What to do if your white friends keep saying the wrong things about racism
It can be really hard for white people to know what to say when it comes to racism. We get that.
There’s a fear of saying the wrong thing, of offending someone, of being accused of racism.
But silence is complicity and no longer an option, so we are all encouraging our white friends to speak out – loudly and persistently – against racial injustice. And they are speaking out, which is so great.
But what happens when your white friends – however well-intentioned – keep missing the mark with what they’re saying?
Maybe it’s a poorly thought out post on Instagram, expressing confusion about why we shouldn’t say ‘all lives matter’ right now, or maybe they are expecting you to assuage their guilt about their own privilege.
It is never the job of ethnic minorities to educate white people about racism and what is and isn’t offensive – the burden of doing that is too great and can be psychologically damaging. But equally, ignoring problematic comments from those close to you can weigh on you heavily and cause a lot of pain.
So what do you do? Do you find the energy to have those conversations? And when is it time to cut ties in order to protect yourself?
Psychologist Dr Roberta Babb says it can be incredibly painful when your close friends and colleagues don’t speak out against racism or say the wrong things.
‘Black people can feel disappointed, alienated, rejected and alone in a painful fight which is not of their making,’ Dr Roberta said.
‘It can also evoke feelings of resentment and anger as it is white people’s privileged position which gives them the option of remaining silent.
‘It may make Black people question the authenticity of their friendships and relationships because there is an awareness that when other people were hurting they received unconditional support.’
So, how do you raise this with your friends? How do you let them know that you need them to be better, without taking on the disproportionate burden of educating them yourself?
‘You can take a positive risk and raise the issue with them,’ suggests Dr Roberta.
‘You can be honest about the impact racism has upon you, and how their silence or misjudged comments also affect you.
‘You can also tell them what you would like and what you need from them, and have a discussion as to whether this is something they can, or are willing to give.
‘Racism is a sensitive topic, however, change cannot occur without a dialogue.’
It is always going to be a difficult conversation to have. But if your friend is saying something that is hurting or upsetting you, the best course of action is to let them know.
Of course, your real friends will listen to you and should at least attempt to change their behaviour – but that doesn’t mean the conversation will be simple.
Life coach and psychologist Lee Chambers says it’s really important to try to broach this topic from a non-judgmental perspective.
Lee says the best way to communicate complicated and fraught issues with somebody is to take into consideration inferred meanings and intentions.
‘Judgement is a barrier to developmental relationships,’ Lee said. ‘However, I do often guide clients on how to communicate clearly and in conflict.
‘The biggest part of this is not to apportion blame, as shaming the other party often leads to them taking less responsibility for their viewpoint, and they will become more likely to search for confirmation of their bias from elsewhere.
‘If we make the decision to communicate how we feel from a place of building awareness, rather than educating or telling, it can empower others to consider other perspectives and perceptions.’
This is easier said than done, especially when it comes to highly-charged and personal topics like the impact of racism. It’s easy to allow emotions to cloud your ability to communicate – which is completely understandable – but Lee says it’s important to at least try to minimise our emotive response.
‘In our communication, we must be objective and factual, without thinking or interpreting what it means to the person your talking too,’ he says.
‘It helps if we identify how they feel, by affirming that we realise they feel a certain way about the debate on racism.
‘If we do this without labelling their perspective as negative, we have the clarity to then express our feelings in a non-judgmental way.’
Lee says that expressing how we feel, rather than what we think, is more effective in communicating a message.
‘It diverts away from people trying to change your thinking, and also generates more consideration and empathy,’ he says.
‘That provides a platform for us to express our need to articulate our feelings, and how it affects us, and give them an option of choice about whether they appreciate how it makes you feel.’
The next step, Lee says, is make a request – clearly stating what would work to improve how you feel.
‘This often works as you have given the other party their own choice and decision, you haven’t judged them, and you haven’t tried to challenge their viewpoint in a direct manner,’ says Lee.
‘It helps to be aware of both how our own experiences colour our own vision and blind spots.’
But where is the limit? How much energy should we expend trying to explain why something is offensive or upsetting to you?
Lee says it’s important to have the self-awareness to know when boundaries are crossed and when to walk away.
Roberta agrees. She says that making a decision to cut ties is always difficult and upsetting, but in the long run it could be for the best.
‘If your friends are actively attempting to learn about racism and their role in the issue through self-directed enquiries and reading, you may feel you do not want to end the friendship,’ says Roberta. ‘In these cases, your friends are trying to engage you in a constructive conversations, within which they take responsibility for their position.’
However, if you find that you are frequently having to explain racism and racist experiences and interactions to your friends, or defend your friends to other friends during conversations around racism, Roberta says it may be an indication that it is time to evaluate your friendship.
‘It is when you find yourself having to educate your friends, and they find it difficult to see what an ask this is of you – the person who has been victimised has to explain to people who indirectly victimise them – then the friendship may not be as equitable and as healthy as you first thought.’
Ultimately, it is not the responsibility of Black people to ensure the people around them are educated on the issue of racism.
If your friends are consistently getting it wrong, call them out on it – but only up to the point that your energy will allow.
If you are already mentally drained, you are well within your rights to walk away if your friend is not willing to put the work in themselves.
‘Racism is a problem of whiteness, however, as it is located within the Black community, the assumption is that Black people have to be the ones that address it,’ says Dr Roberta.
‘White allies are needed because allyship helps create a culture of curiosity and education and they can help progress some of the discussions.’