Challenge white silence

I was grading essays and writing a summary for work, but also distracted by email and Facebook. I read a few lines of an article — “Why Black People Are Cowards” — and posted it. It was now on my timeline for all the world to see.

The piece was satirical, meant to stir people into being more courageous in the face of racism. But I quickly had second thoughts. How would it play out coming from me, a white woman? I quickly posted two other articles critical of white people to counterbalance. Finally, I just deleted all three.

Too often, this is what it feels like for white people to talk about race: Tentative, tiptoeing, halting fits and starts, and finally, fleeing for dear life. It’s a counterproductive dance that after our long history we should be getting better at.

Yet when it comes to talking about race, many people would prefer to do just about anything else. I teach Italian language and culture at Emory University and regularly lead diversity initiatives on campus. But even for me, somebody who is used to talking about race, I am cautious when having these discussions, and the cowardice argument from the “Black People Are Cowards” blog post hit me hard.

Can I be bold, honest and courageous while also respectful and compassionate? Or does being part of a privileged group force me into a cheerleader position in conversations about race? Can I be critical of other nationalities, ethnicities and races in a constructive, unbiased way? Do I, as a member of a privileged group, even have a right to be critical? A black friend of mine recently said no. He could, but because I am white, he said, I would run into problems.

However, in “Understanding and Dismantling Privilege,” education scholar Robin DiAngelo states that people of privilege need to become involved in discussions on race. “White silence,” she says, “functions to maintain white power and privilege and must be challenged.”

Racial biases have real consequences. Qualified black professionals with equal or more experience than white applicants are overlooked in the job market, according to a study by Malik Miah, editor of “Against the Current.” These jobs are going to less-qualified whites.

In a 2012 study, Kellogg School of Management Professor Lauren A. Riviera concludes that members of upper management, composed of predominantly educated upper-middle and upper-class white men and women, often hire those who prefer activities associated with people of their own backgrounds. And part of the reason management doesn’t move beyond this practice is because managers are unaware they do this.

The first step in making people aware of privilege is to talk about race in a robust way.

There are things we can do to make online conversations easier. The next time I come across a controversial article, I will post it but also put it into context. Asking my readers their opinion about the article would have opened up the conversation, not shut it down. I could have included my own anecdote to further discussion. And admitting my discomfort while expressing a desire to create change can empower everyone to come up with a positive way forward.

Christine Ristaino is a professor of Italian language and culture at Emory University.

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