10 Mistakes White People Make When Talking About Race

It's easy to botch an important discussion about race with fear, ignorance, or just plain silliness.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Over on SirensMag.com, we're in the midst of a race-themed issue. Heavy/scary, I know. But I can't tell you how much the act of discourse about this all-important topic has opened our eyes - and those of our readers. But not all discourse is good discourse (see idiotic political blabbermouths of late). It's easy to botch an important discussion about race with fear, ignorance, or just plain silliness. Uninformed--or even overly politically correct--white people are the major offenders, sure, but anyone without adequate information can be guilty of sounding like a racist or an idiot (wait, that's redundant). With the help of some favorite (and vocal) celebrities and writers, here are 10 things not to do when trying to have an intellectual discussion about race--which, to be clear, you should do. But first learn from these mistakes:

1. Thinking It's Not OK to Talk About It

Race is such a touchy topic because it is often associated with all of the negative history and oppression of minorities in this country. Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans share a history of physical and social abuse at the hand of the white majority. Yes, that leads to anger and distrust, feelings so strong that they've survived for centuries. But the only way to bridge the gap and move forward as a more unified society is to talk about it: all of it.

We are supposed to be engaged in a cultural conversation about race - a dialogue largely taking place on television and at the movies. We've traded unquestioned racism for a twisted multicultural correctness. Everything is celebrated, nothing can be discussed. We seem to want to live in an imaginary world without racism, where we celebrate differences but never base our beliefs on them."

- Sallie Tisdale, author of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Harvest Moon and Lot's Wife, Stepping Westward and Talk Dirty to Me

2. Using Culture-Specific Slang to Relate to Other Races

K-Fed, you ain't. And you just shouldn't try to be--ever.

Black people have a wide array of colorful terms that come in and go out of style and can be used in a myriad of different ways. White people, it will be extremely tempting to try and incorporate these terms into your everyday language. Don't. When you guys start using our words, that's when we know it's time to stop using them.

- Nick Adams, author Making Friends With Black People

3. Assuming Biracial People Identify More with One Side Than the Other

The majority race in America today isn't white, black, or even Latino. It's biracial. And this will only increase with each successive generation. We're a society that loves to check off boxes, but the greater challenge is to stop seeing people as shades and start knowing them for who they are.

As the child of a black man and white woman, born in the melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who is half-Indonesian, but who is usually mistaken for Mexican, and a brother-in-law and niece of Chinese descent, with some relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac, I never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe.

- Barack Obama, Kenyan/White American, Illinois Senator, presidential candidate

4. Thinking Race Is Only an Issue for Minorities

The tendency is to think of "race" as something that only black/brown/Asian/Hispanic people have - whereas "white" is the default setting ( i.e., we say "American" to mean white, but "Black American," "Asian-American," etc. to identify other Americans of different colors). Everyone has a race. This is a nation of immigrants, from England, Ireland, France, Germany, Poland, Africa, Asia, and beyond.

To be white is to have a race and a racial perspective as well, and that needs much greater acknowledgment in our culture. Discussions of race will always be limited until white Americans can have an honest, open discussion about what it means to be white in America - the good and the bad.

- Molly Faulkner-Bond, biracial Harvard grad who explored issues of interracial friendship in the current Sirens issue

5. Using Outdated Terms When Describing Different Races

Oriental, Colored, and Indian went out of style a long time ago; in fact, they're considered offensive. So, too, is lumping every Spanish-speaking person into a general category like "Mexican" or any Arab-looking person as "Persian" (it's a specific country, people). Feeling the need to identify is a nervous reaction we have when faced with issues of race. Black, white, Asian and Latino/a are generally accepted, but when in doubt, how about you just call someone by their actual name. Who says we have to classify ourselves all the time anyway?

I had to deal with my prejudices. I had to learn to ignore the taunting labels of other blacks who had everything figured out, including how I should act according to the color of my skin. I am human first, and that's where my efforts have gone.

