Silence on Race

8 mins read

It’s no longer acceptable for you to not be racist. You must be more than that. As a woman of color who recently became active in the Democratic Party, I implore you to become an unapologetic Anti-Racist Leader. Because my county’s Democratic Party sits in the whitest large city in America, I am speaking to white people. You know who you are. You have voice, presence, and power. You have a good heart (you’re a Dem for crying out loud!) and you are smart enough to navigate politics. Our county, this city, and our country need for you to become an expert at one more thing: Anti-Racist Leadership.

Like so many things, it all begins with conversation. Unlike so many things, this conversation rarely comes to fruition in ways that would lead to meaningful action resulting in systemic change. The topic is just so easy to avoid. As Democrats, it’s a given that we are the inclusive Party that embraces the disenfranchised, and that includes black and brown people. See how easy that was? We do talk about race! It’s actually super easy when we discuss policy, demographics, platforms, and philosophical stances.

What about in real time? How do we manage a conversation in the heat of the moment when race may be a factor? What agreements do we have in dealing with an accusation of racism in a conversation or at a meeting? Without a plan, there’s a pretty good chance we have default strategies that we likely employ without even realizing it. I’m willing to bet they include avoidance, denial, and apologies. That makes us no different than many large institutions. But we are different, aren’t we? We’re the Dems! We can and must do better.

In the skin that I’m in (brown) and position I’m in (middle class, educated, cisgender female) I’ve come to realize that whites and People of Color (PoC) have very different demands and needs in the work of Anti-Racist Leadership. PoC have talked about race since childhood. Family dinner table discussions about being white simply don’t happen at the same rate as black parents are forced to talk to their children: explaining why the kids at the predominantly white elementary school call you ugly, or lessons on safe behavior to prevent getting shot by police. PoC come to this adult dinner table with different background experiences that white people will either refuse to hear, or for which white people will offer an explanation (aka as whitesplaining) that removes race as a factor. If you are white and reading this right now, I ask you to reflect on any of the “yeah buts” you’ve come up with just in these first three paragraphs.

The following are three challenges I believe serve as major obstacles for us to discuss race in meaningful ways:

Detours from discomfort are very easy to utilize when confronted with a conversation about the role of race or racism in everyday living. In her article, “Detour Spotting for White Anti-Racists,” jona olsson labelled a number of barriers we put up so that we can avoid discussing race. White people have not been raised to discuss race. In fact, my generation was trained that the politest thing to do is ignore it altogether. This is why we are so skilled at changing the subject. As a society, we finally developed our ability to respectfully include or consider gender identity and sexual preference. Unfortunately, that’s where we go when the uncomfortable issue of race comes up. The Oppression Olympics is not a competition anyone wants to win, but it’s amazing how quickly we’ll go there to prove “this isn’t about race” or “other people have it just as bad or worse”.

Guilt, Shame, and Blame (GSB) can be cathartic for people of color to impose on our white counterparts. Well-meaning white acquaintances can be very receptive to this approach, as they hang their heads while listening, then walk away thinking they’ve done “the work”. While recognition of past and current systemic racism is a necessary part of the journey in becoming a white ally, it is not sufficient. In fact, getting stuck in fault mode often leads to a weakness-based disposition that negates one’s ability to move into an uncomfortable space where mistakes are made and lessons learned. We’ve made huge mistakes in the past that can’t be undone, but from which we can learn and create a different future. We need to embrace a level of productive dissatisfaction. That can’t happen if we are paralyzed with regrets from the past and fear of the present.

Harmful effects of the GSB culture is the culpability of silence (whatever I say may be called racist… I am not confident I know enough to judge if something is discriminatory and should be interrupted… so I’ll say nothing). The solution to overcoming this particular barrier is for us to replace the habit of calling each other out with calling one another IN. For people of color this can be an exhausting non-stop burden that is not sustainable. Our best resource can—and should be—white people. White people supporting each other in knowing more about whiteness, racism, and how to support other whites in their journeys will be the key to systemic racial inclusivity.

Skill and Will are our biggest missing assets. To be skilled in racial inclusion, an organization’s leaders need a foundation in critical race theory that is permeated with common language and collective understandings. What does equity mean? Some may say everyone gets the same thing. I’d call that equal (everybody gets a pair of shoes), and hope I work with others that share my definition of equity (everyone gets a pair that fits). How can white people stop committing racial micro-aggressions when they don’t know what they are? Protocols, such as the ones used in Glenn Singleton’s “Courageous Conversation About Race,” afford members the framework needed to be respectful listeners and contributors in real time. Like any skill, working through issues of race require we learn and practice. So why haven’t we already done it? As we embark on learning and strengthening our skill, we’ll soon know if we have the will.

Originally posted on Medium. Re-posted with permission.


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A former bilingual educator, GM now serves as Co-Chair of Multnomah County Democrats’ Racial Inclusivity Work Group in Oregon where she is a DPO State Delegate.

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