therapy than from success.
After all, when you do become successful, people you don’t even know are watching your every move. Criticizing even the tiniest (perceived) stumble to compensate for their own insecurities. It’s a vicious circle.

For Toby, success also doesn’t bring what he had hoped it would. Like many who are relentlessly chasing success, he leaves behind a path of destruction and his story fizzles out well before its time.
What I’m trying to say is pay attention to the people around you. Don’t take your friends and family (and co-workers) for granted. Also take notice of people who are just passing by. To paraphrase Tim Minchin:
“Be kind. If in doubt, double down and be kinder. Not only will it make your life better, but it is really good career advice. So just be kind. It will bite you on the ass if you’re not.”

Be kind to the Eric’s in your life. To the quiet people around you who are providing support in the background. Who have a big impact by helping others find their strength and grow. We all want to be happy and live a rewarding life. We just have very different definitions of what rewarding looks like.
Don’t harass a quiet person for being non-demonstrative. Still waters run deep. They might be making extraordinary things happen.
I, for one, hope that one day I can be as selfless and as patient as Eric Glass. He’s as beautiful as the story that brought him to life.