Conflict / Culture / Race / February 4, 2014

Why White People Don’t Like to Talk About Race

February is black history month, a month white people have no idea what to do with. We don’t know whether we’re really celebrating or merely throwing a bone. “Here, have 1/12 of our time and attention.” We kind of have the sense that it is an effort at something good but one that falls well short of actually celebrating the richness of black culture. All the stories of Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. are nice, but that’s about all the further most whites’ awareness of black history and culture goes.

White people don’t like to talk about race, so being confronted with it for all 28 days of February is uncomfortable. The vast majority of my fellow Caucasians fall into two groups: those who don’t want to talk about race at all and those who want to but don’t know how.

Group 1: Don’t want to talk about race

This first group contains the bigots and racists. They don’t want to talk about race (or maybe they do for all the wrong reasons) because they want to be the only race. This bunch deserves a whole lot of ink, most of it not very pleasant, and none of it here. They are despicable products of unfortunate upbringings.

The majority of this group, though, is not outright bigoted. Instead they are outright ignorant and therefore subtly prejudiced. They are unexposed to minority cultures (not just black, but all non-white cultures) and unaware of the complexities, difficulties, and hurts there. Really most of white America is part of, or has been part of, this group. They are the comfortable majority, and thus they determine the status quo. Life is good, so why rock the boat? It’s not that they don’t “care” about the needs of others — you won’t find a more cause-oriented bunch of advocates — but those needs never really intersect with their lives at a personal and relational level. And they’re happy to keep it that way. It’s a passive aggressive approach to racial separation, and one most don’t even realize they’re participating in. Their ignorance is blindness.

Group 2: Don’t know how to talk about race

As group one becomes aware of the sordid realities of race relations in America they start to morph into group two. They make friends with a minority or two, kind of by accident. Their church serves in the inner city. They read a book, hear a sermon, or watch a documentary. One way or another they begin to see the problem. It’s bigger than they know, more complicated than they realize, deeply rooted in centuries of sin, and they have no idea what to do.

This group wants to see change happen but doesn’t even know if they really want to do what it takes. They lack the language to even converse intelligently and sensitively about it and instead end up sounding either offensive or obnoxiously and opaquely politically correct. They lack the relational capital to address race issues head-on in a safe, honest environment; they’re simply not tight with many (or any) minorities. And they wouldn’t know how to get tight if they wanted to.

The Problems

I grew up in inner-city Minneapolis and had the chance to interact with people from many different cultures. My high school football team started multiple Southeast Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, Whites, and Native Americans. Interactions about racial and cultural differences were normal for us. They weren’t always pleasant and it wasn’t the perfect melting pot, but it was a context in which openly discussing race was ok as long as it was done respectfully. I appreciated the chance to learn, observe, listen, and ask questions. I graduated and moved to lily-white Wheaton, Illinois for college. My first week on campus I was roundly chastised by a fellow student for referring to a friend as “black.” I was told it was “racially insensitive.” I realized I had entered a different world, one where well-intentioned whites were totally stuck on race issues.

Whites who care about race know the sins of our forefathers and feel a constant sense of low-grade guilt. We have no idea how to make amends for the injustices of the past. To exacerbate matters, most of us aren’t aware that those historic injustices propagated a system of white privilege that rules with a velvet-gloved iron fist to this day. Most know there’s a problem but couldn’t articulate it. And we have no idea what we can do to help it.

Of course we don’t help ourselves. Many whites walk on egg shells around racial language out of fear of offending anyone. Even simple pronouns get judged. I was telling a story involving a group of white people and a group of black people to some friends recently. At one point I referred to the group of blacks as “them.” Immediately one white lady jumped into the fray. “You can’t say that! That’s so offensive.” If using plural pronouns falls under the cloud of racism, we are undermining one of the most important aspects of any conflict resolution: communication. The greater point, though, is that whites handcuff whites on race. We leave each other no options but to tip toe around the subject and use obtuse language to try to hint at ideas instead of honest and clear words to make a point.

