How To Actually Talk To Racists, Starting With The One In The Mirror

If you were on the internet this past week, there’s a good chance you saw, or at least saw reference to, the most recent head-scratcher in The New York Times’ op-ed section, Margaret Renkl’s “How to Talk to a Racist,” which achieved viral status on what largely appears to be the WTF factor. Renkl, a Tennessee-based writer of huge heart and prodigious talent, tried to steer the difficult topic of race to a more effectively conversational place, by suggesting that people interested in fighting racism should refrain from yelling “Racist!” in the faces of offenders. Instead, we should, um... (she offered no meaningful alternatives).

Huh. Well, Margaret, as it is said on the internets, often in the form of an ever-so-slightly withering meme, you tried.

From Elle to The New Yorker, there’s a lot of attention being lavished on the topic of white fragility, particularly among women (who, for whatever reason, like to treat 911 as a personal concierge of race-based grievance). Fantastic! Let’s talk about it. But once we’ve talked about it, tweeted about it, written our witty hot takes about it, what do we eager-to-improve progressive white ladies do about it?

I have some recommendations. But first, a humiliating story.

About 10 years ago, I walked into the local paint store, a head full of questions about which finish I should use for a den, and marched myself straight to the head of a checkout line. I mean, I didn’t have to queue up. I just had a question, right?

To my left, patiently waiting her turn, was a lovely black woman, probably in her 40s, with a ponytail, jeans and a Johns Hopkins sweatshirt. She was giving me A Look. Not a nasty look. Not a mean look. Just, you know, A Look.

I beamed at her, like, Hey, nice stranger. I’m just here to ask a question so I don’t need to stand in line, right?

She kept looking at me and smiled, barely.

I started chattering. “I like Johns Hopkins! Beautiful campus. I used to visit when we were stationed at Fort Meade.”

She shifted a bit and looked at her husband, then back to me.

Then it hit me. She was probably angry with me because she thought I didn’t see her. Didn’t recognize her place in line. (The symbolism, right? Jesus.)

And you know what? She’d have been right. I didn’t even see her. I’d like to think that I might have felt it was OK to step in front of her even if she were white, but if I’m honest, I believe subconsciously, her race was a factor.

The whole interaction took about six seconds, but it changed my entire life.

Racism is a continuum that runs from clueless but well-intentioned gaffes to outright murder. Accept, graciously and regrettably, that this applies even to you.

Take it from me: If you want to change yourself, you have to study up, and if you want to change the world, you have to speak up. Both require giving yourself the wire-brushing of admitting that, yep, you have the problem of racial bias. Both also require self-empowerment, which means not petitioning people of color to be your own personal instructors for How to Not Be Racist 101 (though I’m sure some would be happy to be hired for such a gig). Even if you, like me, move in a (relatively) racially and socioeconomically equalized environment (in my case, the military), it can be staggering and overwhelming at first to confront the breadth and depth of racism, even the racism baked into cosseting white women upset about being corrected on their racism. (For this, I love Luvvie Ajayi’s “About the Weary Weaponizing of White Women Tears.” Her podcast with Glennon Doyle is also very good.) But researching racism isn’t nearly as hard as living with it every single day, so humility is key here. 

More recently, I was moved, and deeply inspired, by Brittany Packnett’s beautifully written “How to Spend Your Privilege.” In the piece, Packnett redirects white guilt around privilege away from the tendency to view it as a limiting factor (which is the opposite of privilege, if you want to be literal), but rather, as a form of currency that can be spent like a healing, reparative asset. Not a social justice deficit, but what it is: actual social capital. Changes things, doesn’t it? For myself, I bomb through the world now with my usual spaniel-like intensity, but with more awareness and sensitivity, and still more, I hope, to come.

As for Renkl’s imperative of creating conversation in the face of racism? Well, I’ve got two routes I take, with a couple of canned responses at the ready, and I apply one depending on the circumstances.

