Essays & Confessions

White People, Suck It Up & Talk To Your Family About Racism

By | Sunday, June 14, 2020

When you’re a “progressive” white person, it’s easy to think you’re doing enough — after all, you know racism is bad. You know it’s not simply made up of isolated incidents of violence, aggression, and ignorance. You know how privileged you are, and it’s easy for you to acknowledge it. You know everybody suffers, but some people suffer more simply because of who they are and what they look like. You listen to the voices telling you how unfair and violent the system is, and you believe them. 

At TFD, we make it a point to frequently remind ourselves and our readers that personal finance isn’t a level playing field. We acknowledge blind spots in traditional personal finance advice — is “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” really fair advice when systemic issues oppress people of different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds? But in my own writing, while I’m always trying to acknowledge my privilege, I have mostly stuck to the advice to “write what I know.” It’s uncomfortable to directly tackle topics that feel out of my wheelhouse and easier to leave those stories up to voices that feel more suited to tell them. I also believe in leading by actions rather than empty words, so I’m wary of what feels like performative allyship. So back when I was writing more regularly, issues pertaining to social justice, and racism, in particular, didn’t feel like mine to talk about. But I now see that was a misstep because we can’t keep depending on people of color, particularly Black people, to educate us on racism, white fragility, and what needs to change. 

Remind yourself that it’s okay to love someone unconditionally and still want them to be better — and that that “someone” can be yourself.

I believe we have more influence on the lives of people we love than we think we do. And while I have no problem voicing my own opinion in a conversation generally, I realized recently that I find it difficult to directly confront people I love and hold them to questioning their words or beliefs. 

So I say this with love: if you’re a white person, you, like me, need to suck it up and start having these difficult conversations with your family (or other loved ones) about systemic racism and the role we all play in it. I say this in particular to people who, like me, have families who emphatically vote blue, who support affirmative action, who may even to some extent understand that racism is not simply a collection of individuals’ hateful beliefs and random acts of violence. I say this to people who, like me, have avoided difficult conversations on racism in the past, because as long as everyone means well, that feels like enough.

No one wants to upset people they love if they don’t “have” to. But in the few conversations I have had with loved ones recently, I’ve found that I leave them a more open, more connected, and more loving person. It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the unkind, unthinkable thing to do is to continue on as normal and not have difficult conversations in private. (I’m also grateful to be on the receiving end of these conversations. Someone recently pointed out to me that I have a tendency to dominate conversations that aren’t centered on me, likely in an effort to overcompensate. It was embarrassing to have that pointed out, but it’d be a lot harder to try and fix my behavior if it wasn’t.)

Also, I say “start” having these conversations because it’s not a one-and-done deal — the more comfortable we become discussing racism and systemic inequality in our everyday lives, the more positive influence we’ll have on our loved ones. Now, I’m not going to tell you how to talk to your family or friends or loved ones about racism. I don’t know them or what type of communication they respond best to. (I personally find that reading Brené Brown’s work on empathy and vulnerability is a great starting point for having more meaningful and productive conversations in general.) But I think it might be helpful to cover a few counterproductive points that regularly come up in conversations about racism, understand why someone might say or believe them, and come up with a useful way to challenge them. So here we go:

If they say they something along the lines of “I don’t see color”:

I think a lot of people choose not to confront family members or loved ones who say something along the lines of being “color-blind”— at least their heart is in the right place, right? But even when someone thinks they mean well, failing to confront the fundamental differences faced by people of different races in our society ultimately isn’t an act of kindness. It has long been proven that racial color-blindness is counterproductive. As Adia Harvey Wingfield wrote in The Atlantic in 2015:

“Whites, by and large, enjoy the luxury of promoting the importance of the individual, because they benefit from living in a racially stratified society where whiteness is normalized. In most social interactions, whites get to be seen as individuals. Racial minorities, by contrast, become aware from a young age that people will often judge them as members of their group, and treat them in accordance with the (usually negative) stereotypes attached to that group.

Everyone wants to be treated as an individual and recognized for their personal traits and characteristics. But the colorblindness that sociologists critique doesn’t allow for this. Instead, it encourages those who endorse this perspective to ignore the ongoing processes that maintain racial stratification in schools, neighborhoods, health care, and other social institutions. Can color consciousness draw attention to these issues? The research demonstrates that it can lead to more understanding of our racially stratified society and can give rise to a willingness to work for change.”

I think in this case, it might help to get personal. Point out that if your loved one said “I don’t see color” to a Black person, they would essentially be saying this: “I don’t acknowledge that you and I have been dealt vastly different hands in life. I don’t understand your struggles, so they aren’t important to me.” If they wouldn’t feel right saying that, they shouldn’t feel okay saying they don’t see color.

