10 things every white teacher should know when talking about race

Racism is about contributing to or looking the other way in the face of acts or systems that marginalize people of color. Racism is a systemic issue. So, if you are complicit in policies and systems that are oppressive to people of color, you are contributing to racism in this country.

1. Racism is not necessarily about holding hate in your heart toward other people or consciously believing you are superior because you’re white.

99.9% of people do not describe themselves as racist because they think that means being a Neo-Nazi or KKK member. However, the racism you keep hearing people talk about these days is far more than some limited dictionary definition, and we need to look at the bigger picture.

Racism is about contributing to or looking the other way in the face of acts or systems that marginalize people of color. Racism is a systemic issue. So, if you are complicit in policies and systems that are oppressive to people of color, you are contributing to racism in this country. If you look the other way or deny that these systems exist, you are part of the problem.

The truth is that you can subconsciously hold ideologies of white supremacy even if you have black friends.

You can know in your heart that you don’t hate anyone but still contribute to their oppression.

You can love black culture, music, and slang while benefitting from systems that are designed to elevate you above black people in social status.

The worst thing you can do is take a knee-jerk reaction to any mention of racism and assume it doesn’t apply to you. We all have a lot to learn and examine in that area. No white person, including myself, is exempt. We ALL need to do the work in uncovering and rooting out bias and internalized anti-blackness.

2. There is no such thing as reverse racism.

It’s just not possible, because as we’ve established, racism cannot exist without a history of systemic oppression and marginalization. Racism is rooted in privilege and power.

People of color may hold prejudice toward white people or be biased against us. But prejudice and racism are very different things–it’s not just semantics.

You have to look at which groups of people have historically had the privilege and power in this country in order to fully understand how racism works.

Racism is rooted in a SYSTEM of white supremacy, so it’s about more than just how individuals treat one another. I think this article explains it much better than I could.

That’s a deep topic, but for now, it’s enough to know that encountering a student or parent who says something rude to or about you as a white person does not make you a victim of racism. Their actions—while unkind and harmful to your relationship—may be the result of frustration with white privilege and constant marginalization on a daily basis.

As a white person, you may bear the brunt of that frustration from a couple of individuals on occasion. You are not, however, the victim of reverse racism. There is no systemic oppression happening or larger patterns of mistreatment that are based on you having less power and privilege than people of color.

That is why racism does not “go both ways.” It goes in one direction: from the group who holds the power and privilege toward the groups who do not.

That’s a very simplified statement, of course, and doesn’t account for intersectionality (a term meaning that oppressive institutions are interconnected, so it’s important to consider how racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on are related.) Individuals hold privilege and power in many varying degrees, and we’ll explore that in a future episode.

EDITED TO ADD: I’ve seen several comments from white people who said they shut down after this section and refused to keep reading, because they found it so invalidating of how they’ve been mistreated by other races. If your own experiences as a white person leave you unable to read an article about how systemic racism affects people of color, I’d encourage you to skip ahead to number 8, and check out the part about centering whiteness.

3. There are different rules for white people and people of color when talking about race.

No, you’re not crazy. There ARE different rules, and this is not a secret. It’s because of these systems of power and privilege I explained previously. The rules for survival and success in this country are not the same for all groups of people, and therefore the way different groups of people talk about race is not the same.

Don’t frustrate yourself by trying to figure out why black people can say the N word and white people can’t. Focus on trying to understand the bigger issues of privilege and race, and the smaller details like that will make a lot more sense to you later on.

When you hear people of color talking about race (or just talking about life in general amongst themselves), the least helpful thing you can do is to try to police their tone or correct the way they express themselves.

Instead, accept that their lived experiences are different than yours: they are treated differently and see the world differently. The rules for how to talk and behave for people of color have never been the same as the rules for those who are white.

4. It is not racist (nor is it “creating division”) for people of color to talk about how they experience the world differently than white people. Colorblindness is not a thing to aspire to.

I see a lot of white people try to shut down these conversations by saying, “Why do we have to make everything about race?”, as if brown and black people need to pretend race doesn’t exist and stop focusing on our differences.

Those differences have always been there, it’s just that for most of our country’s history, people of color weren’t allowed to publicly voice their experiences.

You may not have been aware of the differences or problems, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen…and not talking about them now doesn’t mean those issues will go away.

Yes, it can be very uncomfortable to witness or participate in these conversations about racism as a white person. I’d imagine it’s far more uncomfortable to actually live with that racism as a non-white person. The bare minimum we can do is avoid invalidating their experiences and silencing them by trying to ignore or deflect any mention of race.

Don’t defend your point of view by claiming to be colorblind and saying “I don’t see color!” You do see color, unless you have a literal visual impairment. And you should see color, because a person being brown or black is not a shameful attribute we have to pretend we haven’t noticed.

Even if your intention is to communicate that you love and treat all people the same, please know: a) That’s probably not true because we all have unconscious biases, and b) Your personal inclusiveness doesn’t mean that systemic racism no longer exists.

5. If you have been told that it IS racist to see or talk about color, that was probably in a situation where you were pointing out race in a completely irrelevant context.


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