If I see or hear something completely out of line ― a messed-up joke, the N-word used by a nonblack person, a bigoted statement ― I bypass the Renkl-ian call to “civility” and tell them, “That’s really racist. It’s not OK.” Mind you, this is not a tactic that’s typically met with gratitude and admiration, but then, if someone would rather be defensive than sincerely consider the ramifications of their racist word or deed, they’re beyond my reach. Since the ascent of Donald Trump, I’ve pruned my friends list, online and in real life, in the wake of all the racism that has been flushed out into the open.

But I’m far more likely to encounter soft bigotry (like my own). For that, the ace up my sleeve is a two-part maneuver I like to call The Cringe & Clarify. First you start with your basic facial expression, the Caucasian Cringe: You know the white lady cringe, the involuntary facial contortion you make when someone drops their coffee with a huge splat in the parking lot, or when you make eye contact with a stranger as you both watch a parent struggling with her kid who’s having an epic tantrum in Target, or you have to tell Gary in design that no, you can’t take him to get his car at the mechanic after work tomorrow after all. It’s the face you make when you’re beholding or conveying bad news. So, you make that face, and then you say this, like you feel sorry for them because clearly they didn’t mean to say something racist AF: “Yikes, that sounds pretty racist. Is that what you meant?”

This creates much more of a workable entrée to dialog on the subject than yelling, per Renkl’s imagination, “HEY, MERV, YOU ARE AN ACTUAL RACIST!”

It helps also if you take racism seriously, but yourself, not so much. Racism is a dire issue, but in dealing with it, humor has its place — when applied judiciously. I note, with some trepidation, that it’s become quite fashionable for white people to make fun of other white people for their “wypipo”-ness, and while I recognize it as a form of reckoning, I can’t help but feel it is potentially a form of distancing too. I mean, by all means drop a wry comment about Karen and her bland potato salad and keeping hot sauce in your purse and lol mayonnaise and whatnot, because laughs can build a bridge. You don’t need me to remind you that entire structures still need to be gutted and rebuilt once we’re all done snickering together in sarcastic harmony on that bridge, right?

Here’s the rub of existing as a decent person: If you want to do better, you have to accept, and correct, when you’ve done wrong.

If you’re committed to expanding past your white-and-shiny bubble, online and in person, chances are quite high that you will say, do, ignore or tacitly condone something racist. And this may not go unnoticed. Being called to account for your racism, online or in person, verbally or with a withering glance, is embarrassing as hell. It’s embarrassing enough to reduce you to a whimpering weenie. Believe me, I know. If someone called me out to my face for a racist infraction, I’d turn flaming scarlet and my lower lip would tremble like pudding in a hailstorm. But here’s the rub of existing as a decent person: If you want to do better, you have to accept, and correct, when you’ve done wrong.

In pointing this out, I don’t expect applause or a cookie. Using my platform for a piece like this is merely the minimum requirement as a conscientious Earth-dweller. Racism isn’t some terminal diagnosis or dead-end status to which you are irrevocably cast. Rather, it is a continuum that runs from clueless but well-intentioned gaffes to outright murder. Accept, graciously and regrettably, that this applies even to you. You’re also somewhere on a continuum of classism, sexism, lookism, ableism, sizeism and homophobia — you’re part of the human race, and you’re not perfect. But you are gloriously improvable.

Should you really step in it so badly that you turn red and/or start crying, then dry your eyes, apologize and do better. You are going to make mistakes, but that does not mean you’re irredeemably racist or a failure (though it also doesn’t mean you get to recuse yourself from improvement).

As for talking to other people about race or calling out racism, while it can be tense and occasionally mortifying, it is also quite necessary. How exactly you go about it depends on whom you’re talking to. Some people deserve an open-minded approach, others definitely don’t. Either way, it needs to happen.

Never forget: Racism can be deadly. Embarrassment, I assure you from personal experience, has a 100 percent survivability rate.

Lily Burana is the author of four books, most recently, Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith. Follow her @lilyburana