The Common Good

Can We Talk? White Privilege Today

  • An African-American woman notices that as she enters a room full of friends and colleagues--all white--the conversation stops when she walks through the door.
  • An African-American man is routinely followed by the local police as he drives through a suburban community on his way to work. When he tells his white colleagues at work, his story is met with disbelief.
THESE VIGNETTES are representative of the many stories we have heard as a biracial team that has provided hundreds of anti-racism training seminars and consultations nationwide. We ask people—white and of color—to talk about a subject that folks are usually careful to avoid: race relations and racism in the United States today.
 
The desire to avoid potentially painful and difficult discussions has become even more intense. At the same time, many people are confused about why there is still such a deep racial divide in this country.
 
In our travels, we have noticed that while people are reticent to discuss issues of race and racism in public, they pull us aside and ask us in whispered tones what we really think, or they explain their own theories to us behind closed doors. Even in these guarded conversations, we have been struck by a discernible change in tone. Suddenly, it seems, white people are seeing the racial divide as looming larger than before. Race, so often dismissed by white people as an insignificant factor in contemporary U.S. society, has acquired meaning—meaning that they were working hard to ignore. There seems to be a veiled sense of panic in their conversation.
 
Because issues of injustice are always clearer from below, people of color have recognized the reality of racism for a very long time. But white America has enjoyed the dual luxuries of ignorance and denial. Many whites have claimed—with a misplaced sense of pride—that they did not see color in friends, students, neighbors, or colleagues. In order to avoid confronting the disease of racism, whites have clung to the myth of colorblindness. However, recent events have forced many whites to acknowledge that racism is still imbedded in the fabric of our society.
 
THE NATION IS RAW and divided—the racial wound is now more visible than it has been at any time since the civil rights movement and the urban riots of the 1960s. Just as we are hearing expressions of a quiet panic coming from whites in this country, the people of color we talk to are angry, and very cynical about white America's commitment to effecting significant change.
 
And yet, even against this backdrop of fear, anger, and cynicism, we believe that as a nation we have entered a period when the possibility for real change on the issue of racism is presenting itself. We believe that, as a people, we are at an important historical moment. The fact that racism has now surfaced so visibly once again gives us the opportunity to confront it directly, and to move forward in new and constructive ways.
 
Are we on the verge of a second wave of the civil rights movement? Maybe. We are unsure. What we are sure about is that we are hearing a level of concern, agitation, empowerment, and fear—along with a desire for dialogue—surrounding the issue of racism that we have not heard in years.
 
If we are indeed at one of those rare kairos moments when there exists the possibility for a significant paradigm shift, what can we do to seize this moment and move toward race equity in this country?
 
We believe the greatest need exists on the community level: the need for deep, honest, and ongoing public dialogue on race and racism between white people and people of color conducted in safe settings and in a structured fashion. Due to the level of segregation in our society, most white adults only interact with people of color at their workplace (if at all); their neighborhoods, houses of worship, and social circles remain predominantly white.
 
When we say that we need public dialogue on the community level about issues of race, we do not mean social events that encourage friendly mixing and polite conversation (although those may be useful as well). The public gatherings we are referring to would be specifically for the purpose of discussing race and racism. They would, moreover, have clearly stated goals, such as: an enhanced understanding of the manifestations of cultural and institutional racism and their impact in one's own community; the creation of mutually beneficial coalitions across racial lines; and the empowerment of people of color and white allies to effect serious change.
 
We believe that these organized community dialogues need to be carefully structured, with a clear agenda hammered out in advance by white folks and people of color, and skillfully facilitated to create a level of safety that allows participants to speak openly—on the emotional as well as cognitive levels—without fear of reprisal.
 
WHEN PLANNING A public forum to discuss racism in one's community, organizers must recognize that people of color and white people do not usually enter the dialogue with the same level of awareness or sophistication about these issues. People of color know a great deal about white America—they must, to function in this country. They also know a great deal about racism. In contrast, much of white America remains remarkably unaware of the lives, feelings, and hardships of people of color.
 
One of the most common questions asked by whites in our dismantling racism workshops is: What do I call them? Black or African American? Latino/a or Hispanic? Native American or Indian? And so on. Although no longer surprised by this question, we are dismayed by it because it is indicative of the degree of white people's insulation from communities of color.
 
Many people of color understand the power differential inherent in the three manifestations of racism: personal, cultural, and institutional. They view racism not as an individual issue but as a systemic problem. However, many white people still characterize racism as a virulent form of individual prejudice—they reduce the problem to what Peggy McIntosh calls "individual acts of meanness." They are unschooled in the systematic ways that racism has been institutionalized and are oblivious to the reality of privilege given automatically and invisibly to white people every single day.
 
Because it is almost inevitable that white people and people of color will begin any discussion of racism with vastly different perceptions of the problem, a public dialogue needs to begin with white people doing something for which they may have little practice: listening intently to people of color. Whites need to listen to the stories and the struggles of people of color in their own or surrounding communities. Not judge, debate, defend, solve, or critique-but listen. Through the simple act of listening, the subtle and pervasive nature of "neoracism"—the racism of today—may become evident.
 
