“If your Black friends aren’t talking with you about race, it’s because they don’t see you as a safe person.”
A friend of mine shared this at one of our interracial book group meetings. We were trying to make sense of the dissonant experiences of the white and Black folks in the room. Our Black members were saying that they talk about race and racism on a daily basis. This seemed to be a reality for every one of them, without exception.
“If our Black friends are constantly thinking and talking about racism,” a white member asked, “then why don’t they ever talk to us about it?”
“Because they don’t see you as safe,” was the response.
Are all white people unsafe? Yes, until proven otherwise. “Unsafe” is the default designation.
This discussion took place several years ago, but it has stuck with me. Many of us who are white hold the worldview that racism is no longer a serious problem. This belief is often strengthened by the silence of Black colleagues and acquaintances who do not feel safe sharing their real feelings and experiences with us. In fact, our very denial of racism makes it unsafe for Black people to do so. The vicious cycle continues as we deny racism, communicate (perhaps unconsciously) that it is not safe to share experiences of racism with us, and dismiss or deny Black perspectives on race when they are shared.
This is why it is such a gift when a Black friend is willing to tell you that you are espousing a racist view. They are taking a risk in making such a statement, and more likely than not, you will get defensive and tell them why they’re wrong. Or maybe you will just shut down the conversation and stay away from that topic in the future. Or maybe you will start avoiding that person altogether.
They could just stay silent. That wouldn’t make your worldview less harmful, it would just help you maintain your obliviousness.
So why would they speak up? Because they care about you. Because they think your friendship is worth the risk. Because on that particular day, they got access to enough optimism to believe that maybe, just maybe you would actually listen, and maybe, just maybe that would make the world a slightly better place to exist in.
But instead of putting the burden on Black people to risk “throwing pearls before swine,” what if we (white people) took it upon ourselves to become safe people? This is what I asked myself that day in our book group meeting, and it’s a journey I’ve been on ever since.
You see, being unsafe comes very naturally to me. In many ways, it is my default mode. When my (African American) daughter, Kalia, told me that she wasn’t comfortable at our Tuesday night dinner because she was the only person of color, and I blew her off, I was being unsafe. You’re not really trying to get to know people, I told her. You’d be just fine if you would try a little harder. But I was the one who wasn’t trying. I didn’t try to understand her perspective. I didn’t ask her to tell me more about why she felt that way. I just told her she was wrong. I didn’t use those words. I didn’t say, “You’re wrong.” But I didn’t take her seriously, and it amounts to the same thing.
Or when a friend showed us a video that was supposed to be funny, and Kalia said, “That’s kind of racist,” and my knee-jerk reaction was to explain why it wasn’t. Why did I do that? Why was I more concerned about defending this random white woman in the video, who I don’t know, than listening to Kalia, who I do know and love and trust? She was trying to offer me a gift – the gift of sight, the gift of awareness, the gift of empathy – and I slapped it out of her hand.
Those are two minor examples, but I share them for several reasons.
- To show that none of us is immune to this sort of behavior. We all do it.
- Good intentions are not enough to make us safe. They are a good start, and they are certainly not worthless. But it is still very possible, and very common, to hurt someone without meaning to. This doesn’t mean that they are being overly sensitive, or that you are being purposely insensitive. It just means that cross-cultural misunderstandings are a part of life. If you’ve ever traveled abroad, then you know this to be true.
- Behaving in this way doesn’t make you a bad person, it just represents an area of unawareness. And how do we gain awareness? We look, we listen, we open ourselves up to feedback.
In an effort to help myself and other white folks learn how to be more loving toward People of Color, I created a survey for the ladies in my book group, as well as a few other friends. I’ll be honest, when I read their responses, my first thought was, I can’t share this with anybody. It’s too precious. I wasn’t trying to be selfish, but my fear was (and honestly, still is) that many people will not be able to see their words for the gift that they are. Instead, many people will feel threatened, attacked. And in response, they will want to attack back. They will want to find something wrong with these women, something wrong with their worldview, something wrong with their hard-earned wisdom. We (white people, myself included) are extremely good at finding reasons to discredit and dismiss perspectives from POC when they make us uncomfortable.
