Education about Racial Issues – Who educates who? – by Terry Howard

My hunch is that the majority of those well-meaning folks who say, “When I see you, I don’t color,” or a variation, have no idea how exhaustive it can be to many Black folks. And to Black folks who hear this constantly, the typical response is usually a deep inhale and a …. “well, here we go again!”

Case in point is Oprah Winfrey’s latest magazine “O” with an advice column headlined, “How to Deal with Your White Friends”– advice for Black women feeling worn down by the neediness of others to help them deal with racial issues.”

So why this recent surge in interest in racial issues, Black ones in particular?

Arguably, some point to the venomous language coming from the White House, the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of the police as drivers of the interest. Others say that these events have forced organizations to take a look inwardly for evidence of systemic racism in their policies and practices. Motivations aside, the interest is real, increasing …..and taxing!

Further evidence are similar sentiments I’ve been hearing from Black folks who are also fatigued from having to respond to well-meaning White friends interested in understanding how to be better informed regarding matters of race. But the truth is that weary or not, Black folks I know don’t want to push those White friends away who sincerely want to learn. But many say that they’re tired of having to educate White folks on issues of race.

Back to “when I see you, I don’t see color!” shall we?

“That comment causes me to pull an emergency brake in my brain,” said Claudia Rankine who teaches a course at Yale called, ‘Constructions of Whiteness.’  “It’s a refusal to recognize the difference in how people are treated and the active role race plays day to day. It puts me alert that there is an unwillingness to see my reality.”

“As an African American, this gets old. But I’m from a small East Texas town that is predominantly white, so I‘ve grown accustomed to a lot of this The Whites willing to ask me are mostly those that I’ve gained a deeper rapport with, plus I might be the only person of color that they are brave enough to ask about race. I feel the need to answer just to make sure they understand me and the Black  community. I have had some say that “I don’t see you as Black,” but felt obligated to tell them that statement is just as offensive as the N word because it makes me ask how do you see other people of color?”

Said Yale’s Rankine, “Some of my students at Yale will say, “it’s not my job to educate White people.” To me that implies that as Black people, we already know all we need to and that conversations aren’t valid places for growth for anyone. Having said that, I do understand the weariness that sets in when a whole room of white people turn to the one Black person to say, “Can you explain that?”

Confronted with the same concern by Black students at Brown University, the then president, an African-American woman, told me that she pushed back telling them that although the university is responsible for educating them, they are responsible for educating the Brown community whether they like it or not.

Now as is my common approach, I sought out the perspectives from more people I know on this topic and asked them to indicate their racial identity. Here’s what they shared:

“From a white woman growing up in an all-Black Community in Detroit, I would say “Tell your white friends to do their work”. Tell them to read and get educated. Once they’ve done the work, tell them to come back and ask specific questions. It’s not your job as an African-American to do their work.”        – White Female   

“We were driving though a fairly affluent “White” neighborhood this weekend which had BLM signs in over half of the yards. My wife, ever the skeptic, wondered out loud how many of the people living in these homes really care, and how many just put the signs out hoping their houses are not looted. By analogy, some of the questions whites are currently asking Blacks are probably feigned interest. I think there is an opening to have real conversations about race—it is becoming safer to do so. I hope people do not become too fatigued to continue learning from each other.”                – White Male

What upsets me is when I’m asked for my opinion on entertainment, sports or race but never on our business issues.”  – Black Male

“I’m White and a woman over 50. It seems completely rationale to me that my Black friends are fatigued with having to deal with the slow awaking of whites’ (including, but not limited to, me) to the continued existence of White Supremacy—even in its unconscious forms—and its insidiousness in our community. I believe that when we acknowledge our actions toward others, and ask for grace and help in changing our actions in the future, we may be discouraged from continuing down that path of change if confronted with judgement, hostility, belittlement and fatigue. Perhaps we deserve them, but those responses don’t strike me as facilitating the result anyone is looking for.”     – White Female

“I think it’s fine to say they are weary and not able to respond at this time. People need to set boundaries. Maybe instead they can send them lists of resources and links or podcasts and books like “So you Want to Talk about Race?” and connect after listening and reading.”   – Asian Female

Now some wonder with some suspicion if this sudden fascination with race is nothing but a trend that will fade away like many trends.

“I guess it doesn’t surprise me that people are experiencing “Black Fatigue” but do think there are some people that really want to know,” wroteFrankfrom California. “I know that it has become “trendy” to be interested in social justice matters now, but there is probably some degree of insincerity in it too.”                                                                        

Parting advice for the weary: Avoid dismissing the sincerity of the request. Provide the person with resources. Invite them back into the conversation once they’ve done their ‘homework’. In the end ask yourself this: If I don’t educate them or provide resources for them to get educated, who will?

Advice for inquisitive whites? Don’t overestimate the importance of pre-existing relationships. Initiate meetings beforehand to talk about things of mutual interest. Once you’ve done your homework the Black person you reach out to will know it and, more likely than not, would be willing to help.

Terry Howard

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