5 Things You Need To Stop Saying If You Really Care About Fighting Racism
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
When it comes to conversations around race, even well-meaning people can say some really hurtful stuff unintentionally. Here are some oft-repeated statements that might seem well-intentioned but that actually harm people of color. It's time to remove these from our vernacular ASAP:
1. "I don't see color."
If you don't see color, you don't see me.
I'm brown, and nearly everything about my world and my lived experiences is affected by my brownness. It affects how people talk to me, how much teachers have paid attention to me, how safe or alone I feel when I walk into a public space or a meeting room or a yoga studio, who's willing to date me. For black people, it affects your likeliness to get hired, your ability to move into certain neighborhoods, how much doctors will pay attention to your pain, and how police will treat you.
When you say that you "don't see color," what you're saying is that you're unwilling to acknowledge that people have different lived experiences based on the color of their skin.
"You are limiting yourself from an understanding of the majority of humans on this planet, and you are disconnecting," racial justice educator Rachel Ricketts recently explained to mbg. "[When] you have an inability to understand my lived reality as a black woman and the daily oppression and discrimination that I face, you are cut off at the neck. You are not in alignment with your heart space because you're lacking empathy and compassion and the ability to actually relate to me on any level. You're prioritizing your comfort. And that's what white supremacy is."
What you should be saying instead: I see you. I will seek to understand you and your experiences. I will support you in your unique and specific needs, and I will fight with you against the unique challenges and injustices you face.
2. "We should focus on what unites us, not what divides us."
Variations include: "Let's put aside our differences."
Similar to the "I don't see color" sentiment, insisting on pushing aside the things that make people different actually hurts the minority voices in the room. It makes it harder for them to be seen fully and to show up as their full, authentic selves. You are essentially asking to only focus on the parts of their lives that you understand.
When you insist on focusing on the experiences and values that "bring us together," you are actually simply centering the majority (i.e., white) experiences and values.
"It's the status quo. It's prioritizing the comfort of whiteness at all costs, no matter what," Ricketts explained.
What you should be saying instead: Our diversity matters. I want to learn more about the experiences of people who are not like me, and I want to create spaces where everyone feels safe to show up as their full selves.
3. "All lives matter."
Of course all lives matter. But when you say this in response to those saying that black lives matter, you are taking away attention from the people who are facing significant oppression and injustice. You are telling people to stop fighting to lift up a group of people who are more disadvantaged than others.
Here are some helpful comparisons, courtesy of content creator Jess Bird on Instagram:
- If you have two sons playing and one breaks his arm, you would not give both kids medical treatment. You would take care of the one who's hurt, not because he matters more than the other but because he needs more immediate help.
- If you were at an event supporting people with breast cancer, you wouldn't run in and scream "All cancer matters!" Obviously all cancer matters. We're just focusing on one issue right now, and it helps nobody for you to try to redirect attention to other problems when we're trying to deal with this one.
Nobody ever said that black lives are the only lives that matter, nor did anyone say black lives matter more than other lives. Black people just historically haven't been treated like their lives matter at all, and this unjust treatment continues today. That's why people are fighting to point out that we need to start valuing black life.
"Black lives matter" is a rallying cry meant to replace the subtle voice in the back of your head that might tell you that you don't need to care about black people as much as you care about other people. It's meant to ring in the ears of police officers and other people whose internal decisions affect black people's lives directly.
And importantly: Today, "all lives matter" is often used to say, "Stop saying black lives matter," which is why it's particularly hurtful to so many people. At this point, if you truly care about supporting black people, you need to just drop the rallying cry of "all lives matter" completely.
What you should be saying instead: Black lives matter. Black lives matter. Black lives matter.
4. "I support peaceful protests."
Variations include: "I support black people but not the looting and riots." "I'm upset an innocent black man was killed, but destroying property is not OK."
Beware your instinct to condemn theft more strongly and vocally than you condemn murder. Sure, both are wrong, but one is a more egregious and pressing issue that deserves all of our attention. People matter more than property. One black life is more important than hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of property.
Emphasizing that you only support "peaceful" protests indicates that you only support black people when they present their anger in a certain way—a way that doesn't disrupt or disturb your comfort. It prioritizes everyone's comfort other than black people.
These statements also minimize the extent of black people's anger, grief, and suffering and how historically fruitless more "peaceful" efforts have been.
"It's 2020," therapist Yolanda Renteria explained in a recent Instagram post. "Black people have marched, utilized the media, they have knelt, famous people have spoken up about it, organized peaceful protests, used legislation, advocated for affirmative action. And they still keep getting murdered."
If you can't understand why people would resort to violence, she adds, you've likely never been put in a situation where you feel you have no other choice. How bad do things have to be for people to feel this is the only way to be heard?
"Violent protests have consequences," Renteria writes in another post. "People will die, people will go to jail, people will lose everything they have. How far does someone have to be pushed to risk it all?"
What you should be saying instead: It's awful that property is getting damaged, but it's unacceptable that innocent black people are getting killed. People have a right to be angry and the right to protest injustice. It's the responsibility of government and police leaders to address the injustices that have led to these killings and commit to change. Only then can there be true peace.
5. "I'm not racist."
We're all racist.
Racism is not just about whether you do or say overtly racist things. It's in your instinct to be more afraid of black men than white men on the street, to find white skin and blond hair inherently more attractive than others hues, to view people who behave a certain way as being more "classy" and competent. It's in the laws that disenfranchise black voters. It's in the school system that gives up on black children and feeds them into the school-to-prison pipeline. It's in the businesses filled with white leadership who continue to subconsciously only hire people who look and act like them. It's in the accumulation of choices you've made over a lifetime that have led you to only have one black friend if any.
We all have racism inside of us because we grew up surrounded by it and continue to live in a society that operates by upholding racist systems.
"These are systems of oppression that have existed through all of our lifetimes and impacted every single one of our ancestors, and so we've all been raised and entrenched in them," Ricketts explains. "You're part of a system that prioritizes whiteness and white comfort to the detriment and harm of all people of color everywhere every single day, again whether you intend for it to or not."
Relinquish your fervent desire to be perceived as "not a racist." That defensiveness is a product of your inability to face this uncomfortable part of yourself, and it's preventing you from doing any of the work to counter it.
We all have racism inside us, and acknowledging it is the first step toward actually healing.
What you should be saying instead: I know I have internalized racism inside me, and I am actively doing the work to counter it. Call me out when I fail, and I will do the work to educate myself and become better.
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