White People Need To Talk To Their Skinfolk
So many of the conversations we're having in the U.S. about race and racism toy with this idea that it is up to the oppressed to end racism. That black and brown people have to do the work to end anti-blackness. My father, who grew up in the sixties, told me that until white people are ready to reckon with Americans’ love for and historical contributions to anti-blackness, that nothing—not marching, policy-changes, criminal justice reform—will change the way black and brown folks are treated in this country.
There have been a ton of very smart think pieces written about how we can end racism in America, how to shift culture, how we can achieve parity. It is clear however through studies on the achievements that integrated schools have seen in reducing racial achievement gaps and closing socioeconomic barriers, that one critical way we can tackle racism is through friendship.
There are a few facts we can outline quickly: White people need to do better and be better people. I also stand firmly behind the fact that we, Black and brown folks, shouldn’t be the ones teaching white people how to be better people. However, despite this admission, I do know that one way we can’t combat racism isn’t just by telling white people to “Google” how to be a better ally, and I know even as I write this I can see the comments popping up on Facebook saying it’s not our job to do it. The sad and unfortunate truth is, Black and brown people have to teach white people to be better people. And not just teach, but be willing and vulnerable enough to have very difficult conversations with them in order to get to the root of how every white person participates in anti-blackness, contributes to a society that marginalizes people of color, and how they can actually help combat it.
I feel conflicted when I read essays and hear podcasts on why it’s not our responsibility to teach white people how to not be racist because I have seen it get us nowhere. It shuts the conversation down—and what we need to achieve parity, is to have more conversations that result in white people digging in and talking to their own people about racism.
Years ago, as a freshman at a predominantly white institution in Georgia, I unsurprisingly was one of the few black people who lived in my dormitory. I had just left a majority black high school in an upper middle class black area with a lot of black excellence. I had blackity black roots.
Two instances that happened that year have stuck with me from my experience at a PWI that didn’t integrate until 1961. They both deal with white people who were my friends.
The first happened not to long after I arrived at the university. It was late summer and still very hot in Georgia which meant my black curls were sweating in the heat and I would need to wash them at least once a week in order to keep my hair fresh. I remember sitting in my room and blow drying my hair, and then straightening it with my flat iron. I know the halls smelt like burnt black girl hair, and my neighbor, who was a little quirky, poked her head in my room and asked me why No. 1. My hair wasn’t greasy all the time like other black girls and No. 2 Why I didn’t have to wash my hair everyday.
I didn’t fully have my “the revolution will be televised” persona then, but the word greasy caught me all the way off guard. Was she serious? Is she racist?
I remember thinking those thoughts quickly and dispelling them just as quickly because I liked her and I knew her intentions were well meaning.
So I told her. I told her that black people didn’t naturally produce a ton of oil in our hair like white people do which is why she probably had seen our hair oiled or “greasy” as she described it. I also told her that because of those biological factors we didn’t wash our hair everyday because it would rid ourselves of essential oils unlike white people’s hair.
And, then I remember seeing it click in her mind. She understood and she thanked me for telling her. I remember feeling adultish after that conversation. I had accomplished what my black parent taught me: Not only would I need be twice as good, I would always need to know more about how white people operated so I could be prepared.
The second experience isn’t as cozy and I wasn’t prepared. I remember another neighbor, a white girl and a friend, telling the women in our clique that a guy from her hometown would be visiting her at the dorm. She also mentioned he was a little racist and laughed it off a bit.
I was stunned and in that moment didn’t know what to do. I recall I didn’t say anything but later asked why she would be dating, and bringing a racist to a dorm where she would frequently share ice cream and ramen with her black neighbor.
I remember her giving me some super lame excuse about him being a good guy and giving people a chance. I also recall that she kept him locked away in her room, or out of the dorm pretty much that entire weekend. I eventually met him, after the clique all piled into their room to watch a movie before he took off.
She told me later that night that he really liked me and that I didn’t really act like I was black. We never talked about him again.
Now, over ten years later, I wish I would have said something to her about the guy she liked that was a “little” racist. I wish I had been as bold as when I had told the other white girl about the differences between black and white hair.
If I had said something to her then, would she have said anything? I had an obligation to her as her friend to tell her that talking to someone racist was unacceptable and that she needed to do something about it. In my shock and confusion though, I let it slide and eventually let other anti-Black things roll off my chest that year.
The next year when the white girls moved off campus, we stopped hanging out and I sought out other black and brown students on campus. I needed to have friends who I shared commonality with, particularly our blackness, but that didn’t mean I had to stop being friends with the white girls I had grown to love.
My early undergraduate days showed me the value of having friends who don’t look like you. We hear this a lot and talk about it a lot in the media, but how different would our world be if white people did have black and brown friends who held them accountable for what they say, do, and what they don’t say or do? How different would the conversation on anti-blackness in America be if white people took what they learned from their black and brown friends and taught other white people?
Let’s face it: Until white people teach other white people to stop being racist, anti-blackness will exist in our society. No, it’s not up to us, the marginalized, to teach but if we choose to teach and be available for sounding off, I can only imagine where we would be in the fight to achieve racial justice because so much of achieving racial justice is changing culture. And we have to change American culture to stop being anti-Black.
I think about those experiences I had in college a lot as I’ve gotten older and only “Like” my freshman friend’s life updates on Facebook. I think about what impact they could have on ending anti-blackness in circles with their family and friends, places where I wouldn’t go, but where they could shift entire attitudes. No, being a good ally doesn’t start at having black and brown friends, but I’m sure, like any other experience, having someone to talk to, to sound off with, or to learn from is always valuable.
If I had given them a greater opportunity to learn from me and become a better ally, I wonder what impact they could’ve had.