Why I Still Talk to White People About Racism | Opinion

In the cacophony of social unrest since George Floyd's murder, many Black people have openly given up talking to white people about race. There is good reason for this. As Reni Eddo-Lodge, DeNeen L. Brown and many others have explained, white people frequently ridicule the emotions felt by victims of racism, talk over people of color to dismiss a point before it can be made and even try to defend their place in the social hierarchy. This makes for difficult conversations.

But right now we are seeing a historically high number of white people who want to listen, who want to believe us and who want to do their best to end racism and white supremacy altogether.

What about white people who sincerely want to know what they can do to help? I've heard several anti-conversational answers from Black folks: They should do their own homework; this is a white problem, so white people should fix it; I'm exhausted and don't have the energy to teach white people.

Before we go any further, I think these are understandable excuses, and I am no stranger to feeling them myself. I, too, am angry, sad and dejected. But so what? This moment in history is bigger than I am. It's bigger than all of us. The time is too precious for the righteous indignation that allows us to squelch potentially generative conversations, especially before they even start.

How important is this moment in American history? NASCAR banned the Confederate flag, and Mississippi is taking steps to remove the Confederate emblem from its state flag! This is not the time to slow this unprecedented momentum because we are sick and tired. It's not the time to be sick and tired, period. Take whatever metaphorical DayQuil you need and take advantage of this unparalleled moment in time. It's raining woke white people, and you're grabbing umbrellas or running for shelter. I'm dancing in it like Gene Kelly.

Should white people do their own homework? Yes, the way students need to continue their studies after a lecture. And yes, Black people, we are the lecturers. We all have doctorates in "experiencing racism," and our expertise is needed. Otherwise, we are hypocrites as we demand white people listen to us and, in the very next breath, tell them they need to stop talking to us. Yes, racism as we know it was created by white people, but leaving them alone will make this process take longer than it needs to.

Dismissing these conversations is antithetical to swift progress. A quick way to stifle revolution is to tell people who want to join the rebellion that they have to read 47 books first. This is not to say they shouldn't read 47 books; it is to say that this is a time where all the resources for anti-racism need to be pulled out, and that includes the resources of Black knowledge and experience. These conversations are prefaces to white peoples' journeys toward anti-racist literacy.

Protesters Rally in New York City
Protesters voice their opposition to the current system of policing at a rally in Washington Square Park on June 29 in New York City. Byron Smith/Getty

Black people, whether we like or not, this is a culture war, and we are the generals. When a soldier in the midst of battle goes to the general for advice, that general does not say, "I'm tired; figure it out yourself." That general uses years of expertise to concoct the best chance of coming out on top, even if that general, for some reason, thinks he, she or they shouldn't have to fight in the first place. Yes, it is unfair to find oneself in such a battle, but I'd rather have that conversation after the battle is won.

Embracing this zeitgeist necessitates having the difficult conversations, especially when those who traditionally made the conversations difficult are the ones begging for them. Am I frustrated? Am I tired? Am I angry? Yes, yes and yes. But does that matter? No. We are closer to arriving at an anti-racist world than ever before; let's rest when we get there. For now, let's talk.

Erec Smith is an associate professor of rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania. His latest book, A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment, was recently published by Lexington Press

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.