-- Donna Leonard Conger, author of Don't Call Me African-American

6. Believing Stereotypes

Yes, black Americans dominate most sports, more Asians are accepted into MIT than any other race, and Latinos have been known to tear up a dance floor. Though some race-specific stereotypes seem like positive assumptions, imagine yourself on the other end, with high expectations placed on your shoulders simply because of a scrutinized minority. White people don't have the pressure to be the best in math or sports; they just have to be good enough. Everyone else should get the same slack.

One could say (I don't) that stereotypes are benevolent: All Asians are smart and hard-working. All Asian men are geeky engineers with high-flood-water pants and calculators on their belts. All Asian women are either passive, submissive chrysanthemums or seductive, manipulative hotties. I suppose it's true that these aren't hugely destructive stereotypes, but they are stereotypes nonetheless, and they can have hurtful consequences. I think to get rid of these stereotypes, Asian Americans are going to have to be more vocal and political. The same goes for other races.

-- Don Lee, author of Yellow: Stories

7. Thinking Affirmative Action Has Anything to Do With Someone's Success

One of the most controversial issues of the past 20 years is affirmative action, a term widely over-used and often misunderstood. It was supposed to explain educational and hiring policies put in place to encourage more diversity on college campuses and in the public sector. The naysayers made it sound like minorities were given hand-outs, which has resulted in an assumption, even years after most of those progressive policies have been killed, that a successful minority must have been given an easy ride. How about you ask Oprah if she was given an easy ride when networks constantly told her she looked and sounded too "ethnic" early in her career? Do you think the late CBS anchor Ed Bradley was given a break when he accidentally became the first African-American White House correspondent, a result of his network sending him to cover what they thought would be a Jimmy Carter loss? And of these two "View" hosts, who do you think earned their coveted role more: Lisa Ling, a trained journalist, or Elizabeth Hasselbeck, a "Survivor" contestant?

A white boy that makes C's in college can make it to the White House.

-- Chris Rock

8. Assuming One Man's Success = An Entire Race's Progress

It's commonplace to celebrate the breakthrough successes of minorities, the firsts, the bests. These people deserve our accolades, certainly, but the success of a few doesn't mean an oppressed minority is triumphant. We still have a long way to go. The day we stop clapping for the minority in a "good for you, kid" condescending manner is the day we've made real progress.

I never thought I was going to be a success. I was the longest-produced comedy at Warner Bros. and I don't feel special. When you have to work harder just to break even, it's hard to feel special. I got cancelled so they could put Cavemen on the air. It doesn't make sense.

-- George Lopez, whose The George Lopez Show was the longest-running, most profitable all-Latino show in the history of network television

9. Thinking Cultural Exclusion Is Racism

White people are in a difficult situation in this struggle to talk about and understand race. On the one hand, they are reprimanded for being the majority that alienates all other races. But are minority races guilty of the same exclusion by keeping to themselves? Or is such elective segregation the only way to preserve community and a strong racial identity?

I don't even like the term 'self-segregate.' Kids group together on common lines of interest and experience. If Hispanic kids want to sit together and speak in their mother tongue, that shouldn't bother anyone, but they should have the same opportunity to meet other kids. My decision to sit with people who I share things in common with is not the same as legalized imposition of segregation.

-- Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph. D, author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Can We Talk About Race?: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation

10. Declaring You Are "Colorblind"

There is no such thing as colorblind (in fact, it's a long-running Stephen Colbert gag for just that reason). It is not a racist stance to see color, but a fact of life. Ignoring it promotes ignorance.

You cannot live in this country and not see color. We all need to step out of the naiveté box and stop pretending it really doesn't exist. We need to understand that we live in a world that gives certain people privileges because of the color of their skin.

-- Oprah Winfrey

Heather Wood is co-founder and Editorial Director of SirensMag.com. To see original article, click here.

Go To Homepage