Race Conversations in White Spaces: The End and the Beginning

A recent Pew research study found that 67% of white social media users do not post or share posts about race or racial issues on their timelines (Anderson and Hitlin, 2016). Rather, white social media users are more likely to see posts related to race and race relations, but the social media interaction often ends there. But that doesn’t have to be the end; in fact, it can and should be just the beginning.

[The primary author of this post is Sophia Bolt, our CSS Graduate Assistant and Doctoral Candidate in the NYU Sociology of Education program. Sophia is a white female.]

This lack of interaction around racial issues among white people on social media largely carries over into the real, interpersonal world. Question for a white American to think about: how often do you read an article on your way to work, or see one posted on social media that talks about the most recent police brutality or another blatantly racist comment made by Donald Trump, but by the time you get to work or to that lunch you have with friends and family, your conversation turns to other topics? Race conversations are forgotten, or perhaps purposefully silenced so as to not enter into uncomfortable territory.

One thing white people need to recognize is what a privilege it is to not enter into uncomfortable race conversations, to be able to forget about race issues all together. As Tim Wise, anti-racism activist and writer, puts it, “Ignorance of how we are shaped racially is the first sign of privilege. In other words, it is a privilege to ignore the consequences of race in America.” White Americans can ignore race because their white skin is the norm. This is not true for people of color.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian novelist and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, explains:


It’s time to lift the veil of white privilege and enter into uncomfortable conversations about race. It is a small ask for white people to sit in the discomfort of a conversation about race when people of color must live in the discomfort of a society where white appearances, behavior, and culture are the norm, where they are constantly sent messages that they are less than.

The work we do at the Center for Strategic Solutions centers largely around adults who play a role in schools, such as teachers, administrators, and district leaders. While the hope is that at the end of a professional development session folks who participate walk away with a new way to view and connect with their students or staff and confront the dominance of whiteness in our society, when we’re asked what they can do immediately to combat racial injustice, the answer we give often is to talk to friends and family; access your social circles to push the thinking of those closest to you.

For example, don’t simply end your engagement with Colin Kaepernick’s actions (the 49er who took a stand against racial injustice by not standing for the National Anthem) after finishing the article you just read about him. Instead, talk with your friends and family and perhaps help those who can only see his actions as those of someone who is offensively unpatriotic. You can help point out that when Donald Trump says America needs to be great again, he earns a presidential nomination, but when Kaepernick, a man of color, points out the injustices of our society he is largely dismissed, critiqued, and accused of working against the very cause of equity and justice which prompted his protest.

Luckily there are many news sources that are dedicated to offering other perspectives, perspectives where whiteness is decentered,  that can help articulate why Kaepernick chose not to stand for the National Anthem and can help explain the systemic inequity that permeates our society. These news sources can help you to process the racial injustices happening every day and can guide you on how to talk to friends and family who may disagree, or choose not to see the other side. While people are constantly bombarded with only one side of a story or given only one perspective, such as referencing a victim of police brutality as “a thug,” or refusing to call what Ryan Lochte experienced when he committed a crime in Brazil white privilege, there are articles and pieces that show different perspectives, ones that are often untapped by white Americans – or only seen on Facebook, but not shared. Below is a list of news sources the CSS team often looks to:

  • The Root
  • Truthout
  • Fusion
  • Blavity
  • Mic. Media
  • Huffington Post (Black Voices, Latino Voices)
  • The New York Times (Race Related Newsletter)
  • The Washington Post
  • The Nation Magazine
  • New York Daily News (Shaun King)

We work with schools and the people in them to ensure they are equitable places that decenter whiteness as the norm. Yet, it is also crucially important for those people in schools and anyone in our society to be able to have race conversations with those closest to them and in their social circles. We can work to make schools more equitable places that do not demand children of color fit themselves into a white mold that they are told is the best, but they must enter into a world that is doing the same.

