On March 21, 2012, Melissa Harris-Perry outlined some great guidelines for how white people can talk about the Trayvon Martin case, but it really goes for issues of race and racism in general. She hits on some of the same points I’ve written about here. Here’s the video, with a transcript below.
That sick feeling in your stomach is not a reason to avoid the topic, change the channel, or tune out. Do not flee the discomfort; embrace it. And once you’ve decided to participate in the conversation, here are a few rules:
Rule 1: It is OK to say “Black.” It’s okay to draw attention to people’s race in this conversation. It’s not embarrassing to mention when Black person’s is, you know, Black.
Rule 2: Black is always an adjective. It’s never a noun. “Black people” is fine. “The Blacks,” not so much.
Which brings me to Rule 3: If you were trying to sound insightful, connected, empathetic, or just plain brag, please don’t mention your Black friends or relatives. Your Black friend is not an emissary to Blackness. And for all you know, they’re actually just not that into you.
Rule 4: Take your time and think before you speak. Because white guilt can make you say really stupid things, like “I don’t even see race!” Because here’s the deal. Even if you voted for Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Barack Obama, you still notice that they are Black. In fact, all the data show that we all see race, and react to it, even if we’re not aware of it. So racial bias is not the exception, racial blindness is.
Which leads to Rule #5: Remember that you are white. It’s okay, it’s not your fault! And acknowledging your whiteness as you discuss Trayvon’s Blackness is half the battle. You’re almost there.
Rule 6 (And this is not a joke): Silence is golden. In a conversation about Trayvon Martin and race, sometimes silence is golden. Listening can prove to be more effective than talking. Race talk can make all of us defensive but rather than defending, just listen. And if it’s hard it’s okay to soothe yourself with a cup of tea… with a shot of whiskey. […]
[Y]ou won’t be able to avoid all the awkward moments, but at least you’ll know that I’m there, cheering you on, because the most important rule is “Don’t quit trying.” Understanding each other is worth it.