February is black history month, a month white people have no idea what to do with. We don’t know whether we’re really celebrating or merely throwing a bone. “Here, have 1/12 of our time and attention.” We kind of have the sense that it is an effort at something good but one that falls well short of actually celebrating the richness of black culture. All the stories of Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. are nice, but that’s about all the further most whites’ awareness of black history and culture goes.
White people don’t like to talk about race, so being confronted with it for all 28 days of February is uncomfortable. The vast majority of my fellow Caucasians fall into two groups: those who don’t want to talk about race at all and those who want to but don’t know how.
Group 1: Don’t want to talk about race
The majority of this group, though, is not outright bigoted. Instead they are outright ignorant and therefore subtly prejudiced. They are unexposed to minority cultures (not just black, but all non-white cultures) and unaware of the complexities, difficulties, and hurts there. Really most of white America is part of, or has been part of, this group. They are the comfortable majority, and thus they determine the status quo. Life is good, so why rock the boat? It’s not that they don’t “care” about the needs of others — you won’t find a more cause-oriented bunch of advocates — but those needs never really intersect with their lives at a personal and relational level. And they’re happy to keep it that way. It’s a passive aggressive approach to racial separation, and one most don’t even realize they’re participating in. Their ignorance is blindness.
Group 2: Don’t know how to talk about race
As group one becomes aware of the sordid realities of race relations in America they start to morph into group two. They make friends with a minority or two, kind of by accident. Their church serves in the inner city. They read a book, hear a sermon, or watch a documentary. One way or another they begin to see the problem. It’s bigger than they know, more complicated than they realize, deeply rooted in centuries of sin, and they have no idea what to do.
This group wants to see change happen but doesn’t even know if they really want to do what it takes. They lack the language to even converse intelligently and sensitively about it and instead end up sounding either offensive or obnoxiously and opaquely politically correct. They lack the relational capital to address race issues head-on in a safe, honest environment; they’re simply not tight with many (or any) minorities. And they wouldn’t know how to get tight if they wanted to.
I grew up in inner-city Minneapolis and had the chance to interact with people from many different cultures. My high school football team started multiple Southeast Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, Whites, and Native Americans. Interactions about racial and cultural differences were normal for us. They weren’t always pleasant and it wasn’t the perfect melting pot, but it was a context in which openly discussing race was ok as long as it was done respectfully. I appreciated the chance to learn, observe, listen, and ask questions. I graduated and moved to lily-white Wheaton, Illinois for college. My first week on campus I was roundly chastised by a fellow student for referring to a friend as “black.” I was told it was “racially insensitive.” I realized I had entered a different world, one where well-intentioned whites were totally stuck on race issues.
Whites who care about race know the sins of our forefathers and feel a constant sense of low-grade guilt. We have no idea how to make amends for the injustices of the past. To exacerbate matters, most of us aren’t aware that those historic injustices propagated a system of white privilege that rules with a velvet-gloved iron fist to this day. Most know there’s a problem but couldn’t articulate it. And we have no idea what we can do to help it.
Of course we don’t help ourselves. Many whites walk on egg shells around racial language out of fear of offending anyone. Even simple pronouns get judged. I was telling a story involving a group of white people and a group of black people to some friends recently. At one point I referred to the group of blacks as “them.” Immediately one white lady jumped into the fray. “You can’t say that! That’s so offensive.” If using plural pronouns falls under the cloud of racism, we are undermining one of the most important aspects of any conflict resolution: communication. The greater point, though, is that whites handcuff whites on race. We leave each other no options but to tip toe around the subject and use obtuse language to try to hint at ideas instead of honest and clear words to make a point.
All the answers often feel wrong. We know we need to build relationships with minorities, but often fear of doing something wrong paralyzes us. Will it look like we’re trying to make a “token” minority friend? Will he or she feel like it’s a case study or a charity case instead of a friendship? (For that matter, is it a real friendship?) What if I say something wrong without even realizing it? Do I even know how to be friends with someone from a different background or culture?
We know there’s injustice, but an individual white person feels powerless to change it. Changing it means breaking out of the comfort of the status quo. We don’t face discrimination every day, so it’s easy to do nothing, no matter how good our intentions. But again, even if we were to do something, what would it be? What is my contribution?
None of this is an excuse. In fact, I’m not even sure what to make excuses for, except being white. Mostly it feels like we’re in a room with lots of exits, all of which are locked. It’s exhausting to keep trying each door over and over or beating the wall hoping it will give. That’s what talking about race feels like most of the time. The easy thing to do is just sit down in the room (it’s comfortably furnished after all) and do nothing. But then we never get out. What will unlock the door?