Fellow White Americans: We Need To Listen To POC (Even When We Feel Uncomfortable)

by Annie Reneau
Originally Published: 
Shutterstock / digitalskillet

Hey, fellow white American:

Let’s talk about racism. I mean, really get down to the nuts and bolts of it. And let’s involve some people of color in this conversation, seeing as they’re the ones who have been on the receiving end of it for centuries in our country.

Great! Let’s do this! I’m ready.

Okay. There are some things we need to keep in mind as we enter this space. People of color are dealing with blatant racial aggressions and subtle microaggressions day in and day out, and in our conversations about racism, they may share some of their stories with us. There are things we should be aware of — some subconscious tendencies we may have that we’ll want to keep in check — as they share their pain, fear, and anger.

Whoa, wait a minute. I didn’t know people would be getting ANGRY in this discussion. Why can’t we just have a calm, reasonable conversation?

Well, there’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in centuries of injustice. We lesser-melanined folks tend to gloss over the real pain that systemic, subconscious white supremacy and racism causes, mainly because we’ve always been on the other side of it.

Yeah, systemic racism — I’ve read all about that. But, like, are they going to get angry and yell? What if they yell at me?

I suppose they could yell. Probably not, though, because many people of color have been conditioned to remain calm, to not become “the angry black person” in front of us. But if we manage to create a space where POC truly feel comfortable sharing their true feelings, yes, they might raise their voice. They might express their pain and frustration that way. Why does that bother you?

Because it’s not my fault! I don’t deserve to get yelled at. What if they lump all white people together and blame me for problems I didn’t create?

Chances are pretty slim that anyone will blame you personally, but in discussions about racism, yes, we might get lumped together under the banner of “whiteness.” That’s okay. We are, in fact, white.

We may not have personally brought anyone’s ancestors over on slave ships, we may not have personally banned their ancestors from using the same drinking fountains as ours, we may not have personally used racist language or discriminated against anyone because of their name or their hair or their skin tone. But by default, we are a part of the racial system that has allowed such things to take place and we have unconsciously benefitted from it.

But I’m uncomfortable with that.

Yep, me too.

No, I mean I’m uncomfortable with being lumped in with racists. I’m not a racist!

I get that. I don’t generally think of myself as a racist either. But racism is not merely a choice people make to see others as inferior. Racism is also the power structure that white people created that kept people of color subjugated throughout American history. Racism is the subtle, systemic assumption of white supremacy that infuses the fabric of our history as well as our institutions.

Racism is sneaky. And frankly, because of that, we may not be the best judges when it comes to how racism manifests itself in our lives. Those on the receiving end of it are kind of the experts on that front.

But I’m really not comfortable with people of color getting mad at me about racism.

They’re not mad at you personally. They’re mad at racism and injustice. They’re mad at white supremacy.

Well, I’m mad about those things too! Doesn’t that count for anything?

Sure. But your anger doesn’t trump theirs. And your skin, despite how unracist you feel inside, is justifiably seen as a warning sign for many people of color. They may not feel safe around you for a long while. They may put a guard up to protect themselves from any manifestations of racism or white supremacy that might inadvertently come from you.

What?! I would NEVER!

Yes, you would. We all do it, largely unknowingly.

So what am I supposed to do? Just sit there and take it while someone unloads on me about racism that I don’t even know I have or about past injustices that I didn’t personally create?

You mean while someone expresses the pain and fear and terror that racism has caused in their lives? Yes. You are supposed to sit there. Sit there and listen, without defensiveness, without whataboutisms, without putting your feelings front and center.

But I want to share how angry racism makes ME!

I know, and there’s a time and place for that. But not when a person of color is sharing their hurt. Ask yourself why it makes you so uncomfortable to just let that happen. Ask yourself why you’re having a hard time handling a person of color expressing their anger. Ask yourself why you feel the desire to make it about you.

But they’re making it about me!

No, they’re not. They’re making it about whiteness, which is the root of white supremacy, which is the root of all of the racial injustice that’s taken place throughout our history. They can’t not make it about that.

But that doesn’t seem fair! It’s not like I chose to be white!

Nothing about racism is fair. But it seems to me that after centuries of unfairness being directed toward people of color, white people can probably handle feeling a little of it coming our way.

Well, fine. But if it gets heated, I’m going to have to leave.

Don’t do that. POC don’t have a choice but to deal with this, and our bowing out when it feels icky to us is white privilege defined. Remember, this isn’t about your feelings.

Our main job here is to stay in the room. When people of color tell us how they feel, we need to stay in the room. When it becomes uncomfortable for us, we need to stay in the room. When we find out how we are actually more complicit than we think we are, we need to stay in the room. It’s okay to stay silent in that space. In fact, that’s usually the best course of action when people of color are sharing their feelings about racism.

Stay silent? But I want to speak out! I want to tell them how sad and angry this all makes me!

That’s nice, but it’s not as important as listening and acknowledging their pain. Sit quietly with it. Let it make you uncomfortable. People of color have been doing uncomfortable work to fight racism forever in this country. We can handle some discomfort without making ourselves and our feelings central to the conversation.

That sounds intense. What if I can’t handle it?

Try harder. If we can’t even handle staying in a conversation where the feelings of people of color make us uncomfortable, how are we going to actually do the work it will take to dismantle racism? This is our issue to tackle. We have to get used to being uncomfortable. Discomfort is not going to kill us, whereas racism very well may kill our friends.

If we’re serious about fighting racism, we have to get used to being uncomfortable. We have to stay in the room and listen when conversations about race become uncomfortable for us. It won’t become easy, but it’ll get easier. Trust me, the understanding we gain when we accept that discomfort and really listen makes all the difference in the world.

You look unsure. Take a deep breath. We can do this.

We can? Are you sure?

Yes. We can. We have to.

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