All the answers often feel wrong. We know we need to build relationships with minorities, but often fear of doing something wrong paralyzes us. Will it look like we’re trying to make a “token” minority friend? Will he or she feel like it’s a case study or a charity case instead of a friendship? (For that matter, is it a real friendship?) What if I say something wrong without even realizing it? Do I even know how to be friends with someone from a different background or culture?

We know there’s injustice, but an individual white person feels powerless to change it. Changing it means breaking out of the comfort of the status quo. We don’t face discrimination every day, so it’s easy to do nothing, no matter how good our intentions. But again, even if we were to do something, what would it be? What is my contribution?

What Next?

None of this is an excuse. In fact, I’m not even sure what to make excuses for, except being white. Mostly it feels like we’re in a room with lots of exits, all of which are locked. It’s exhausting to keep trying each door over and over or beating the wall hoping it will give. That’s what talking about race feels like most of the time. The easy thing to do is just sit down in the room (it’s comfortably furnished after all) and do nothing. But then we never get out. What will unlock the door?

photo credit: Grevel via photopin cc

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Mar 03, 2014

Interesting article. I too grew up in an area that was pretty diverse culturally and not to far away from you. Madison, Wi. I learned early that we can interact and still be ok. Yep, we had a few racial fights here and there but it was a different time that yours. I left Madison at around 9 yrs old and moved to Saint Louis, Mo. Can you say CULTURE SHOCK?! A completely racially segregated (Mentally not Physically) with Blacks in the North and Whites in the South. I came to this city with the Middle North American accent. OhhhhhNoooo and YAAAAHNOOO tattooing me each time I opened my mouth. I got teased relentlessly about it, even from family. So, I understand your plight when you moved to Illinois. The only difference is, it was the 70s and I am Black.

One thing you mentioned above was, “throwing us a bone.” This is always been a major issue with Minority to White relationships. I guess you are correct when you say you dont know how to communicate your lack of understanding. From our view, we see you and you think you’re born with this sense of “privilege”. Like, What? I’m AMERICAN why can’t I? I have seen this even in other countries. White Americans parade through the world as if they are the sole heir to the air we breathe and that everyone else need to pay homage or an air tax. That comment just made me think, “thats rather bold of you to say as if you just GAVE us 28 days to THINK we are celebrating our history”. Its that arrogance that the world hates. Nothing really else.

I didnt want to turn this into a big thing but to simply say that, I have an issue with your posting about your not know what to do or say. I think thats a bit of a cop out and partly, a non issue. Cop out as in if you did a family member wrong, you’d apologize and hope they would forgive and move on. A non issue because, you’re not a slave owner or someone who put those bonds on us. The only thing I THINK I can offer you is, that if you see wrong, help. If you hear wrong, correct it. Just treat us as you would any of your friends, neighbors or any WHITE citizen that is doing nothing more than walking down the street. Treat each person on their own merits. TRY not to LUMP us because we TAN better. Understand the REAL numbers when you hear, read or see stats about Non Whites. There are 310M people in this country and about 100M minorities total. We don’t outnumber you. There are more of YOU on welfare. And, WHITES eat far more chicken and watermelons than we do. All, we want, is the same thing most of you want. A nice place to raise our kids and good neighbors to raise them near. Good Schools and a Good Job. The ability to have our needs addressed with equal access and results. 68% of the USA is white, that’s not going to change anytime soon so…

Please stop having a fear of relating to us. We are no different that you. And, theres no need to continue to care baggage from the days of slavery. It happened and if it did not, we would not be having this conversation today. The world has real crappy things happening in it and we can’t singularly change that. But we can, stop and have a coffee/tea and be glad we live in a country that allows us the freedoms we do have and just relax…

And turn off FOX NEWS, most of it is spin to keep you excited and bitter. JMO

    Mar 03, 2014


    Thanks for your thoughts. I am curious whether your comments are directed at me personally or at the population of white people as a whole? Personally, I agree with what you say. It was from this spirit that I wrote the post. And I don’t watch Fox News.

      Mar 03, 2014

      Sorry if you felt it was at you. I always “try” to speak in general. I actually appreciate your view and insight. The more we dialog, the more we will see that we are more alike than not…

      I was surprised that no one responded. Even when it was posted on a FB page.

