“All you guys do is bitch.”

“Michigan in Color is just a place where people complain.”

“Whenever you all bring up race, I can never win.”

Though they take many forms, I often hear and read sentiments such as these, expressed by white people, when referring to people of color talking about race. These white readers speak of wanting to engage in deep, meaningful exchanges regarding skin-privilege in our society, yet feel unfairly boxed out by angry people of color.

Just yesterday, one of the MiC editors received yet another of these responses, expressing annoyance with White-collar whiteness. He said, “This is what I understand when I read (the article): ‘I’m going to bring up a topic and I want us to have a productive conversation about it. But in the course of this productive conversation, I don’t want you to argue, remain silent or leave. If you in any way challenge my point of view, I will suggest that you are either racist or furthering racism.’

What that suggests to me is that the author wants white-skinned people to have ‘conversations’ with her that consist only of them nodding their heads and saying, ‘uh-huh’ over and over again … You cannot respect someone with whom you cannot be honest. This strategy eventually translates to, ‘Don’t say what you think, because you’ll hurt my feelings if you do.’”

Though I am undoubtedly biased (I am a Michigan in Color editor, after all), I can understand the “you all say you want an open dialogue about race but then shut it down” sentiment that some of our white readers have shared. I can see how it’s difficult to see the nuances of a seemingly contradictory statement that many of our contributors express (and one that I personally share) when you don’t know what it feels like to have the same conversations about race on a regular, if not daily, basis. So I’ll explain.

Trying to have a conversation about systemic racism with someone who knows little about it invokes similar frustrations in me (and, I suspect, other people of color) as it does to others when trying to discuss March Madness brackets with me. You see, I grew up in a household where we didn’t really talk about basketball. Because sports-minded people were never in my social circle, it has always been incredibly normal to not think about — and consequently not care about — sports events that occur. Even when big things like the Super Bowl and NBA Playoffs are going on, athletics are barely on my radar. I honestly don’t understand why people in this country want to talk about sports so much, why they evoke so much emotion and why people feel so strongly about identifying with their chosen teams.

When someone who likes sports tries to talk about them with me, I struggle to have an effective conversation with them — at least from their perspective. Not because I don’t want to, and not because I’m not willing to try to, but because I am at a significant knowledge deficit. The only things I can really speak to are things I’ve either seen on TV (go Duke?) or heard about from that one local team I’m semi-familiar with (yay Michigan!). Because I’ve said things like, “I like that team because I look good in their colors” and “I hope they win because their quarterback is cute” in the past, people who had previously wanted to have a conversation about sports with me now roll their eyes and dismiss me in frustration. It’s not as though my opinion will always be unwanted, but as of right now, it’s uninformed.

That sense of irritation is what I feel when trying to have an intelligent conversation about race with most white people. While I don’t blame them for having limited — or no — experiences with race, it’s repetitive and unproductive to talk about something so complex with someone who often doesn’t even know what modern-day racism looks like. Because I’m Black, society has forced me to see how race colors our personal interactions and social mobility. For me, it has been inescapable. As a white person, it’s easier to miss. This doesn’t mean you won’t get a seat at the table; I want you there with me. But at a table where I so often don’t have a voice and instead have my story told for me, I need you to first listen.

I’m not going to have conversations about race if your main focus is on defending the intent of a racist action, instead of analyzing the impact it creates. I am unwilling to discuss police brutality if your working knowledge of the topic started and ended with Ferguson. I won’t have a dialogue on the merits and drawbacks of Affirmative Action if the bedrock of your opinion is an Ivy-league rejection letter. Maybe you view this strategy as me saying: “Don’t say what you think, because you’ll hurt my feelings if you do,” but in reality, I’m saying “Don’t say what you think if you have unfounded opinions because it is both offensive and a waste of our time.” I do want to have the conversation, but not if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

I know that you will never truly understand what it feels like to walk in my shoes. I don’t expect you to. But in the same way that I have ample insight into a broad spectrum of white people’s experiences — from history classes, from TV shows, from books, from magazines, from commercials, from news reports, from social media, from white friends, from white boyfriends, from white family members, from being raised in a majority-white society — I need you to have some insight into the experiences of my people if we are going to have the honest, respectful conversation you say you desire. You may consider this information gathering to be “nodding (your) heads and saying ‘uh-huh’ over and over again,” but I view your learning about the oppression of others as helping get you up to speed. As I see it, you cannot earnestly challenge a perspective until you (at least partially) understand it.

Of the white people in my life, a good number share equal airtime with me in conversations about race. A larger number don’t. The latter have yet to show me that they’re willing to consider facts, viewpoints and experiences unfamiliar to them. You might see that as “bitching” or “complaining,” but for these exchanges to be productive from my perspective, I need to be met halfway. Maybe it’s unfair that I won’t have truly engaged conversations on race with just anyone. Maybe it makes you feel like you “can never win.” But that’s one racial privilege you’ll have to earn.

Ryan Moody is an Engineering senior and Michigan in Color editor.

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