‘But I have lots of black friends’: Educating other white folks about their privilege

I recently attended a local Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) meeting in Albany. There were between sixty and seventy white folks of all ages crammed into a tiny unventilated church on a 90 degree day, all there to talk about race, white privilege, and how white people can help in the fight for racial justice. You can imagine that with that many people, structuring the discussion was difficult. The white folks there were coming from many different angles and various stages of understanding their own privilege. Some wanted to focus on how we can address and educate youth about privilege in schools and in the streets. Others wanted to better understand how to talk to their family and friends about privilege. Some wanted to know how to become better accomplices to the Black Lives Matter movement, while others wanted to focus on white privilege and racial injustice within the LGBTQ community. It was messy as expected but I learned a lot from the different perspectives and life experiences in the room. I left feeling very ready to take on my role as a white accomplice, continuing to work on my own white privilege while helping others to understand theirs.

Fast forward to a few days later. I receive a Facebook message from an aunt who I had unfriended a few weeks previous for her racist and hateful vitriol which she feels the need to share with the social media world. She was about to send me an article about Michael Jordan that “she thought I would enjoy” (bitch, please), and discovered I had unfriended her (how could I?!). I was irritated. (Let me unfriend racists in peace!), but I also felt that it was necessary to respond. I needed her to understand the reason why I unfriended her (maybe I could change her mind!). I waited a day or two because I was trying to be thoughtful about what I said. But she was impatient and so she sent me a message which included her saying, and I quote:

I know we are galaxies apart on our political views, but I thought we respected each other enough to just accept that. Oh well. I guess you have grown in a different direction than I had hoped. I always cared about family and unconditional acceptance, but I see that you don’t anymore.

And then she BLOCKED ME. Not even a chance to respond. I was shaking with anger. She did finally unblock me (I’m not sure why)  and then the infuriating flood gates opened. I explained to her that I found her Facebook activity to be racist and I needed to unfriend her in order to set boundaries for myself and for self-care (that shit is damaging to see everyday, particularly when you are trying so hard to work on your own privilege). The first sentences of her response (*drum roll*):

What do you perceive as racist? I do not think that I have ever attacked any of the 3 races verbally or in any other way. I have very dear friends of all races and no one else has ever seen or perceived a racist comment from me.

Aside from the incredibly problematic view that there are only 3 races (what the actual fuck?), this is the classic response from a white individual who has not come to terms with their white privilege. It’s always “I’m not racist” and/or “I have plenty of (insert race here) friends”. I won’t get into detail about the ensuing dialogue that came after this initial response. However, it included things like telling me that the Black Lives Matter movement encourages the murder of law enforcement, that the data I believe is wrong (there was no convincing her that people of color get murdered by police at a higher rate than anyone else), and that the Dallas shooter was a Black Lives Matter member who the movement now uses as a matyr. The most fucked up response she had however, was when I told her that she was assuming falsities about the Black Lives Matter movement and that she could trust me because I was a part of the movement. I even tried to go on her level. I said, doesn’t it make sense to talk to a member of the movement to get the facts, just as it makes sense to talk to police officers and their families to better understand that not all cops are corrupt? (looking back, I wish I had not done this). Her response:

There are other ways. And the most reliable one, is to research it from the top officials, not the “lowly man on the totem pole.” They are too easy to manipulate!

Oh shit. She just called me and every other Black Lives Matter activist a “lowly man on the totem pole” and said we are easy to manipulate. It was here that I really gave up. I tried to respond a few more times and then just couldn’t anymore. I told her that I thought her views were damaging and harmful and that we would have to disagree. And then, after all of that, she has the audacity to ask “Okay, friends again?” and tell me that she loves me.

This was the first time that I really got into it with a family member about race and privilege. I have talked about it before, but never have I had this type of experience. However, this is very common when you are a woke white person trying to talk to other not-so-woke or just straight-up racist white family and friends. And I’m not going to lie, this hurt. I cried (a lot) and was affected by this exchange with my aunt for days. I am getting extremely upset just reflecting back on it now.

So, I do not have the answers about how white folks can talk to other white folks about race and privilege, but I do have a few tips based on this experience:

  1. It is not worth “going on their level” to try to make them understand. Stay true to you.
  2. This shit is hard. Be prepared to get emotional and try your best to engage in the discussion when you have calmed down if it is possible ( I did not do this and I think my responses to my aunt could have been more impactful if I had given myself breathing room).
  3. Be prepared to lose family members and friends. I will likely not talk to my aunt again. If I see her at family gatherings, I will not pay her much attention. This was not the first time I had tried to talk to her about this and it is clear now that me talking to her will not change her disgusting racist beliefs. I was close to my aunt when I was younger and I mourned our memories together. You need to be prepared to do this.
  4. Be prepared for them to argue their points based on super untrue information (like my aunt’s belief that the Dallas shooter was a member of the Black Lives Matter movement or that the movement encourages the murder of police officers). Try to have sources of information at the ready. I didn’t have this and was honestly too emotionally charged to do much of this in my responses and I wish I had.
  5. It’s worth it. It was extremely difficult, but I am so happy that I unfriended my aunt and had the discussion I had with her. In the long run, it has made me realize even more so how important it is for white folks to be in the fight to end racial injustice. I was motivated by the interaction with my aunt to do more because I was reminded of how terrifying and dangerous the beliefs that she and so many other people hold truly are.
  6. Reach out to other woke white folks. I made a Facebook post about my interaction with my aunt and I received so much love from white and friends of color. Find the supports you need in this fight (You can start by seeing if you have a local SURJ chapter or affiliate near you!).

In closing, I cannot believe that people of color live their lives reading and hearing these kinds of racists beliefs and consistently fear for their lives because of the color of their skin and still have the strength and energy to fight this fight. It is a fight for life and for better lives lived. So white folks, do your part. Show up. Be present. Listen. And for fucks sake, please unfriend your racist family and friends from social media. You’ll be much better off because of it.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Albany, NY

Maureen is a passionate writer and activist for prisoner and women's rights. She is also interested in body politics and sexuality. She is currently hurdling through graduate school, on her way to getting her M.S.Ed. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, and making crafts, She lives in Albany, NY with her partner Jon, their hilarious three-year-old son Max, and their cat Arya.

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