If you find yourself feeling this way, don’t be surprised, and don’t shame yourself. Our feelings are largely out of our control. But what we do with our feelings, and how we respond to them, that is within our control. So my request is this: Don’t read these words from a “right/wrong, agree/disagree” mindset. Don’t go looking for reasons to discount these women. They are not radicals, they are not extremists. They are regular, everyday people like you and me. So if their words make you uncomfortable, challenge yourself to sit in the discomfort. Wonder about it. Ask yourself: Where might my perspective need to be enlarged? What might be gained by listening to these voices? What might be lost if I ignore them?
Note: Nine people responded to my survey, seven of whom I know personally, and two of whom were connected through mutual friends. All nine identified as African American / Black. What follows does not (and is not intended to) represent what “all Black people” think, nor is it intended to prove a particular point. I share it simply to give voice to perspectives that are not often heard within white social networks.
What communicates that a white person is NOT safe?
“All unknown white people are unsafe. At the extreme, our lives depend upon having this assumption and our experiences mandate this stance.” – Dr. Pam Fields
“When I meet a white person I always assume they are not safe. They have to prove they are safe, which takes time and shared experiences…Their white skin color automatically communicates they are not safe and keeps them in the unsafe column until they prove otherwise.” – Ann Fields
“Racism – once experienced frequently – has a familiar energy that you recognize. (This is hard to explain.)…[Unsafe white people] NEVER ask questions of POC that are open to curiosity. E.g. ‘How has the last death of ________ affected you/people you know?’ Instead, they ask a loaded question and answer it themselves. E.g. ‘Why would people like you even be affected by _______ dying when you always follow police commands?’” – Brandi Wilson
Some other signs of “unsafe people” mentioned by various respondents were:
- An elitist attitude – thinking you know everything, thinking you’re superior, thinking Black people need you to be a savior.
- Being dismissive of perspectives and experiences that do not match your own.
- An inability to listen openly, with a genuine desire to learn something new.
- For many people, support of Donald Trump was an automatic indicator of “unsafe”. (I wrestled with whether or not to include this, because the last thing I want is to alienate a whole group of people or to play into political divisiveness. But this came up enough times, completely unsolicited, and so I felt like I owed it to the respondents to include it. If it angers you, or creates defensiveness, please take this opportunity to get curious about this perspective rather than dismissing it as misguided/ignorant/deceived, etc.)
If someone seems “unsafe,” how does that impact the relationship?
“I am careful in what I say and what I invite them to. I do not discontinue the relationship but seek to understand them and have them understand me. Some Black people would discontinue the relationship and some would just not address the elephant in the room.” – Dr. Pam Fields
“There is no relationship or rather it is very superficial…like saying ‘hi’ or ‘bye’ to any stranger on the street.” – Ann Fields
“I don’t call white people a friend until I’ve deemed them, ‘safe.’ That is less stringent than the friend test I run for black friends. I will still speak about race anyway. But prior to this freedom, I would reduce how much I speak to this individual. They would lead the discussions & interactions.” – Brandi Wilson
“There are black people I can’t talk with about race/racism. Therefore, I find a common interest where we can share and exchange ideas…I keep a 20 foot invisible pole between me and white people who think they know it all about race, if they oversimplify race and racism, and/or have limited references to how they come to deal with race. So I let sleeping dogs lie. I use Proverbs 23:9 NIV “Do not speak to a fool, for they will scorn your prudent words.” I also like the Good New Translation: “Don’t try to talk sense to a fool, he can’t appreciate it.” – E. Rodgers
“There is negative impact on the relationship, but it’s not uncommon. I have to figure out how to maneuver through interactions and how much to self-disclose going forward.” – Laurel Bush
“There is no personal relationship if you can’t talk about this.” -Anonymous
“Maya Angelou says that when a person shows you who they are, believe them. So if they are complicit or a progressive racist, then I am cordial but refrain from developing a deeper relationship with them in any capacity.” – Dr. Kat Smith
“I keep it platonic and try not to put myself in a situation where I would need to count on said person.” – Bird
“We don’t have a relationship.” – Michelle Ray
What communicates that a white person IS safe?
