Race-Relations 101 – What can I do?

One of the most frequently asked questions in 101 type discussions is: “What can I do?” Granted, the focus of that question ranges from “how can I integrate my friend-circle?” to “how do I combat passive racism?” to “how do I have conversations that deal with race?” but they all have the same general elements. Here are a few links that might help you on your way.

The best simple guide to concrete action I’ve seen so far is Damali Ayo’s “I can fix it!” pamphlet. (warning: PDF)

She asked 2000 people to give 5 simple things people could do to end racism, and pulled them together into a handy-dandy guide. The short version:

1. Admit It.
2. Listen.
3. Educate Yourself.
4. Broaden Your Experience.
5. Take Action.

Read the whole thing for the details.

For an angrier (but possibly more detailed) guide to things one might not want to say/do in a conversation about race, try my How not to be an asshole: a guide for white people/feminists. (based on Chris Clarke’s memorable How not to be an asshole: a guide for men).

And for the definitive guide to Things Not To Do, see the classic: How to Suppress Discussions of Racism.

If you’re looking specifically for advice on how to act in minority spaces, try Tekanji’s “A Deeper Look at ‘Minority Spaces'”. Her rules and analyses are excellent starters.

I know it looks like I’m mixing up two categories – “how do I talk about race?” (or “how is it appropriate to act in racial discussions?”) and “what can I do to combat racism?” – but they’re not really all that far apart.

Whether you’re trying to feel your way through a difficult conversation or deal with a racist situation in your daily life, the important things are to slow down and listen, situate yourself, and speak up when you see something bad happen. There are details and nuances (and you’ll get a good glimpse at them if you follow the links above), but those three things should get you through most conversations and situations just fine.

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12 comments for “Race-Relations 101 – What can I do?

  1. August 16, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    I admit I could be better when I’m confronted with out-and-out racism, but mostly because I find it so staggeringly stupid that I’m flabbergasted at how to respond. I hate that I laugh nervously — it really sounds like I’m laughing and approving of it. :(

  2. Janis
    August 16, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    I might say #3) Take responsibility for educating yourself. I don’t know, though. I’ve seen it happen too often where men will demand that feminists drop everything and educate them, and then when we balk, exclaim “But isn’t EDUCATING MEN to single most important thing that any feminist can do!? Isn’t improving gender relations your entire reason for being?!”


    Educating oneself is important, but that means I get the dirt under my nails, not that I drop my issues at the feet of the nearest black person and expect help to which I feel entitled. Any level-headed, intelligent assistant I get is a gift to which I am not entitled.

  3. Hector B.
    August 16, 2007 at 10:24 pm

    I hope this doesn’t sound too simpleminded, but working in high tech (the rainbow nerd coalition) made me realize that many people have racial stereotypes, and that being white can mean being inferior. One example: after a long, debilitating illness, the brother of one of my co-workers died. His wife, the mother of his children, was white. At the wake, many of my co-workers’ friends and relatives spontaneously commented, amazed, that his wife had stayed with him to the end instead of divorcing as soon as he was diagnosed. That was the kind of behavior they expected from an Asian wife, but never from a white woman. Over time, I gradually built up a picture of how many Asians view white people: lazy and unmotivated surely, but also without any respect for family ties, manifested by ending marriages on any pretext, neglecting the support of one’s children, and shunting elderly parents off to the nursing home as soon as possible.

    Please note that I’m not trying to gain sympathy for myself or for white people. I just mention this as an experience that opened my eyes — that being white was not the summit of human aspiration.

  4. August 17, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    Coming from lily white rural Oregon, it just wasn’t something that really came up until I moved to the city and got a job.

    I always just told myself to think of and treat everyone as an individual. But people of colour really were isolated in my town. They assimilated because there was no social reinforcement, no community in which they could share their experiences with people who understood. Here in the city, I’ve met people who have social networks and a strong sense of ethnic identity (something I envy). It’s more intimidating to interact with people of colour here, and I’ve endured my first real foibles.

    But it’s definitely something that’s beginning to matter to me. I intend to live here forever. One of the reasons I came to the city was to live in a more diverse community. I was originally an anthropology major (recently switched to art) with a minor in linguistics (which is now French), and sharing and celebrating cultural differences is something I really enjoy. But I get the sense here, instead, that there isn’t the kind of interracial cooperation that I so naively expected to find. Knowing how I’m viewed and how to express my respect and interest is important.

    It’s hard to admit that you’re just walking around behaving like you’re the centre of the universe, and even harder to acknowledge the adverse affect that has on the people around you. So thanks for taking the time out to talk about it.

  5. SS
    August 17, 2007 at 10:03 pm

    As a woman of color, I have come to realize that the old adage is true- everyone’s a little bit racist. And thats just the way it is. You don’t have to be perfectly PC around us, just respectful. You may slip up and say something that, in hindsight seemed a bit ignorant. Dont worry about it though. We all make mistakes and say things we wish we hadn’t. And honestly, I have noticed that there is a good deal more reverse racism going around nowadays than the oldfashioned kind, and I think that is also pretty bad, especially because there is little stigma towards racism towards whites. But I think the two should be equal.

