This isn’t an intellectual game, and to see it as such means that you’re failing to acknowledge your privilege.
To those white people who call out other white people on racism, whether face-to-face or on social media, who understand that it is not the job of people of color to convince white people that they deserve to be alive: a few notes on how some of us, white people who profess to have anti-racist politics, conduct ourselves.
We have overlapping problems communicating with other white people. There’s an accessibility problem, and ultimately, an arrogance problem. To be clear, when I say other white people, I’m talking about people who are also invested in taking action, in learning about their own racism, etc., but need some help in getting there. These are likely people with ideas about race that are ugly and wrong and make us deeply uncomfortable because we recognize them within ourselves, because racism never leaves us, we can’t cleanse ourselves of it, it’s not possible. It’s the reality of being a white person in the United States. I’m also talking about deciding to engage with racist white people on your Facebook feed (for example). You know what that looks like—everyone from those who refer to folks of color as “thugs” to those who accuse you of being divisive for bringing up race, etc. If you’ve chosen to remain engaged with these people (and you should), and others, here are some things for consideration.
Our language isn’t benefitting us. And by language, I mean the insider baseball we’re playing when we use words like “intersectionalilty,” but also when we say “capitalism,” “white supremacy,” “patriarchy,” etc. Let’s consider who we’re talking to when we use these words, and what our end goal is. If we’re interested in stumping people, in making them feel stupid and ignorant, by all means, yell “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and then walk away and revel in your own mastery of these concepts, while actually having done no work at all to help the person you were allegedly interested in helping.
Think about how to break down concepts of intersectionality, provide real life examples. Get basic. Figure out how to explain the difference between prejudice and racism, or find resources (like Everyday Feminism) that will help you explain it.
Understand that, as a white person talking to other white people about race, you’re not doing a thought experiment. There is more at stake in these conversations than intellectual masturbation. You can use words like intersectionality and microaggression when you’re talking to friends and accomplices who are also familiar with that language, but when you’re in it on Facebook with your friend from high school who tells you that “all lives matter,” you need to stop hiding behind terms and explain them.
As white people, being indirect when we talk about race is one way we avoid talking about it, and also perpetuate the idea that every single white person should not be made to talk about race, that we should be allowed to remain unaccountable. This isn’t about who can use the biggest words, who can stupefy the most people, or who has read the most books. This isn’t an intellectual game, and to see it as such means that you’re failing to acknowledge your privilege. If you can’t (or won’t) get accessible with your language, know that you are avoiding doing the work.
We can learn from people who do not have the same politics as we do. To think that we can’t is a show of incredible arrogance, and at the same time, fear. As white folks who aim to be accomplices, who want to do better, within a system that continually rewards us for perpetuating white supremacy, we constantly fear, on a deep level, that we are wrong, that our convictions are fragile. Engaging with someone who doesn’t share our analysis of the world might make us vulnerable, and it should, but it will not change us into, say, Donald Trump. To imagine, or to believe, that we can’t have a valuable education interaction with someone who isn’t exactly politically identical to us is deeply flawed and fails to take into account the complicated natures of identities, including socio-economic and citizen status.
To be clear, again, this is about white people talking to other white people. If we are seriously invested in alleviating, or even attempting to alleviate a little of the systemic violence directed at people of color, we have to rid ourselves of the idea that this has to do with proving that we are the smartest, the most well-read (along with interrogating what that concept even means), the best, and better than those who don’t use the same academic language. It doesn’t mean abandoning intersectionality, it means being willing and able to explain it, and understanding that doing so is an essential and revolutionary act.
Chanel Dubofsky’s work has been published in Previously.TV, Hello Giggles, Cosmopolitan, The Frisky, The Billfold and others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.