Viewpoint: Why it's hard for white people to talk about race


Published January 28, 2015

Being white, we do not have to care about race. Some of us make the choice to do so, but it’s not necessary. Our lives, the lives of our friends and families and the livelihood of our communities are not negatively affected by race. Thus, we have no obligation to care about it.

Being white, we are also afforded the luxury of believing race doesn’t exist. I’m very thankful to say I went to one of the top public school systems in the nation, but we learned almost nothing about race. We learned that first there was slavery, then Abraham Lincoln (a white man) came along and freed the slaves. After that, there was widespread racism until Martin Luther King Jr. swooped down with his dream and made racism go away forever.

When we’re told that race doesn’t exist anymore, and when we don’t experience it, it’s very easy to believe that racism is over. This is where the problems really begin.

In light of the incidents of Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner, race has been thrown back into the national spotlight. It has been a hot topic on campus as well, with many students of color speaking out against injustice, and many white students denying the existence of these injustices. I’ve been involved in many of these conversations, and it’s particularly infuriating.

I only know what it’s like to be a white man, I do not know what it’s like to be a person of color, and so I won’t speak on their behalf. This is written by a white person as a way to provide people of all colors insight into why it’s so difficult for white people to talk about race.

There was a time in which I truly believed racism didn’t exist, and was fairly racist myself. Thankfully, that time has passed. Here, I’m trying to outline the mental roadblocks that prevent white people from recognizing race. In truth, it all comes from our egos.

It’s much easier for the human ego to argue that a problem doesn’t exist than to admit that a problem does exist and that we are a part of it. When we deny the experiences of people of color, we are putting our ego before our integrity, our sense of self-accomplishment before our sense of justice.

This is because when we’re told that racism still exists, it implies that we have been benefitting from racism our entire lives. This implies that to accomplish what we have accomplished as individuals, a person of color would have to conquer many more obstacles than we have faced. This is basically saying that we didn’t really earn everything the way we thought we did, and people hate to hear that harsh truth. That truth damages our precious egos, which we will do anything to protect.

So instead of admitting that racism is still a huge problem in this country, we argue with the people of color who are speaking the truth to us. By denying their lifelong experiences of racism, we are being racist. We are saying that we know racism better than the people experiencing it. We are saying that our concept of racism is more important and more accurate than the concepts of racism expressed by people of color. We are proving our racism by denying our racism.

But wait, there’s more! This denial of racism is often rationalized by believing that people of color today aren’t experiencing “real racism.” This is basically saying that because racism isn’t as out in the open and obvious as it was before the Civil Rights Movement, that racism is over. By saying this, we are also saying that we can’t possibly be racist, because “real racists” constantly enact violence upon people of color and use racial slurs comfortably and regularly. The only “real racism” is the racism that people of color speak out against, which now includes the comments we make when we deny the reality of racism in this country.

So how do we begin to understand racism in our country? As crazy as it sounds, let’s try listening to people of color. Let’s try to educate ourselves on what racism is today. Let’s try to put our integrity before our ego. Let’s try to admit that we’re wrong.

Once we admit to the reality of racism, we will feel guilty. This is a normal reaction, but we need to move on from guilt. Turn that guilt into anger! Be angry that we’ve been lied to our whole lives, be angry that we’ve been racist without realizing it and be angry that so many people are terrified of the truth!

So make the choice. We can decide to care about race and choose to fight it wherever we see it. Or we can choose to not care about race and stand up proudly to exclaim, “I’m white, I don’t care about people of color and I am racist!” Make a choice of where you stand in this fight. If you don’t choose, you have no right to complain when you get caught in the crossfire.

Sander Bregman is an Education senior.