Many white people feel uncomfortable talking about racism – but that’s not an excuse to avoid engaging. So let’s change it
As soon as someone mentions the term “white privilege”, the conversation can quickly become hostile. So what’s “white privilege”, and how can white people effectively talk about it to challenge direct and institutional racism?
What is White Privilege?
White privilege refers to the benefits that white people enjoy, which people of colour don’t have. If you’re more of a visual learner, you can check out this comic explaining white privilege.
In the UK, these are some of the ways being born white benefits you:
- Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people
- People of colour are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to white people
- Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups experience higher levels of mental health problems
And these are only some of the ways people of colour are disadvantaged compared to white people. Some people argue that these differences are explained by work ethic, but this isn’t true.
On the Defense: Challenging the “Yes, But…” Argument
Yes, but, what if my life’s difficult and I’m also white? Well, being white doesn’t mean your life is automatically easy. But it does mean that you still have a head start over people of colour. A lot of white people feel uncomfortable when you mention white privilege. But it’s important to sit with these thoughts and understand black people’s stories and experiences.
Talking abut white privilege isn’t hating on white people. I’m white, and I don’t hate white people. No-one is blaming you for being white. But it’s important to acknowledge this privilege, and learn how to talk to other white people about it.
What Can We Do?
So now you’ve got a 101 on white privilege, what can you do to challenge it? We’ve all been in a situation where a friend says something inappropriate – maybe racist, sexist, or homophobic. In that moment it can be difficult to know what to do. Do you say something, or remain silent? And if you decide to say something, what do you say?
One way you can challenge your friends’ racist comment is by “calling in”. Instead of publicly shaming them, you talk to your friend privately about their problematic comment. This is way less confrontational than publicly questioning them.
“Calling in” aims to get the person to change their oppressive behaviour by understanding why they made that comment. Some people make inappropriate comments because they’re ignorant, so a gentle reminder is an effective way to challenge their behaviour. You could say something like: “Hey, that comment you made earlier isn’t okay and may upset people. Did you think about how it may be perceived?” You can then understand why they made that comment and talk about more appropriate language.
Remember, “calling in” is a long game. You’re unlikely to change that person’s mind overnight. But over many conversations, you may get that person to understand and empathise with others. And this may prevent them from making racist comments in the future. YAY! Victory
“Calling out” is when you publicly challenge someone’s questionable behaviour or comment.There are times when this is more appropriate than “calling in”. Maybe a celebrity made a racist comment and you call them out on Twitter, or perhaps a friend is repeatedly being racist and “calling in” didn’t work.
To Call in or Call Out?
Ultimately it’s up to you to decide whether to “call in” or “call out”. It depends on the situation, and also how you’re feeling. Be patient, and be prepared to make mistakes. You’ll learn what works and what doesn’t along the way. We all have problematic beliefs and behaviours we need to unlearn and it’s not easy. But by being committed to talking about white privilege and pointing out racism, we can all hold each other accountable.
In addition to “calling in” and “calling out,” be sure to listen to people of colour’s experiences and stories. Don’t question their stories or dominate the conversation. You’ll probably feel uncomfortable, but that means you’re really listening. So listen and then centre these voices when you “call in” and “call out” other white folks.
Finally, read, read, read! You’ll learn a ton about racism and white privilege from BAME authors. Remember it’s not people of colour’s jobs to educate you on this. Just like it’s not people who identify as women’s role to teach men about sexism. So be sure to educate yourself on how to be anti-racist in your everyday life. A few of my fave writers are Renni Eddo-Lodge, bell hooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Ijeoma Oluo.
We can create a more equitable, anti-racist, and compassionate society by listening and holding each other accountable. So get out there and try it. We’re counting on you.