Things White People Should Never Say

By Robert Jensen

Published in YES! Magazine, Summer 2015 · June, 2015

I am white, and the woman I’m meeting is black. I have lived in Austin, Texas, for more than two decades, and she recently moved here. We bumped into each other at an event and learned we have similar political interests. I invited her to coffee to talk about local organizing, and after introductions the first thing I say is, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to join a nonprofit board.”

Thankfully, she laughs at my attempt at white self-deprecation. Non-white people in progressive politics are used to being asked to join boards or speak at events to diversify an otherwise all-white group. Such invitations often come too early, before people have worked together long enough to know if the invitation makes sense. Sometimes, as my joke suggested, the invitation comes right after the coffee is poured.

How do I know about this problem? Because I’ve been part of it. In my first organizing efforts in the anti-war movement in the 1990s, I sometimes found myself in meetings with other white people, looking around the room and saying, “There are no people of color here. Where can we find some?” But if cross-racial alliances don’t already exist, last-minute efforts to find a non-white speaker for the rally or a non-white committee member are not only transparent tokenism but corrosive to creating meaningful connections.

So, my first rule for myself as a white person is: Avoid tokenism. No matter what the issue, think about the question of racial justice at the start of a project, not when it’s too late to create a real coalition.

Here’s my second rule. Listen up homies. Don’t sprinkle “street” terms picked up from movies or songs into conversations in an attempt to sound hip.

OK, enough rules. There are lots of guidelines for white people that cover everything from complex tasks in building cross-racial solidarity to simple reminders about avoiding racialized rudeness. For instance:

“Twelve Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People” in The Root, “Guidelines for Being Strong White Allies” on author Paul Kivel’s website, “Code of Ethics for Antiracist White Allies” on author JLove Calderón’s website, and “11 Rules for New Anti-Racist Allies” at Forward Progressives.

Such guides can be helpful, but I’m skeptical of checklists, fearing that having rules to follow can replace the endless struggle to be strategic while remaining a decent person.

So, rather than a list, I want to offer two phrases that white people should never utter.

The first: “I’m not racist, but …” Whatever follows is almost guaranteed to be racist; if a statement isn’t, there’s no need to announce its non-racism. If you hear yourself forming that phrase, shut up and think about what you intended to say and why.

The second: “I know I’m a racist, and …” This is a different evasion, a more subtle attempt at inoculation. Yes, it’s true enough that virtually all white people are socialized into some kind of white-supremacist thinking (myself included) and that the struggle to unlearn those lessons is not simple and never completed (again, personal experience here). And all white people, even those who might legitimately claim to have purged all that racist training, still retain the advantages that come with being white.

But invoking the “I know I’m a racist” trope is dangerous. Instead of suggesting you have transcended white supremacy, you confess immersion in it, as if the confession is evidence of clarity and therefore whatever comes next is beyond challenge, given your heightened level of white self-awareness. But the “confession” is disingenuous; if we cannot distinguish between progressive white people working to achieve racial justice and members of the Klan—if all white people truly are “racist”—then the word has no meaning. It’s dishonest for progressive white people to claim to be beyond racism, but it’s counterproductive to pretend that none of us have made meaningful progress.

As long as I’m focused on words to avoid, let me nominate two more phrases: “white ally” and “doing the work.”

If one is white, being an ally to non-white people in a white-supremacist society is a good thing. But “white ally” too often becomes a merit badge to mark that one is on the right side. No matter how much we remain critically self-reflective, merit badges tend to lead us to think of ourselves as superior to those without the badge. That leads, understandably, to people of color being wary of self-proclaimed white allies.

“Doing the work” feels plain self-righteous to me. What exactly is the work that needs constant marking? Often the most effective white people in a community organization simply model anti-racist behavior without trumpeting it. I’ve seen the phrase misused enough that I shy away from it

Checklists can remind us of important rules. But the main rule is to cultivate the instinct for critical self-reflection—which we too often suppress because it can be painful—so that we believe in ourselves enough to be honest with others. Instead of striving to be white allies doing the work, we can do our best to avoid the many traps white supremacy lays for us and struggle to be fully human. We white folks cannot expect others to treat us as if we are fully human until we believe it about ourselves.