Tag Archives: what should white people do

what should white people do / all the kindness I can afford

1 Apr

When white people are confronted with racism, the most common question is “but what are we supposed to do?”

I get it, it’s hard. You’re trying to think about all these things but it seems like you’re always wrong. Like if you’re a white academic and you only write about white Western culture, you’re being Eurocentric and contributing to the invisibility and erasure of marginalised peoples and cultures, but if you write about people of colour and their cultures, you come up against appropriation, exoticisation, issues of self-representation and self-determination.I’m not being sarcastic – it’s hard even if it’s harder for someone else. I appreciate when people are genuinely trying to address racism. And I know what I’m like when I try to think about something that is outside my sphere of experience, that has maybe honestly only just occurred to me: I’m bewildered and overwhelmed and anxious, I have no idea what to do, I want someone to give me all the answers.

But hey, if you’re a white academic, you probably have cultural, institutional power over anyone you research. Or any academic really – and even when you’re writing about marginalised communities you’re part of, you get to choose which representations are prioritised. By virtue of your position, regardless of your own background and identities and ideology, you have power over people. There are definitely better and worse ways to approach that power. But to some extent you can’t “get it right”. There is no perfect, ethically pure use of unethical power. Sometimes you don’t get to be good.

I’m not saying that white people are inevitably racist all the time and there’s nothing you can do so don’t bother trying. But I think the way we’re implicated in systems of oppression puts us in a position where there’s no right act. Trying to break down a system is dirty, messy work. We’re going some place we can’t see yet. We don’t get to be good. We don’t get to be right. That’s not the point.

I was brought up to believe in being correct. And that smarts will get you anywhere. I don’t think that’s true though. I’m trying to unlearn that. Trying to learn to be humble and kind, to be gentle. All the kindness I can afford, always. I know I’ve been saying this for a while now. It’s hard but it’s harder for someone else.