Written by Rorri Geller-Mohamed, LCSW
October 19, 2019
It was the year 2001 and I was home for the summer from college and hanging out with a few friends from high school all who were white. We were just talking and joking and all of a sudden one of them made a nasty comment about people that are Mexican. I don’t remember what the exact comment was although I clearly remember the feeling of pain that it caused me. I questioned the comment, challenged it, and reminded them that my brother is Mexican and all I remember was it being brushed off and none of my other white friends saying anything or recognizing that I was upset. As a result, I decided not to spend any more time with those friends and kept to myself for most of the rest of the summer. I didn’t want to be around people like that. What I didn’t recognize was that by making that choice I was allowing that behavior and language to continue around others and increasing the chances that a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color) would be hurt. I was centering my feelings instead of those of BIPOC.
Years later it occurred to me, I didn’t have the knowledge or skills that I needed to address that situation. If my brother wasn’t Mexican would I even have been aware of the hurtfulness of the comment (I hope so but honestly I’m not sure) I didn’t have the support of a white family member or friend to talk with about it or ask what else could I have done. I was missing the knowledge, skills, and emotional support I needed to respond in an effective way. My response was not aligned with the anti-racist life that I wanted to lead. Fortunately, my training as a therapist, anti-racism education, and life experience has prepared me so that I’m in a completely different place now compared to then. This is why I truly believe that white people need to have the knowledge and skills to dismantle racism. We need to have appropriate spaces and support to work through confusing emotions to make us stronger and more prepared to combat racism.
Just recently, in our Multiracial Parenting Network, a member brought up an issue about her white partner feeling unsure of how to address a comment that used racially derogatory language at work by a co-worker he was friendly with. The partner had never heard the language before and so wasn’t even sure if it was derogatory or not. The thing is that this incident and my incident aren’t isolated incidents. As white people, we often want to shame, ostracize, and separate ourselves from the white people who say things like this. We think we are different and in so many ways we are but that doesn’t take away from our responsibility to dismantle racism. We need to step up and do more. Things like this happen all the time and as white people and white parents especially raising children of color we need to know how to address it.
Here are 3 responses that you as a white person can try to address and prevent derogatory racial language:
1. Identify your emotions but don’t center them. It’s necessary that we are centering the emotions and feelings of BIPOC in our response. Use your feelings of anger, sadness, and hurt as motivation to find a response that will work in addressing it. Sometimes we may find ourselves wanting to pass it off to HR or a supervisor but that doesn’t mean you should not address it too. You don’t know if the system is set up to properly address it and you as a white person have the responsibility in situations like this. Even if they get fired, it doesn’t mean they won’t use that language in other spaces where it could be harmful to BIPOC. Yes, it’s hard and yes, it’s uncomfortable, and no, the person may not want to hear you out but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and keep trying. It’s not a one time thing.
2. Be strategic in how you address it. If you just shame the person, it likely won’t prevent the behavior in the future. It’s easier to just write the person off as racist and go along your way but that isn’t enough and it isn’t effective in dismantling racism. You need to actively work to connect with them, to learn, and change. This may include saying something like “I don’t know if you realize but when you said xyz it was really hurtful to me. What did you mean or what were you trying to say?” You can educate them as to why it’s hurtful as well as give an analogy or other example of something that they can relate to that could cause a similar type of pain. You can also explain to them how they can do and be better.
3. Look at the institutions that the person and you are part of and see what change is needed in those spaces. So for example, if it’s a co-worker what types of conversations are happening around race and racism within the company. Is the human resources department prioritizing those issues? Do BIPOC feel safe in the company if this type of language is being used? What needs to change to make that happen?
Keep in mind these specific strategies are to be used with people that you already have some type of relationship with such as a friend, co-worker, family member or acquaintance. Continue to be aware of the language that is used around you. Think about ways that you can step up and engage more white people in anti-racist work. Don’t take the easy way out by shaming the person and/or only passing the responsibility onto someone else (ex. Supervisor, HR dept, etc). It is our responsibility as white people and as white parents raising children of color that we address it and dismantles it.
To creating change through discomfort.
It can be frustrating and hard when white people just don’t get it. How often this season have you heard white people in your life say you were being too “sensitive” or take things too “seriously” for?
Being racially conscious as a white person also means that you experience many feelings when issues of race show up in your life.
I wrongly assumed that my children’s preschool (which we chose partially because of its cultural diversity of both students, staff, and admin and opportunity for bilingual education in Spanish) would know how teach Thanksgiving accurately. Nope. I was wrong. Here’s the resources that I found helpful to share with the administration, hope it helps!