White Ally Questions and Responses

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Have you ever noticed white people getting uncomfortable when race comes up? Have you ever felt uncomfortable?

Discomfort when talking about race is common among white people. Sometimes when we make a racist remark or when race is brought up, white people want to move on quickly. We would like to view the world as generally fair and just. Acknowledgement of racism challenges that worldview.

Why is this a problem?
If you were taught to be “colorblind” and haven’t thought a lot about your own racial identity and privilege, you may not be used to naming and discussing racism. Our discomfort and paralyzing guilt can shut down conversation and stop progress.

Why is this important?
In order to address racism and be actively anti-racist, we need to gain comfort talking about race and learn to listen  to people of color. 

What can you do?
Sit with your discomfort. Don’t try to avoid it. Take a breath. Learn to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Listen, then ask questions — don’t make  statements.

 

Have you ever heard a person of color’s story being questioned or interrogated more so than a white person’s experience would be?

The experiences of people of color are routinely questioned and dismissed by white people. Because we live in a society where white experiences are considered the norm, narratives that fall outside of this default are questioned.

Why is this a problem?
Calling into question a person of color’s experience is refusing to accept that they are an expert on their own life. There is a cumulative, harmful effect for people of color who live with their reality being repeatedly questioned.

What can you do:
Whether it’s your colleagues or your sources, if your first instinct is to question the experience of a person of color because it doesn’t fit with how you experience the world, hold on to that and sit with the story they have told you. If you start by asking yourself, “What if it were true?” you can try to understand why you might be questioning it. One reason may be that the idea that a world filled with prejudice and discrimination is too painful to accept. But your discomfort is less painful than the experiences of people of color who experience prejudice and discrimination.

Have you found yourself assuming that one person of color’s experience is the same as another’s?

Our brains look for patterns. When you meet an individual from a certain group you have encountered before, your brain wants to take a shortcut and make assumptions about this person’s beliefs or experiences.

Why is this a problem?
Have you ever had someone make an assumption about you? It is disrespectful. Yet it happens a lot to people of color in white spaces.

Why is this important?
There is diversity within diversity. People of color are not a monolith.

What can you do?
It’s your job to make your brain’s shortcutting process conscious. When you notice you are doing it, stop and take in the information you are getting from this person rather than going on your assumptions about the group. Ask yourself if you’d think the same way when it comes to all white people.

Do you ask new colleagues, “Where are you from?” Do you ask all colleagues where they’re from? Who is assumed to be from “here”?

People who do not appear to be part of the dominant culture often get asked, “Where are you from?” If a satisfactory answer is not received, it may be followed by, “But where are you REALLY from?” People with brown skin are often assumed to not be American.

Why is this a problem?
People of color get asked “where are you from?” all the time. It’s a loaded question packed with assumptions. Inquiring about someone’s origins might come from a place of curiosity but there are underlying messages in the question that situate the questioner as belonging here and the person being asked as not.

What can you do?
Your curiosity does not have to be satisfied at the moment it appears. If you have a question about someone’s background, ask yourself if you would ask a white person the same question. Remember that people of color are asked this question by white people all the time. Hold your question. There may be a door opening later to get to know someone. That may be a more appropriate time to inquire. For example when someone mentioned their hometown, you can ask, “Where is your hometown?”

When you’ve said something offensive, how do you react?

Sometimes we feel embarrassed or ashamed about saying something hurtful or racist. In an effort to minimize our discomfort, we may try to change the subject or exit the conversation.

Why is this a problem?
Ending the conversation doesn’t make the hurt go away or help us process our discomfort. It doesn’t confront the fact that we have hurt or offended someone else.

Why is this important?
When we recognize that our words were offensive, we have an opportunity to acknowledge our actions and apologize.

What can you do?
Don’t walk away. Don’t change the subject. Say “I’m sorry.”