“If they ask relevant questions and listen deeply, authentically, they move a little closer to acceptance…With all the unjust killings of black people of late, I have paid extra attention, making note of the white people who called or emailed me to apologize for the murders.” -Ann Fields
“I usually need SEVERAL interactions over time with white people before I declare them safe. The ONLY way I can declare a white person safe quickly is IF they take a HARD stand against racism…Even then, I still verify that their opinions are consistently against racism or self-reflective in their role in racism.” – Brandi Wilson
If there is “quality and depth to our conversations,” and if “I perceive their reactions and responses as authentic.” – Dr. Pam Fields
Some other signs of “safe people” mentioned by various respondents were:
- Being introduced by a mutual friend who is seen as safe. Respondents varied on if/how the race of the mutual friend impacted things.
- If you have close relationships with other People of Color.
What can white people do to become more safe?
“Listen. Ask questions to sincerely learn. Don’t think you know the truth. Your truth and our truth are far from the same. Perspectives are different. Life experiences are different, so be open to honestly understand what the daily life of a black person is like.” – Dr. Kat Smith
“Adopt a learner’s stance. You are seeking to learn and understand, not debate or judge.” – Dr. Pam Fields
“Build trust. Show empathy. Study to prove yourself worthy. Be authentic. Participate in Visible Unity’s Unity Process. Read a book about blacks and our contributions to this one-way love affair. Learn the real history of this country. Be intentional about integrating your life.” – Ann Fields
“Humility is critical. Listening more & speaking less…Put yourself in diverse spaces. (Bonus points if you go to black spaces hosting these conversations.) Be patient. White people’s history in this country puts black people in a position of distrust IMMEDIATELY, so keep working to tear down that wall.” – Brandi Wilson
Any other thoughts or advice to share?
“Be sincere and open and don’t take everything as a personal attack.” – Laurel Bush
“Don’t be quick to say you are not a racist because we all have bias, and so even though I am married to a white man, I do still have bias about certain white people, and I talk to him about it and vice versa.” – Dr. Kat Smith
“Stop making non-whites, the ‘other’, consciously or non-consciously…Just be a normal non-confrontational person starting a conversation. It’s not that hard. Stop overthinking it, treating it like a chore.” – Anonymous
“Please refrain from using the following as a convo starter: ‘Your hair (or whatever is unique to their race) is so different, can I touch it?’ That’s something for someone you already have a relationship with.” – Anonymous
“Get in a group with different races of people to discuss topics like this. Some Black people will have no problem of telling how they feel. Some Black people will tell you what you want to hear, that everything is fine. Some Black people are blind to the fact that the people they support are racist.” – Michelle Ray
“Ask questions, e.g. ‘I’m seeking to understand X or Y, what is your thinking about this?” or, ‘I read X or Y, were you aware of this? If so, what are your thoughts about it? Have you experienced this in your life?’” – Dr. Pam Fields
“Read: Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad; Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi; The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates; Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine; Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult.” – E. Rodgers
“Read White Fragility before engaging in these conversations. You can mess up your chance with that black person, which reinforces our built-in feelings of distrust in the presence of white people…Start off in a virtual setting to ease into these conversations without the pressure that comes with an in-person interaction. Send an article about a topic of interest [racism] to a black person you want to speak with. Ask them if you can speak virtually/by phone about it. Do not expect black people to discuss these topics at work or in overly white settings. One-on-one is always a great start.” – Brandi Wilson
“Don’t mistake one’s anger or frustration for being directed at you. Most black people have lived a lifetime of anger and frustration and distrust and you’re not a therapist but you are a human and you can listen. You won’t always get it right. I won’t always get it right but be open.” – Bird
If you are reading this and desire to become a “safe(r) person,” but don’t know where to begin, I highly recommend Dr. Pam Fields’ Unity Process. The Unity Process is a 9-session experience that helps you examine your internal biases, and provides opportunities to practice talking about race in a safe, supportive environment. Groups normally meet in person, but are meeting on Zoom right now – so if you do NOT live in the DFW area, take advantage of this opportunity to participate from a distance! The next group will meet Saturday mornings @ 10am on Zoom, starting January 30th. If you are interested in participating or have any questions, email Pam here: firstname.lastname@example.org