Last summer, we switched cable companies. The technician was working diligently on swapping out the DVR boxes in our home, before approaching me in the kitchen where I was prepping lunch for my four kids. My children, all of whom are black, were sitting at the breakfast bar anxiously waiting for their sandwiches and carrot sticks.
The man began explaining to me how to work the new remotes. Then he pointed to the DVR box in the living room and said, “That’s the main box. The boss. The other one that’s downstairs is the slave box.” My eyes widened in shock. He then said, “The downstairs box does whatever the main box tells it to do.” Then he suddenly realized what he had said and fumbled over his words. “Um, I guess we shouldn’t call it that, should we?” His eyes darted to my kids who were quietly eating and listening to our conversation.
The fact that cable technicians refer to an inanimate object as a slave—because it had the job of following the master—was appalling. This isn’t because I’m overly sensitive or because I’m shocked racism exists. Rather, the boldness of willingly and openly calling something a slave is what was disgusting and disturbing.
Racism is all around us. There are racists who commit massacres that make the nightly news. These events are the most likely to earn a racist title from white people—however, I still hear white people who would rather claim mental illness over racism in these cases.
There are blatant forms of racism. There’s systemic racism that has been building and being sustained for decades or even hundreds of years. An example of this is the preschool to prison pipeline and employer hair policies that discriminate against black people. There are finally more films being created by and starring people of color, but discrimination in Hollywood is still alive and well. Gabrielle Union can attest to this.
There are also microaggressions—forms of racism that occur on a smaller, more casual scale, but are still no doubt racism. An example of a microaggression is a white person touching a black person’s hair, stating they are simply curious how it feels. Continually messing up a black child’s name and asking if the child goes by a nickname are other microaggressions. Black people are constantly asked to reduce themselves or suppress their feelings in order to protect white feelings and indulge their whims.
When people of color call out racism, they are labeled as angry or easily offended, hung up on political correctness. They are also told that they shouldn’t play the race card. At minimum, they get a ridiculous clapback, the white person claiming they don’t have a racist bone in their body. The white person takes their own racist offense and centers themselves–and their feelings. In case you haven’t heard, this is called white fragility.
What white people need to know is that just because they aren’t personally affected by racism, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist and that it’s not detrimental. Denying reality doesn’t change the truth.
There’s a stark difference between when a person of color tells a white person they’ve done or said something racist and when a white person calls out another white person. The same clapbacks don’t apply. When one white person tells out another white person, it’s harder to debate. Truth be told, white people listen to each other more than a white person will, appropriately and respectfully, respond to a person of color. Yes, this is a sad reality.
I have progressive and aware white friends. They consider themselves to be white allies—people who believe in and support people of color. Where most of them struggle is how to call out racism. There’s the uncle who tells the racist joke while sitting at the Thanksgiving table. There’s a co-worker who expresses frustration for another co-worker who “has an accent and is hard to understand.” There’s the neighbor who goes on a rant about black-on-black crime when yet another black person is killed by a police officer.
These individuals need to be called out. It doesn’t matter if the offender is 20 years old or 80. A person’s age or generation is never an excuse to be racist. Racism has always been wrong. Some white people acknowledge these facts but have asked me what they can say in that moment.
Calling out racism is shockingly simple. In fact, it only takes two words: “That’s racist.” There’s no need for wordy explanations, sugar-coating, or politeness. Saying, “I’m sure you didn’t mean to come across racist, but…” or “Excuse me for asking, but what did you mean when you said…” White people shouldn’t get a pass to be racist for any reason. Not because of growing up “in a different time” or ignorance.
Now, this isn’t to say that if the offender asks for clarification, a white person can’t provide it. I have found that sometimes—shockingly—fellow white people are open to an honest dialogue. I’m happy to oblige, because my black friends have told me they are exhausted. They’re exhausted from experiencing racism on a daily basis in almost every environment and situation—and they’re even more exhausted having to explain to white people why something is racist. Of course, even if they do oblige, offering an explanation, they’re usually shot down, argued with, or name-called.
I recognize that calling out racism is uncomfortable, unpleasant work. But you know what’s even more uncomfortable and unpleasant? Being the target of racism every single day. I’m willing to step up and speak up for my friends of color—and my own children—because they already carry the burden of having their melanin weaponized by white people.
I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. I’ve stayed quiet when I should have spoken up, like when I was rendered speechless when the cable guy talked about the slave box. I’ve brushed over or responded unconfidently. I regret every single one of these instances. Yet, I’m staying committed—because my children and people who look like them deserve so much better and more than what we white people are currently giving them.