Who Should Educate White People About Racism?

Am I improving conditions for artists of color? Or providing feel-good education for white people?

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A still from the video of Toni Morrison's 1993 interview with Charlie Rose.

Two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting for a colleague. A store manager had called the police just two minutes after the men had arrived, because the men had not made a purchase but had asked to use the restroom. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson made public statements and scheduled 8,000 stores for anti-bias training before meeting the two men to discuss and apologize for the incident. Johnson said:

…as we’re working to solve this, I’d like to invite [Nelson and Robinson] to join me in finding a constructive way to solve this issue.

And with that remark, I find a familiar fatigue.

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In addition to people of color enduring constant and humiliating abuses, white people too often also ask us to produce solutions to that abuse. I’m reminded of Stephen Colbert’s interview with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in which he asks Coates if he has hope for a “better country” and improved “race relations.” Coates bluntly says, “No,” then continued:

But I’m not the person you should go to for that. You should go to your pastor. Your pastor provides you hope. Your friends provide you hope…That’s not my job. That’s somebody else’s job.

Colbert then replied, in frustration, “I’m not asking you to make shit up. I’m asking if you personally see any chance for change in America?” To which Coates responded, “Maybe, but I would have to make shit up to actually answer that question in a satisfying way.” 

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At the heart of Colbert’s frustration — and even Johnson’s remark about inviting Nelson and Robinson to solve issues of racism at his company — is the belief that racism does harm in one direction, impacting people of color exclusively. Conventional wisdom in many progressive spaces champions white ally-ship, which demands that white people fight racism on behalf of communities of color. What is missing from this concept of ally-ship is a framework for understanding the extent of damage that racism has done to white people.

What is missing is the extent of damage that racism has done to white people.

How might white people be so disconnected from their own humanity that they feel threatened by the sight of another, nonviolent human being and call the police?

What is happening in white communities where so many young men have become the disproportionate number of mass shooters?

What was the psychological harm done to young white children only a couple decades ago whose parents dressed them in their Sunday best to attend lynchings? Those children are now adults.

How many groups of people that we now see as white gave up their mother tongues, recipes, customs or birth names to gain the social privileges that come with being white

How might that cultural stripping be linked to the prevalence of cultural appropriation?

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Racism is white people’s problem too. Yet, as a society, we lack modes for interrogating it. And the labor of racism education falling on the shoulders of people of color often has more to do with providing comfort to white people than it does with our own liberation.

White people have their own labor in this work.

Take Colbert, for example. After listening to one of the most brilliant living scholars clearly and concisely explain the way that racism shapes his life as a Black man, Colbert asks that same Black man to provide him with comfort and hope. Even in my own anti-racist organizing and writing in the arts (for which I have tremendous pride and a sense of accomplishment), I continuously question myself as to whether the services I help to provide are improving conditions for artists of color or if I am providing feel-good education for well-meaning white people.

I’m not arguing for segregation or against interracial coalition building. Rather, I’m pointing out that white people have their own labor in this work. It is time they cultivate the tools do so.

Frankly, this Starbucks incident is so commonplace for Black people that even despite it being caught on film, I have been surprised to see it garner so much widespread media traction. I suspect the attention given to the debacle is largely due to the white patrons who recorded and distributed the video. They were rightly outraged by the treatment these men received and confronted the officers, yet I’m struck by the fact that no patrons are seen confronting the store manager or personnel.

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If racism can be understood as a problem that impacts white communities, white people could be much better equipped to educate and support each other rather than relying on communities of color who are already dealing with other manifestations of racism. Toni Morrison said in an interview with Charlie Rose:

If you can only be tall because somebody else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is white people have a very serious problem. And they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.

Rose says, “Then give white people some free advice.”

Morrison responds, “They’re all in my books.”