        Mar 03, 2014

        I just wanted to make sure. I didn’t feel attacked, so no worries. I think the reason so few people responded is exactly because of the subject itself – white people don’t know how. It’s a paralysis of guilt, good intentions, fear, ignorance, and prejudice.

      Mar 03, 2014

      If you felt that this was pointed at you, forgive me it was not. I try to speak generally when I talk about things of this nature. I am though, completely surprised at the lack of response from anyone…

      Are WAs waiting to hear from AAs and visa versa??

    Jan 03, 2015

    White American’s don’t like to talk about Race because they fully understand they are participating in a caste system that benefits them at the expense of everyone else…with Black people being the foundation stone…it’s not a matter of being ignorant or being underexposed to non-whites. Racism is a VALUE judgement of another’s humanity…no different that looking down your nose at the homeless bum asking for spare change…there is no “group one” of white bigots/racists and “group two” of regular white people…in reality, it’s two sides of the same coin…one side is more coarse and hyper aggressive, the other side more refined, academic, almost polite…your attempts to cultivate relationships with the “other” are more self-serving than anything because you can’t really have an honest interaction with people you feel superior to…and that’s what’s at the root of the white guilt…it’s the unwillingness to acknowledge what you really are on the inside that causes you label people who bring the subject up as “race baiters”, “playing the race card”, etc…they are defensive projections to keep people from bring up the very thing you are trying to repress…seeing racial injustice troubles you…but you’re hooked on your favored status…to have a truly equal society actually may cost you something, so you end up adopting a “better you than me” attitude…until the guilt rises up again, and you have to vent on your blog…what a white person needs is an A.A. style confessional…hi my name is (add your name), i am a alcoholic…but put racist in its place…and say, i’ve been guilty of asking questions i already have the answers to…

Oct 15, 2014

Hmm. Im not sure that you can really put me into one of those 2 groups man. Heres a little background about myself.

Born in Pomona Ca. Its a suburb of LA and is largely dominated by black and mexicans. (Although im noticing many more blacks leaving and mexicans coming in) Im first generation American from Romania and I can say I was in fact a minority. And yes my skin is white. I feel like many Black people tended to not accept me and AUTOMATICALLY assume that I have some type of racist attitude towards them and I never understood why!! Im a big basketball guy and lots of the black guys out here are are into basketball too. Rarely was I allowed to play. And somtimes these people were even bold enough to say “No whiteboys” and other jacked up stuff like that. But then they let another black guy join in. Man how you going to tell me thats not racist. And these arent just random cats my dude, its all people I went to Ganesha High school with. Thats just an example I wanted to share but look. I do NOT base my feelings towards all blacks off of the many situations like this. Why cant these black bigots do so too?. I think alot of these individuals need to delete the chips off their shoulders and be able to drop the whole slavery thing. For god sake if you want to get technical MY PEOPLE never did anything to blacks (Romanians were too buzy trying to get themselves out of poverty!!) So why assume?! Ive even had people try to tell me that “my ancestors were slave owners. That is a prejudice

The point of this long post was just to express that I dont seem to see any of these white privileges. Being a white minority. And am constantly getting put down/ looked down on because of my skin colour. Its a shame too because those bigots are missing out on a hella challenging ball game. Just sayin

    Jan 03, 2015

    what you’re seeing and experiencing is the lack of trust/resentment of Black folks who have been scarred for centuries…people are responding to what you represent as a white guy…you think Black folk care that you’re Romanian?…you live in the USA!…with this nations history, you think Black folk are going to give you the benefit of the doubt?…so, because you’re not automatically received with open arms, you label Black people bigots??…please!…first, you need to learn some history, secondly, you’re gonna have to accept the fact that trust has to be earned…if you’re not willing to show Black folk that you aren’t the racist that they would imagine you to be, you better get used to hoopin’ by yourself…

Dec 04, 2014

I guess we need to cut Barnabas some slack. Sounds to me like he,s trying to make us whites take a deeper look at ourselves and answer the question: Do I fit in either of these groups, even a little? Any correction has to begin with a little soul searching. Something my parents taught me.

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