Why White People Don’t Like to Talk About Race

Most white people want no part of the conversation about race. We don’t want it with our baristas, our neighbors, our spouses, or anyone really. We don’t quite know what do each February during Black History Month. For most white people that’s Martin Luther King Jr. awareness month with a nod to Harriet Tubman and not much sense of any other aspect of black history or culture. The ongoing tensions surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and so many other incidents are more than most of us know what to do with (if we want anything to do with them at all).

Most of us grew up unaffected by the racial divide, or at least unaware of how it affected us. Now, though, the divide has been brought to us and we’re at a loss. We don’t want that conversation. We’re uncomfortable with it. Our responses tend to fall into two main groups.

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 than young, privileged white people — but those needs never really intersect with their lives at a personal and relational level. And they’re happy to keep it that way because any other way is uncomfortable and intimidating. It’s a passive aggressive approach to racial separation, and one most don’t even realize they’re participating in. Their ignorance is blindness they mistake for bliss.

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. They don’t just watch the nightly news about Ferguson but go find an op-ed piece or two that provide some perspective. 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. When I was twelve my family adopted a black baby girl, my sister Talitha, which opened my eyes even more to the ways minorities are treated differently. 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 with respect. 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, a J. Crew type and Northface type, 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 both clueless and and stuck when it came to 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. We also kind of feel guilty about feeling guilty because, after all, we had nothing to do with that. To exacerbate matters, most of us aren’t aware that those historic injustices propagated a system that favors white people and rules with a velvet-gloved iron fist to this day. Most know there’s a problem but couldn’t articulate it. We see some inequities (though not most) 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,” the plural pronoun for a group of which one is not part. Being that I was not a character in this story the same pronoun would have applied to the group of white people, but as soon as I said “them” one young 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 or opaque 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 the 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? Can we trust our own motives?) 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, something we have a hard enough time even recognizing. 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?