However, listening itself will not reach hearts or change minds unless white people are encouraged to take another step that contradicts countless messages from their growing years, that is: to believe people of color. Although simple, this combination of listening and believing makes for a radical prescription.
 
Asking white people to listen to and to believe people of color sounds like an easy request. But, in our experience, whites almost invariably resist the idea, and deny that they don't believe people of color. Genuinely believing people of color requires that white people examine some of the messages, images, and cues received as children that taught them otherwise.
 
Most white people were not given overt messages in their growing years to doubt people of color, they simply absorbed the prevailing bias in society of white superiority. Consequently, whites learned to "second guess" people of color, to assume they were smarter, and to dismiss information that they heard from people of color that contradicted their own experience in the world. But, with modeling, guidance, and support, whites can be helped to listen with an open mind and an undefended and believing heart. Imagine the difference in our communities if white people started listening intently to people of color and believing that what they were hearing were actually true.
 
Unfortunately, most people have had few opportunities to witness the kind of open, honest, and mutually respectful dialogue that we envision. They do not know how to begin, are uncertain of how to challenge old behaviors and assumptions, and are afraid to let down their defenses.
 
We have found that both white people and people of color benefit when community dialogues on racism are co-facilitated by a biracial team willing to engage in frank dialogue between themselves as a model for the group. This modeling provides a concrete example of the level of trust and openness expected in the dialogue, and helps develop a sense of safety in the room.
 
PUBLIC DIALOGUE of this nature seems to work best when people speak from their own experiences about their own lives. If participants make a commitment to an ongoing series of meetings, it is both effective and useful—for the reasons outlined above—to have the people of color speak first about their struggles and tell their stories. We have facilitated gatherings where people of color voluntarily responded to a set of questions presented by the facilitators. This structure gives the discussion a starting point and a sense of boundaries, and brings the dialogue to the personal and community level immediately.
 
Many people of color are weary of educating white people about racism, and may not want to participate in such forums. People of color should be given full support if they decide that a public community dialogue where they would be speaking about their lives and struggles is not an event they choose to participate in for whatever reasons. The community dialogue should only include those people of color who feel they have something to gain as well as something to give, and who willingly choose to participate.
 
A helpful exercise that speaks directly to the twin issues of people of color continuously having to educate white folks and white folks often being less informed about race issues is meeting in caucus groups. This exercise involves subdividing by race and having the people of color meet separately with the facilitator of color and the white people meet with the white facilitator.
 
Caucuses provide folks with a safe place to explore difficult issues with members of their own group. The people of color may focus on empowerment issues and building a strong sense of group solidarity; the white people often struggle with their understanding of racism and how to be effective allies. We have found that, in this arrangement, people raise difficult questions that were previously unasked, members push one another, and confrontation is less threatening than in a racially mixed group. With skillful facilitation, caucus groups can accelerate the changes—greater openness, an ability truly to hear one another, and feelings of empathy—that are necessary for the community dialogue to be effective.
 
AS IS EVIDENT FROM OUR comments thus far, we believe in the power of modeling as a way to guide people into new behaviors. We have seen the tremendous impact in the past when Cornel West and Michael Lerner criss-cross the country modeling an open, honest, and respectful dialogue on black-Jewish relations. Maya Angelou and Elie Wiesel also shared the same stage talking about victimization, empowerment, and building alliances across differences.
 
We feel that more public dialogues are needed that focus on black-white relations, or more generally, whites and people of color.
 
As a biracial team, we have taken part in just such an endeavor, engaging in an exchange we call "Women, Race, and Racism: A Dialogue in Black and White." People have expressed tremendous gratitude that we are able to talk about racism openly from our different perspectives and view this sort of an exchange as a concrete step in the journey toward justice. We encourage other biracial pairs to consider modeling for others a public dialogue about these issues; in our experience, it is an effective way to demonstrate the dialogue we hope to create on the community level.
 
We need to create public dialogues to move beyond polite and empty words, beyond slogans and accusations, and beyond the fears and hurts that close us off one from another. We must remember, however, that community dialogue is not an end in itself. It is an important and necessary beginning. Our goal is to move people along the continuum from uninformed to informed, from informed to concerned, and from concerned to active.
 
As a nation, we suffer from what Cornel West has called a "weak will to justice." In our experience, effective community dialogue can be a way both to demonstrate and to strengthen our will to become active in the task of dismantling racism. If we choose to invest the care and the time to organize the dialogue well, and if we decide to speak and to listen in a spirit of openness and trust, we can find avenues to join with one another to confront and dismantle racism in our own communities.
 
Andrea Ayvazian, pastor of Haydenville Congregational Church, is an anti-racism educator in Massachusetts. Beverly Daniel Tatum is president of Spelman College in Atlanta. This is adapted from an earlier version of their article "Can We Talk?," which appeared in the January-February 1996 issue of Sojourners.
 
Image: Separated chess pawns, dragon_fang / Shutterstock.com
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