Lately, I’ve been thinking about my white friends. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how the experiences and opinions I document on this blog relate to my having white friends. Even more specifically, I’ve been considering the following question: should there be a line between friend and teacher? In case that’s confusing, I’ve added the missing descriptors below:
Should there be a line between (nonwhite) friend (of white person) and (Racism 101) teacher?
I imagine nonwhite people will have a range of responses to this question. I’m here to talk about my response only.*
My answer: yes, there should be and is a line. In my case, I draw the line at explicit teaching. Fellow nonwhite people will probably have a good sense of what I mean by this, but I’ve outlined some of the key points below. Keep in mind, the list is not comprehensive.**
Questions I will not answer:
- Do you think [x] is racist?
- Is it ok if I do/wear/use/write about [x]?
- Do you think I am racist?
- Have I ever been racist to you in the past? If so, can you tell me how?
- Have you ever had [x] experience with racism?
- How do you think I demonstrate my white privilege?
- Will you teach me how not to be racist?
- Why won’t you spend more time teaching me about racism?
Topics I will not discuss:
- Identifying and explaining the ways in which you have been racist toward me
- Identifying and explaining the ways in which you are/aren’t like other white people
- Explaining how/why it is wrong for you to justify [x] by telling me that other Japanese/Asian person said it was ok
- That time you or someone you knew studied Japanese or went to Japan (or studied a different Asian language and went to a different Asian country)
Long story short, I am not here to be anyone’s racism arbiter. I will not be the “token POC” friend or the face of Japan or the JA community. I am not interested in reliving and dissecting painful experiences to prove racism is real or to make you feel better about your whiteness. I give no prizes to people for treating me like a human being.
So. If those are the things I won’t talk about with white friends re: racism, what will I talk about? Well, all the things everyone talks about with their friends. Nonwhite people are people first, not [insert race/ethnicity/culture] first. We talk about any topic humans talk about. The key is how the discussions are framed.
In my experience, the most aggravating and harmful aspect of discussing race with white people is that, at some point, the discussion becomes personal. At some point, I am asked – or it is demanded of me – to give real-life examples to prove or justify something that, to the white interrogator, is difficult to grasp. I am expected to cite unpleasant personal experiences in order to satisfy white curiosity and “instruct” white ignorance. If I don’t, if I offer remarks only in the abstract, or cite external rather than personal examples, my perspective is discounted. I am talked down, dismissed, silenced. Why? Because it is easier to discount words (abstract) than actions (tangible). Because white privilege always looks for the quickest way to reassert control. Because if the discussion has already gone to this place, then the people asking the questions have no real interest in effecting change.
In my ideal world, every white person would sit down with a roomful of nonwhite people to discuss racism. One white person – the only white person – and every other face in the room, nonwhite.***
In the real world, the opposite is more often true. It’s fantastic to see nonwhite people volunteering to educate white people about race – and by extension, opening themselves up to white fragility, white tears, and white privilege at its most defensive. But when that educator is also the only nonwhite face in the room, or only one of a handful in a room of a hundred – has there really been a shift in the power dynamic? Can the nonwhite person’s role as educator versus the white people’s role as students transcend the sociocultural framework of systemic oppression? Do the numbers even matter, as long as the framework is in place?
Speaking again from personal experience, no, sometimes the numbers don’t mean anything. I can have a 1:1 conversation about racism with a white person and we won’t be on equal footing. Why? Because I am trying to explain histories and experiences that have largely been written out of the dominant US cultural narrative. Because, for all or most of their life, the white person I’m talking to has probably been exposed to ways of thinking and acting underlined – subtly or not – by a, “white is right” mentality. Because if I’m the first or one of only a handful of nonwhite people to have this conversation with this white person, my words are probably being weighted unfairly. In other words, most white people don’t know where to toe the line between, “you’re just one nonwhite voice, so I’ll dismiss you because you make me uncomfortable” and, “I will take your word as the be-all, end-all on racism because I can’t see past the color of your skin to understand that nonwhite people are not monolithic.” Both concepts sound fairly ridiculous when written in so many words – and yet, the majority of my discussions on racism with white people have culminated in one of these two ways. And always, always, the discussion cycles back to whiteness, whether it be defensiveness or entitlement to being taught. Not the most rewarding result for a situation that is already putting me under a lot of stress.
So, that said – where does it leave us?
Speaking for myself, I want and expect my white friends to acknowledge their white privilege. This does NOT mean I don’t expect them to slip up. Microaggressions will still happen and when they do, I’ll say something. I will not, however, necessarily provide the full background for why something is racist. I might – if I have time and feel so inclined – but I might also say, “you know, I think it’s better if you look into this yourself.” Whether they do or not is entirely up to them – personally, I think it’s a good way to identify who is willing to walk their talk and who is not. It also clearly sends the message that no white person, regardless of their relationship to me, is entitled to Racism 101 lessons from me. Let me say that again: no white person is entitled to Racism 101 lessons from me.
Lest someone raises the protest, “but a REAL friend would explain –!” – if that is your response after reading this far in this post, you have completely missed the point and I am not here to explain why or how.
For any white friends reading this, yes, we can still talk about racism – I’m merely saying, the conversation is not going to be in the form of you asking questions and me answering them. If you read an article or follow a blog or see a Twitter discussion and you think we could or should talk about it, by all means, let me know.**** If you want to talk about racism but aren’t sure where to start, I definitely recommend either looking up the folks I follow on Twitter or checking out the blogs/websites on the Resources page. As with many other topics, conversations about racism tend to be most productive if everyone involved has some amount of background knowledge.
Before I wrote this post, I considered approaching each of my white friends 1:1 to discuss racism. But then I realized – there’s not really a reason to do this apropos of nothing – and if racism isn’t already something they’ve been thinking about, they might not respond in a way conducive to future discussions. So, instead, I wrote this post. If and when racism comes up in conversation, I’ll ask my white friends to start by reading this post.
In closing, I’ll reiterate that this post reflects only my opinion on the line between friend and Racism 101 teacher and should not be assumed to apply to other nonwhite people’s views on the matter. Additionally, I am pretty much always willing to discuss race/representation with fellow nonwhite folks – just @ me on Twitter. Thanks for reading!
*I don’t speak for other nonwhite people. Nor am I interested in speaking over nonwhite people who may disagree with my perspective. If you’re interested in seeing what other nonwhite people have to say about “teaching” Racism 101, please check out the Resources page and/or the folks I follow on Twitter.
**Hint: If your approach to the list is to read it and search for loopholes, you are completely missing the point. Also, stop centering whiteness (which is what happens every time a white person tries to circumvent racism).
***If you’re white and the idea of doing this scares you, you might want to think about why.
****I will not, however, engage in racist-bashing with you; in other words, if you want me to read something that you know is harmful, so we can engage in shared righteous indignation about it – no thanks. To paraphrase some of my Twitter folks, I don’t need to know about every racist thing happening to Japanese/Asians – and I don’t want to know. I already encounter plenty of harmful material in my regular social media activity – I don’t need any more.