Talking to Whites and Asian Americans About Racism

Talking to Whites and Asian Americans About Racism

In the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor, and now Rayshard Brooks, I have been very encouraged to see so many people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds unite in solidarity to protest and fight for racial equality and justice in the U.S. and all around the world. In fact, data shows that in contrast to most mass protests in the past, most of the participants in these recent protests are White. I have also been very heartened to see data that shows that the proportion of White Americans who agree that systemic racism against Blacks exists and is a real problem has not just increased noticeably since April, but actually has been steadily increasing since 2014. While there’s still a whole lot of work that needs to be done and many changes that are still to be implemented, all of these trends are indeed very encouraging and seems to suggest a much more positive outlook on this nation’s ongoing fight for justice and equality across all forms of life.

That said, there are many people out there who are still skeptical or even hostile to this drive for racial justice. As I wrote about earlier, many of these people are Asian Americans. Fortunately, numerous other Asian Americans have written excellent articles and essays about how Asian Americans can talk to members of their own community and their own families about racism against Blacks and the need for us as Asian Americans to unite in solidarity with them. Below is just a small sampling:

I happen to be a big Hasan Minaj fan, so in case you haven’t seen it yet, I want to highlight the 12-minute video he made a couple of weeks ago for his “Patriot Acts” show in which he talks passionately about the need for Asian Americans to unite in solidarity with the Black community to reinforce the bonds that exist between both groups and to fight collectively against systemic racism:

Along with talking to Asian Americans specifically about the need to unite in solidarity with the Black community and despite the positive trends that I mentioned earlier, we also need to keep talking to White Americans about racism and how people of color need them not just to be non-racist, but to be actively anti-racist. Along those lines, here again is a small sampling of articles and essays that give some tips about talking to Whites about racism, how Whites can talk to other Whites about racism, and specific actions Whites can do to be anti-racist:

Lastly, I want to share an example of a recent conversation with one of my White friends in which we talk about the Rayshard Brooks murder, police brutality, and systemic racism. He (let’s call him Thomas) and I have been friends since high school (36 years) and in the first several years of our friendship, he was relatively ignorant of racism and White privilege. After I started studying Sociology and Asian American Studies in college, I began challenging him more about racially insensitive comments or jokes that he (and many of my other White friends) would make. My challenges (many of which were rather angry in nature) initially took him off guard because previously, I would have let them go unchallenged. For a while, we had a somewhat tense friendship over these issues but gradually, we both moderated our positions — I became less angry in describing the ins and outs of racism to him, and he became much more open to learning about the privileges he had as a White person. Eventually, he “came around” and became much more “woke” about the history and ongoing nature of racism, its effects on people of color, and his position as a White person in all of this, and I was very gratified to see this change in him. But every once in a while, I need to “remind” him and give him as “refresher” on these issues, as our conversation below highlights:

Thomas: [The killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta] is bugging me. I’m struggling with this. As a White privileged asshole, my first reaction is to say/think, ‘If you don’t resist and let the system play out everything will work out, justice will be served.’ But now I’m realizing that’s not true. The justice system is not the same and can actually be very dangerous if you aren’t White. I can’t figure out how to fix this. I feel like if I really am the White asshole that’s making this happen. Why can’t I change it?

Me: I hear your frustration. You don’t have to think of yourself as an ignorant White asshole. But I do hope that you see yourself as a privileged White male who has done a lot of work and thinking over the years to better understand how racism works and why Blacks feel unfairly targeted, not just at the point where the average White guy would say, “Just don’t resist,” but way before that, when other Whites and the police automatically assume from the start that they’re violent criminals and treat them differently than they treat Whites.

My experience with you through the years is it’s easier to learn something when I use analogies. So the analogy here is if your dad consistently treats your brother Jeremy [another alias] so much better than he treats you. He shows Jeremy lots of love and affection but treats you with disgust. Every single day, for years and year and years. How would you react if someone then says to you, “Just ignore it, don’t let it bother you?” That’s missing the point isn’t it? The fundamental point is that your dad should treat the both of you equally, rather than putting all the responsibility on you to change your behavior.

Thomas: I know you’ve studied this whole thing more than anyone I know and experienced it first hand. . . . But I just wonder — why is there not an answer? Seems like you know it so well you could just define a solution and we execute it. But I suppose people don’t work that way.

Me: Actually there are plenty of answers, ranging from retraining police and mandating that they de-escalating the situation rather than immediately neutralizing the threat as they are trained now, to eliminating the legal principle of qualified immunity that shields police from lawsuits, to giving civilian review boards the power to discipline police misconduct, to defunding the police and shifting resources to other community programs that will have a more direct and immediate benefit, etc. There are dozens more when it comes to fundamentally restructuring the role of the police, eliminating racial profiling, etc., and then hundreds more answers for eliminating racial disparities when it comes to education, housing, employment, healthcare, and basically all areas of life. So the problem isn’t a lack of answers, it’s the refusal of White-dominated social institutions to implement them in order to maintain the status quo and their own privileged positions.

Thomas: Wow that was good. I don’t ever hear lawmakers talking about those solutions. Why doesn’t someone write laws with those solutions. They seem very reasonable. And then in today’s world how can people not vote for those things? I guess I’m just ranting my frustrations. I just sometimes wish there was a button I could push. But changing culture doesn’t happen that way.

Me: Those in power have set everything up to benefit themselves, their friends, and others like them. That won’t change until they’re voted out and we have new leaders who actually want to work for the common good, not for their own benefit. And then they need to make fundamental changes to our social institutions and to end the preferential treatment of some groups and the discriminatory treatment of others.

Thomas: I’ve been more open to talking with people who I don’t necessarily agree with on these things. I was kind of angry for a long time. I didn’t want to live in this country with people who think it’s OK to have leaders like Donald Trump. I just wanted to escape it. I didn’t want to be part of it. But that isn’t the answer either. I don’t know how you do it.

Me: Having a meaningful conversation with someone you don’t agree with is a challenge for anybody. I really commend you for doing that. The easy way is to give into frustration, withdraw, and to expect others to fix the situation. The harder answer is to roll up your sleeves, slog through it with the rest of us, and contribute to the fight, one person at a time, one conversation at a time.

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