  6. betina
    August 18, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    At first I was a bit confused with the whole criticism of colourblindness – I mean, isn’t that the goal? – but now I know better. I don’t know, it’s actually what I’ve been doing for some time already.. being wary of what judgment I might be making of people according to their ethnicity and working around it. I don’t live in a vacuum and I have been led to develop some prejudices which I need to be careful about. Sometimes I am affected by ethnicity, sometimes I honestly am not, but I keep myself attentive. It’s a bit different here where I live, but racism certainly exists here.

  7. August 18, 2007 at 7:35 pm

    While I don’t really believe in reverse racism, I agree that these feelings, to varying degrees, lay just beneath the surface of all of us. It’s all about understanding, patience, and a willingness to admit you’re wrong and listen.

  8. August 18, 2007 at 9:55 pm

    1. Hector B.- I think that was more about the stereotype that Asian women are more submissive and dutiful. White supremacy is real. White supremacy is based on the idea that whites are actually scientifically minded, moral, and active people. The stereotype of laziness has been reserved for people of color namely African Americans (see “the coon”). This stereotype of white people being lazy? Maybe its on your headphone but there is no white equivalent to the coon or the welfare queen both stereotypical symbols of the notion that Black people are lazy. Such notions have of course affected the lives of Black Americans (so much so we even have the president of Mexico making public statements about our laziness as a fact duly considerable for immigration policy). The stereotypical image of the welfare queen too lazy and sexually promiscuousness to get a job has greatly affected welfare policy

    Can we talk about how institutionalized racism is real?

    2. damali ayo’s booklet is amazing. I second her emotions.

    3. White people have ethnicities. De-centering, de-defaulting whiteness is central to any discussion of dismantling white supremacy. Maintaining the mythic belief that people of color are exotic ethnic “Others” only maintains white supremacy.

  9. Hector B.
    August 19, 2007 at 4:04 am

    Maintaining the mythic belief that people of color are exotic ethnic “Others” only maintains white supremacy.

    3. First, why would I want to dismantle white supremacy when I benefit from it? The people in power feel that I am like them, so they accept me, and they give me the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. I am accepted all over the United States, just like MasterCard. Only a sense of altruism or conscience would make me want to change the status quo, likely lowering my own status in the process. Give me a moment to bask in my white male privilege.
    Aaahhhh. OK. Next, I used to argue that I had not benefited from slavery because none of my ancestors came to the US before 1900. But now I realized they acceded to white privilege as soon as they cleared Ellis Island. Not only white, but they were preferred Northern Europeans, not lowlifes like Southern Italians.
    Now, let’s talk about The Other. The Other is anyone sufficiently unlike you that you don’t feel comfortable with them. The Other is easy to stereotype, because you don’t know any in real life.The Other is the person who, when they hurt you, you refer to as You Stupid Ethnic Group Member. Some of what makes The Other The Other is their culture, habits, and customs. For me, there were many Others: protestants, rich people, gays, blacks, asians, and hispanics.
    The key to demystifying the other is to include them as friends. You can’t stereotype your friends; you cannot think of them as THEM. For example, summers during college I worked with black people who busted their ass all day, every day. So, I couldn’t stereotype black people as lazy even if I wanted to. Later on, I worked with black people with PhDs from Stanford, so I couldn’t stereotype black people as dumb. The easiest time of life to befriend The Other is in college, because you have all been uprooted and thrown together, and you need to construct a circle of friends.
    1. What I wrote was basically “my experience of realizing I was a member of an ethnic group.” And, although not to the extent of the coon or welfare queen stereotype, Asian people do look down on white people for not trying as hard. But no Asian holds the stereotype of the submissive Asian female — they have met too many assertive Asian women to believe that.
    Sure, let’s talk about institutionalized racism. But some of it arises simply because the people in the Establishment like to hire people they can relate to. As an example of how widespread this is: at work, a chinese engineer was promoted to manager. Everyone he hired was ethnic chinese, even though the other managers hired a balanced range of ethnicities. For institutionalized racism to go away, the powers-that-be have to start operating outside of their comfort range. And everyone has to stop thinking of other ethnic groups as inferior and as not-quite-human.

  10. August 19, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    First, why would I want to dismantle white supremacy when I benefit from it? The people in power feel that I am like them, so they accept me, and they give me the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. I am accepted all over the United States, just like MasterCard. Only a sense of altruism or conscience would make me want to change the status quo, likely lowering my own status in the process. Give me a moment to bask in my white male privilege.

    There was no need for me to read further after this. Thank you for your honesty! Add this to #4. To the white liberals: Be honest about your attachment to racist establishments and your racism. That way, I can stay the hell away from you.

  11. Hector B.
    August 19, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    Before you judge a man, you must first walk a mile in his Birkenstocks. — Old White Liberal Saying

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