White people in particular must also stop looking to people of color to explain racism and systemic oppression. In the Washington Post article, “It’s time to stop talking about racism with white people,” the author, Zack Linly, conveys the exhaustion and frustration people of color experience who continually attempt to educate white individuals, often to no avail. He comes to the conclusion:

White people who truly want to be allies can find their path to ally-ship without black   validation and without us having to take time out of our days to educate them. They can find their own curriculum and figure out for themselves how they can do their part in fighting the good fight. And they can do it without the promise of black praise. (Linly, 2016)

Echoing Linly, we stress here how important it is for white people to educate themselves and help enlighten their friends who have not yet opened their eyes to the reality of racial injustice. As Jesse Williams stated in his BET Awards speech, “The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander.” Use your white privilege to talk to other white people about racism. A white person does not face the possibility of being seen only as “an angry black man or woman” who is dismissed as someone only giving excuses for the lack of access to opportunity people of color face in this country.      

So white people, step up. Be uncomfortable. Call your grandmother out if she makes racist comments, or explain that it is not the case to your friend who thinks “All Lives Matter” is a more fitting slogan than “Black Lives Matter.” For white people race is not a barrier, but that doesn’t mean they do not play a role in making race a barrier for others. Being so-called “colorblind” also means one is blind to the barrier that race creates for non-white individuals. See color. See the lived experiences of people who do not look like you.

In the end, if white people are appalled that an athlete refused to stand for the National Anthem, they need to give him a country worth standing for. Race conversations among white people are an important first step, and you can have them.      

Anderson, M., & Hitlin, P. (2016, August 15). Blacks more likely than whites to see – and post –   race-related content on social media. Retrieved from    http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/08/15/blacks-more-likely-than-whites-to-see-and-   post-race-related-content-on-social-media/
Linly, Z. (2016, September 7). It’s time to stop talking about racism with white people. Retrieved         from https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/09/07/its-time-to-   stop-talking-about-racism-with-white-people/?postshare=2211473246447019
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (n.d.). AZQuotes.com Web site:         http://www.azquotes.com/quote/513438
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3 thoughts on “Race Conversations in White Spaces: The End and the Beginning

  1. This quote sums up my entire dilemma:

    “They (white people) can find their own curriculum and figure out for themselves how they can do their part in fighting the good fight.”

    I am a white women. I discuss race on social media. I openly discuss it.I read all I can. I educate myself.

    I want to do more. Yet, when I try to find ways to help, here is the frustrating cycle. I am constantly pushed away by people I want to learn from and told they don’t have time to educate white people. I am told not to be a “white savior” but to ask the community what I can do to help. I ask the community and am told to figure it out.

    I here the concern about “white moderates” but am given no specific guidance on how best to help.

    Everyday, I get hammered by Tweets calling for action on health care or other issues. I get no calls to action about supporting actual legislation/policy that can change the structural problem facing the African American community.

    This is my experience with the recommendation in the article.


    1. The best thing we, as white people, can do is to work on educating other white people. That is the best help we can offer people of color. I’m not sure where you are located, but I am happy to talk about finding resources for you to tap into. I have been in your shoes, and I understand.


    2. So … *sigh* if you’re still reading here, my first thought is wondering whether or not you’ve Googled your exact question (“if I’m white and want to be anti-racist how can I help?”)

      It might be useful also to acknowledge someone took the time, as the WaPo writer points out, to do the emotional, intellectual, AND physical labor of looking up resources and framing the question for you even as you have no idea how many (hundreds, or possibly thousands) of times they’d had to answer that question or hear/read that protestation in his/her lifetime (or even just today, given current literally deplorable conditions in the nation’s White House).

      And before you get irritated because someone suggested that, here are some short pieces from a white anti-racist educator that may be helpful for you

      And read Debby Irvin’s book “Waking Up White: Finding Myself In the Story of Race” – especially if despite all the most recent discussions in the news, you’re unfamiliar with what “redlining” is.

      Good luck.


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