‘Not All White People’ and Derailing Conversations

This is an entry from the department of Things That Activists of Color Have Already Explained More Than A Million Times. But I just saw someone shove their foot into the shoe again yesterday, so I guess I can’t hurt anything by trying to explain it too.

It’s practically a Law Of The Internet that when a Person of Color says something about racism, at least one white person will barge into the conversation to assure everyone that ‘not all white people are like that.’ Bonus points if they go on to explain that making negative generalizations about white people is ‘racist’ (spoiler: it’s not).

That’s a tiresome way to behave, and you shouldn’t do it. If the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it.

If what someone is saying about white folks and racism doesn’t apply to you, then it isn’t about you, and there’s no reason to make it about you. If you’re feeling a driving need to make it about you anyway, ask yourself where that’s coming from. If what they’re saying really doesn’t apply to you, then why are you feeling defensive about it?

Maybe you think you’re just standing up against prejudice and generalizations, because you learned during Black History Month back in school that it’s wrong to judge people by their skin color. But the thing is, racism isn’t a two-way street.

As white people, we have the enormous privilege of not having the actions of other white people held against us in any meaningful way. For example, when a white guy attacks a federal building (or a post office, or a school, or a women’s clinic, or a museum, or a theater, or another federal building, or another school), people don’t start treating all white guys like terrorists.

And while there are stereotypes about white people–some of them even negative!–they don’t impact our everyday lives the way stereotypes about people of color impact theirs’. We don’t get paid less or denied jobs over them. We don’t get stopped and frisked over them. Trigger-happy racists don’t gun us down over them.

generalizations about white people hurt feelings. generalizations about POC end our lives. there’s the difference.

— Franchesca Ramsey (@chescaleigh) July 21, 2013

So when you equate generalizations about white people to generalizations about people of color, you’re not just asserting your privilege to shape the discourse around racism; you’re also demonstrating a staggering lack of empathy. You’re acting as if your implicitly limited understanding of racism is more accurate and ‘true’ than the lived experiences of people who actually face racism every day.

We accept that young children will be self-focused, and will sometimes fail to take other people’s perspectives into account. But interrupting other people’s conversations to insist that they praise you for mastering basic concepts stopped being charming shortly after you learned to tie your own shoes. If you’re still doing it when you’re supposed to be old enough to use a computer without supervision, you are embarrassing yourself.

So please. Do not insist that your effort to treat other people with dignity and respect–which really is the bare minimum of what’s expected from decent human beings–is so remarkable that you need to interrupt other people’s conversations to demand praise.

Everyone already knows that ‘not all white people are like that.’ But if you’re barging into conversations to make them about you, chances are pretty good that you’re exactly like that.

If people don’t react to that with cookies and praise, it’s not because you’re white. It’s because you’re being clueless and rude.