If they say that anyone has the same opportunities if they simply know where to look for them:

This is along the same lines as the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative that pervades traditional personal finance advice. Unfortunately, systemic racism isn’t something that can be explained away in one conversation, let alone one paragraph or a quick blurb. But saying that everyone has access to the same opportunities is wrong, plain and simple. It doesn’t help that our core curriculum doesn’t teach us just how deep systemic racism runs. Take, for instance, this factoid from the Center for American Progress

“The New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) introduced a 40-hour workweek, banned child labor, and established a federal minimum wage and overtime requirements. While the FLSA boosted wages and improved working conditions for thousands of white workers, it largely excluded African American workers from receiving these benefits by exempting many domestic, agricultural, and service occupations. This policy decision trapped families in poverty and tacitly endorsed the continued exploitation of workers of color. Lawmakers amended the FLSA to include some of these occupations in subsequent decades, but agricultural and domestic workers — many of whom today are Latinx or Asian American — remain some of the least protected employees in the United States.”

I don’t know about you, but I was always taught that The New Deal of the FDR administration was unequivocally a positive thing for Americans. But the lasting effects of the FLSA and other legislation means that Black workers and other workers of color are largely less protected than white workers due to policy that looks, from the outside, unrelated to race.

Now, the person you are speaking with might say, “Well, they shouldn’t take those jobs if they want more workplace protections.” I would argue that we are all a product of our upbringings whether we like it or not. In my own life, I can’t imagine not having gone to college — there was never an alternative option. But for other people, if generations of your family had never gone to college, the thought of going might feel impossibly inaccessible. Some choices are never simple, so you can’t simplify the impact of racism and generational poverty.

If they only want to share “good cop” news items: 

I am an optimistic person — I get why someone would want to find the positive in any situation. But I think we need to interrogate what counts as “positive.” I think states voting to repeal harmful police protections like New York’s 50-a is incredibly positive (and a direct result of protesting!) and super important to shed light on. But police kneeling in solidarity with protestors? I think this tweet from human rights lawyer and writer Derecka Purnell sums it up better than I can: 

What looks like positive “solidarity” can so often be a PR opportunity to cover up the fact that there are no substantial changes being made.

I also think we have to consider who gets the luxury of focusing on the good. Yes, there are individual stories of good experiences with the police, but there is overwhelmingly bad data on the police as a whole. And according to the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, Black Americans make up just 13% of the U.S. population yet account for 40% of our prison population. The rate of arrest and incarceration among Black individuals is so much higher than that of white Americans, yet so much of the news loves to cover isolated “good cop” interactions rather than the horrifying large-scale data. Dedicating space to focus on the “good” mainly serves to (intentionally or otherwise) undermine the fears Black Americans face when it comes to the police, as well as the legitimate movements to defund the police establishment as it currently stands.

If they say they simply have a blindspot:

It’s easy to think that if your family vocally opposes the GOP and condemns Trump’s blatantly hateful rhetoric, that’s enough. But we all have blindspots; it’s up to ourselves to correct them. Read more books about anti-racism, watch more documentaries about mass incarceration. Remind yourself and your family that mainstream American history does little to actually address racism beyond a timeline of slavery and the Civil Rights movement — Black Americans have had to do more work to learn their own history, and we should be doing that work, too. There’s no limit to the amount of information at our fingertips, so there’s no excuse not to learn more. 

Again, if you have a good relationship with the family member or loved one you’re talking with and believe them to genuinely mean well, I don’t think you need to be unkind. You can help them find resources, articles and books to read, and films to watch — after all, you’re probably thinking about this more yourself. And I’m sure we’ve all seen lists like this one with primers in anti-racist self-education (though I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you should leave up to a listicle). Hold each other accountable — decide to watch the same movie, or read the same book, and talk about it. I know that it can be humbling and even shameful to learn something new that you feel you should have already known. But it’s much better to start learning (or unlearning) today than to keep putting it off because you’re afraid of confronting what you need to be doing better.

If they agree that racism is a systemic problem, but still think it doesn’t apply to them:

This is difficult, but it’s necessary to confront how systemic racism has benefitted them, and you as well. Did they move you to a “better” public school that happened to have more white children? Have they ever felt too afraid to call the police if a crime was committed against them, or have they always felt like the police had their back? Look at the corporate culture where they work — who makes up the majority of higher-level salaried positions versus low-wage hourly positions? Again, this is nothing that can simply be explained away in a single conversation. We should always be interrogating how we’ve benefitted from a system that’s unfair.

If they hastily agree with you just to move past the problem: 

Ask why they don’t want to talk about it. Let them know that while they may be uncomfortable having the conversation, you’re not comfortable not having the conversation. Maybe suggest tabling the discussion for another time, after you’ve each gotten to read more about the issue — but don’t let the conversation be forgotten altogether. 

Remember to stay firm in your beliefs, no matter how the conversation is going.

My tactics here probably aren’t perfect ways to confront your family’s (and maybe even your own) unconscious biases, but hopefully they’re a good place to start. I find that the more I can prepare myself with information and clarity about the Black experience in America, the easier it is to stay focused when addressing racism in my life and the lives of people I love.

I know these kinds of conversations are really tough to have, and they can be especially difficult when you’re speaking with someone you love and have always admired. The important thing is to stay true to your beliefs. Know they stem from compassion, and that it is an ultimately kind thing to talk to the people you love about the racist systems we participate in. Talking about it is also one of the simplest and most productive ways to be an ally. It’s okay to fuck up — it’s more important to try in the first place, and keep trying, so that you eventually get it right. Remind yourself that it’s okay to love someone unconditionally and still want them to be better — and that that “someone” can be yourself.

Image via Pexels

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