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If Black People Talked White

I've been told that I "talk white" or that "I don't sound like a Black person." I sense that these comments are often offered as compliments. But if so, a complement for what? My temporary acceptance by a white person? Thanks.

The fact of the matter is that I talk like a person born in this country. I speak English. But there is a way I could actually talk white.

If I wanted to speak white, I'd go around talking about the personal attributes of individual Black people as if they were not individuals, but rather merely representatives of a larger group; as fulfillments or exceptions to my ill-informed conceptions of Black people. If I wanted to talk like a white person, I'd make sure that my comments to Black people remind them of how they are other---non-normative---how they don't really belong to American society, and if they do, they are add-ons. They are options to be checked on a list of extras under the heading "Diversity." If I talked white, the existence of people of color in my institution would be a cause for me to pat myself on the back. 

(Once, when I complained about the lack of diversity at Caltech, my colleague said, "How can you say we're not diverse? We hired you!" Once, when I tried to express my frustration of a racist incident I encountered on my walk across campus to visit a colleague, she told me, "You know, I don't even think of you as a Black person." At that moment of hurt and vulnerability, she didn't see me.)

If I talked like a white person, I'd become upset if a Black person called me white, because I'm an individual, I'd remind them. And if I talked like a white person, I'd see no conflict in my simultaneous view of a Black person as a member of a group of "minorities" and myself as an individual person, not a member of a group of whites. If I talked like a white person, all of this would make sense, and if any Black person attempted to point out my logical inconsistencies, well, I'd view that person as just a little bit insane. But they can't help it. They're Black, after all.

Okay, fine. I get it. What can I do to help?

  • Recognize your whiteness, and pursue knowledge of what your whiteness means in our society, what it does for you, and how it affects people of color around you. Educate yourself. If you don't understand what white privilege is, don't assume it doesn't exist. Treat it like I treat asteroseismology: I didn't get it, so I picked up some books and papers and turned myself into a student again. Do the same with your whiteness, your white history, and your white privilege. 

  • Know that your whiteness is both impersonal and very personal. It's not personal, because you are one of roughly half a billion white Americans. It's personal because you, and not everyone else---not people of color---benefit from it. It's not personal in that your whiteness, by itself, does not make you a good or bad person. You can be terrible and still benefit. You can be an antiracism activist...and still benefit. It's personal in that you need to own it in order to counter it.

  • Do not expect your local person of color (LPOC) to educate you. Your LPOC likely will not trust you, will not open up to you, will not be themselves around you until you can be yourself as a white person. Until you lay your privilege explicitly on the table before talking with them, and until you demonstrate your willingness to improve and learn. For every 10 "allies" in my life, only one of them has ever shown me that they can take actions to improve themselves, rather than pat themselves on the back for "mentoring" me and "teaching" me how to make it in their (white) world.
  • Related to the second bullet above, taking real actions to help has nothing to do with you, but everything to do with you. It has nothing to do with you in that you cannot expect to earn a cookie for each step you take. You aren't out to earn a Top-Coder-like badge. You're in it to be a better citizen of your country. You are to do what you do to improve the world around you. You're in it because you want a just world and because you want to believe that you work in a meritocracy---this is a chance to make a real meritocracy. It's about you, because as part of the privileged class in our country, only you have full access to the social, economic and political power structures in your institution and greater world that need to change. 


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