Learning to Talk About Race
Someone whom I know to be highly intelligent, and whom I love unconditionally, was pissing me off.
I hadn’t seen him for several months, namely since before Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson. It’s also worth mentioning that he’s forty years my senior.
Here’s what happened. We were playing a card game; he won. He followed his win by saying, “I won!” Those of us who lost gave minor collective grumblings. He responded by putting his hands up and saying, “Don’t Shoot!”
You will be unsurprised to hear that this person was white. It was supposed to be funny. One member of our group laughed, I think out of discomfort. I was stunned.
What I should have done is asked him to never do that again and give a few distinct reasons why. In the moment, I did not. Calling someone out on a topic entrenched in the context of racism? As a white person I did not feel equipped.
Talking about race is hard. Writing about it is hard. Yet racial biases are alive and well, and the effects are deadly. Educating ourselves and the people around us through research and conversation is crucial if things are to change.
One person who has helped me feel more comfortable enter the conversation is Franchesca Ramsey. She posts on Twitter and Youtube as @chescaleigh. You can also find her on Facebook and Upworthy.
She makes her views on social issues relatable and is so articulate I just want to soak up the clarity and speak as eloquently as she does forever and ever.
Her video “5 Tips For Being An Ally” is a great example. It offers five pieces of wisdom for being an ally to any oppressed, marginalized community that one is not a part of, and gives insight on how to do so in a way that is supportive, not destructive. This video has been shared a lot of places online, and with good reason.
The tips are:
#1 Understand your privilege.
#2 Listen and do your homework.
#3 Speak up, not over.
#4 You’ll Make Mistakes! Apologize when you do.
#5 Ally is a verb.
Her definition of privilege is so smart:
Privilege does not mean that you are rich, that you’ve had an easy life, that everything has been handed to you and you’ve never had to struggle or work hard. All it means is that there are some things in life that you will not experience or ever have to think about just because of who you are.
Ramsey explains things succinctly and gives examples, demonstrating that she never suggests anything she isn’t willing to do herself.
She is clear about these tips being applicable for anyone to use towards any marginalized group, regardless or race, sexual orientation, gender or gender preference. She’s not talking specifically about any group in particular, but I did my best to apply it to my conversation with the “hands up” joker, a few days after the aforementioned card game.
He explained he was calling attention to the fact that protesters across the US were putting their hands up because “allegedly” Michael Brown had done that. His point was that no one knows for sure whether or not Michael Brown did that or not, and are using a tragic event with conflicting witness reports to fit personal agendas. He also brought up the fact that Michael Brown had “drugs” in his system and did not cooperate with the police officer.
I responded as best I could in the moment. Full disclosure: the following is by no means exactly what I said, but articulating my thoughts as well as I can here will help me next time him and I talk, because the conversation is ongoing. Franchesca Ramsey might have been able to school him in one conversation—I’m working on it.
Here goes. The fact that Michael Brown is not a “perfect” victim is an argument that people are using to evade a bigger issue of police brutality and racial profiling. In terms of whether Brown actually put his hands up, twelve out of the fourteen witnesses said that he raised his hands when he was fired upon.
That said, frankly, whether he did or not doesn’t matter. “Hands up, don’t shoot” is a cry for change in a country where a black man is killed every 28 hours. Don’t make light of a rallying cry for justice.
Learning to talk about race is a process, and so is the aforementioned conversation. Even though my friend won’t be raising his hands in protest any time soon, he won’t be raising them in any other way either, and I’ll take that as a small win.
I’ve listed a few articles that influenced this post below. Please feel free to share your experiences, stories, conversations, thoughts and/or any books and articles you’ve found helpful.