Read A Book! Or, Why I Don’t Talk To Strange White Folks About Race
by Mia McKenzie
Last night I had a Facebook chat with a friend of mine who was feeling all stabby because a white woman she knows posted a ridiculous and offensive status message about race. This person, who, according to my friend, appropriates from at least five different cultures on a daily basis, is a thorn in my friend’s side, but one she has to put up with to a certain extent for professional reasons. My friend was tempted to respond to this person’s status message, but was hesitant because she didn’t want to create drama in her professional life. She didn’t exactly ask for my advice, but I gave it to her anyway. Don’t bother.
As socially and politically conscious people of color, we are constantly having to spend time and energy responding to the nonsense that so often spews forth from the mouths and keyboards of clueless white people. Someone writes something fucked up, and as tiring as the thought of it sometimes is, it’s hard for us not to respond, not to check the idiot in question, not to try, at least, to make them hear sense. This desire comes from the fact that we, POC, have to live in this often-ridiculous world and we want to do whatever we can to make it less ridiculous, for our own sanity if nothing else. So, some melanin-challenged individual whose race analysis is about as solid as maple syrup writes something idiotic and we feel like we have to say something. We can’t just let it go unchecked or unchallenged. So, we say something. And what happens?
What happens, most of the time, is nothing good. Why? Because the person who posted the thing that offended us did so because it’s what they really think, it’s what they actually believe, it’s the conclusion that they have somehow come to after 25 or 30 or 40 years of living in this world. The ridiculous position they just laid down isn’t something they just came up with. It’s their fucking philosophy, and they mean that shit. And now here you come telling them, uh uh, nope, your analysis is flawed and this is why. And you are right. You really are. And guess what? It doesn’t matter. Because one woman’s incredibly offensive gibberish is another woman’s ideology. Nothing you say is going to change that. But you might spend a lot of time and energy trying. Time and energy that could be much better spent on much better things. Much better things that don’t get the time and energy they deserve and require because we are too busy being distracted by idiots.
I decided a few years ago that I would no longer talk to strange white people about race. By strange, I mean white people who are strangers to me. (And writing about race on this blog, which is a forum for QPOC, is not the same as engaging with white people about it). I decided, in fact, that unless they were people I knew well, people I trusted, the subject of race would be off-limits. With very few exceptions, I’ve stuck to that policy, and it’s served me very well. I’ve saved a lot of energy this way. Sometimes, when a white person who I do not trust tries to talk to me about race and I shut it down, the person in question says something like, “How will I know if you don’t, like, teach me?” Or, even better, “You’re not responding to my questions because you know you’re wrong,” as though my very carefully thought-out refusal to engage with them makes my analysis invalid. Hmm.
Listen. It’s not my job to teach white people about race. If they want to have a better analysis on race, they can read a book. Shit, they can read a thousand books, because a thousand books have already been written on the subject. Films have been made, art installations have been erected. It’s all been said. (And, really, if you are 35 and you haven’t bothered to get educated on the subject yet, you can’t really be all that interested, can you?) And if conscious white people would step it up and check their clueless race-mates on their shit, we POC wouldn’t have to always be put in these positions.
More importantly, engaging with strange white people about race feels incredibly unsafe. If I do it anyway, because, after all, they just want to “understand” my position, then I am putting their need to “understand” ahead of my own need to protect my psychological and emotional well-being. And why on earth should I do that? Especially when the likelihood of that understanding actually happening is slim to none? And the likelihood that my position will be mocked, dismissed, or attacked is very high?
Nah, I’m cool.
In the end, my friend decided that it was better for her own sanity, for her own well-being, to not engage with this person. I think it was a good decision, and a decision we POC should allow ourselves, and each other, to make more often. We need to be able to walk away from these conversations when we know that nine out of ten times they will traumatize us, anger us, and exhaust us. And, unfortunately, give us absolutely nothing in return.
Mia McKenzie is a writer and a smart, scrappy Philadelphian with a deep love of vegan pomegranate ice cream and fake fur collars. She is a black feminist and a freaking queer, facts that are often reflected in her writings, which have won her some awards and grants, such as the Astraea Foundation’s Writers Fund Award and the Leeway Foundation’s Transformation Award. She just finished a novel and has a short story forthcoming in The Kenyon Review. Her work has been published at Jezebel.com, and recommended by The Root, Colorlines, Feministing, Angry Asian Man, and Crunk Feminist Collective. She is a nerd, and the creator of Black Girl Dangerous, a revolutionary blog.
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