So You’ve Been Called Out: A White Person’s Guide to Doing Better

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As someone who writes and talks about race, racism, and white supremacy a lot, I’m used to pushback whenever I point out our racist institutions or racist behavior in individuals. And as a black woman working in mostly progressive spaces, I’m also used to the constant stream of microaggressions and casual racism within our ranks. Occasionally, the racism isn’t so casual at all, but those instances are somewhat rare. What’s not rare is the automatic response whenever I or another person of color dares to point out racist behavior in some of the white folks dwelling in these so-called progressive spaces. A torrent of defensiveness is unleashed at the mere suggestion that the white person in question needs to correct their conduct. This reaction is almost always amplified to outrageous levels because, on the whole, progressives believe themselves to be completely ‘woke’. Anything that puts that wokeness in jeopardy is met with brutal defensiveness.

And because this defensiveness is a constant, I’ve come to know it pretty damned well. It’s the kind of thing that never travels alone. It always arrives in the company of several tried and true excuses for why the behavior or comments weren’t problematic at all. These excuses are so common, so often used, so seemingly set in tired, frustrating stone, that you can set a clock by them.

Suffice to say, I’ve heard each and every one of these excuses more times than I can count, and they’re always brandished by self-identified allies taken fully aback by an uppity negro questioning their solidarity with black and brown folks. So, I figured, why not review them one by one? And, while we’re busy reviewing them, let’s also outline in detail why they’re complete and utter bullshit.

That’s Not What I said!!

Yes, the double exclamation point is absolutely necessary. TBH, I could’ve added upwards of three more. This gem of a go-to response also doubles as a great example of gaslighting, wherein the white person tells the black person that what she heard with her own ears (or read with her own eyes) just isn’t true. It didn’t happen that way. She has to be mistaken. Of course, she’s not mistaken, and this plaintive denial only makes a bad situation worse. That’s not what I said usually pairs well with you’re twisting my words, why are you lying?, and why are you trying to make me look bad?!

I Have Black and/or Brown Friends

There’s no piece of evidence more convincing to a defensive white person newly called out for making a racist comment than a conveniently leveraged roster of nameless, faceless black and brown ‘friends’. These alleged best buds of color serve as a convenient barrier behind which a white person can hide from any and all accountability for problematic words and actions. It’s pretty damned gross, but it happens ALL THE TIME. Black and brown folks don’t exist to shield you from blame for whatever you just did, said, or posted online, white folks. Stop doing this.

And, furthermore, I’d like to go on record by calling bullshit on these folks having black and brown friends in the first place. More like, they’ve seen black and brown folks before. They work with them or went to school with some. That’s likely it. You can’t tell me that you have genuine, deep friendships with people of color and you see no problem with using them as proof that you couldn’t utter a racist comment.

But let’s pretend that you actually do have a black friend (again, doubtful). Just because this single black individual is allegedly fine with your bullshit doesn’t mean that I am, simply because I’m also black. You do understand that’s not how this works, right? I would never expect you to act the same as another white acquaintance because you’re white too. Thinking all black people act essentially the same is part of the problem, as well as further evidence of the impossibility of you having genuine friendships with black people.

You Don’t Know My Heart

This tired excuse is usually either shouted or accompanied by tears. If typed in response to a post or comment, it comes ready with some exclamation points, is in all caps, or both. The translation for this excuse is: forget what I just said or did to you; let’s focus on who I’d like folks to think I am. Because that’s the long and short of all this defensiveness. No matter who you are, getting called out on your inappropriate behavior is uncomfortable. So is knowing that you did or said something that hurt people. I get it. We all like to think we’re good people, and many of us actually are. I truly believe that. But every single one of us was raised in a society that was built on a foundation of racism and white supremacy. Some racist shit is going to come out of your mouths, white folks, often without you realizing why it’s problematic.

If you’re called out on it, instead of taking that as a brutal indictment of your character, understand it for what it really is: an invitation for you to be better. Personal growth is something that shouldn’t stop for any of us as long as we’re alive. Don’t you want to be better tomorrow than you are today? I sure as hell do. And if I’m doing or saying something homophobic, racist, ableist, Islamophobic, transphobic, or antisemitic, I want people to call me on it. Immediately. Why would anyone want anything different?

Everyone Knows I’m Not a Racist

I just had a white woman tell me this the other day. I laughed out loud, of course, but it also made me wonder, aren’t I part of the ‘everyone’ to which you speak? Very telling. I guess you meant every white person knows you’re not racist. But I digress…

This sounds like something Donald Trump would say, TBH. And can we all agree that if you’re sputtering excuses that make you sound like Trump, there’s a problem? Allyship isn’t a state of being. It’s a journey. And the work is never done. You don’t reach a state of ‘genuine ally’ that, once attained, means you can’t behave in an ignorant, hurtful manner. Don’t brandish your DIY ally badge at me like it wipes away the impact of your terrible behavior. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you don’t get to announce to marginalized communities that you’re their ally. That’s something that gets said about you. Like coolness. Loudly proclaiming yourself cool just means you’re not cool at all. Only calling yourself cool doesn’t hurt anyone, but calling yourself an ally while refusing to listen to POCs when they point out your hurtful behavior actually is causing harm. And following that up by using the blunt end of your defensiveness as a weapon against said POC only multiplies the damage done.

I’m Fighting For You and You’re Just Being Divisive

Calling a black person divisive is a white person’s best chance at quickly ending a conversation that could be damaging to their self-image. Because defensiveness is what happens when the idea of who we are comes face to face with the reality of who we show up as in the world. When someone calls you out for racist comments or behavior, they are implicitly pointing out the gap between who you say you are and who you show yourself to be in your day to day life.

It’s always struck me as odd that the pointing out of racism is considered more divisive to some white folks than the racism itself. But, that’s the situation in which black folks and other POCs find themselves in this country. That’s bad enough, but it’s also the situation in which we find ourselves in progressive spaces and movements. And, if we point it out, woe be to divisive, ungrateful, angry, troublemaking us.

Just because you’ve never been called out before doesn’t mean you’re good to go. Since the situation so often turns nuclear when we point out racist behavior, many POCs don’t even bother to bring it up. Sometimes, it’s just easier to put it behind us and get on with our day, especially since much of the fallout usually ends up burning us. If a POC actually calls you out, keep that in mind. She probably dealt with many dozens of microaggressions before she finally broke and said something to you. She probably calculated the pros and cons using the same automatic equations POCs know all too well. Because, most of the time, it’s just not fucking worth the trouble, no matter how unfairly we’re treated.

I Don’t Even See Color

I wish I had a couple dollars for every time a white person has told me this. I’d have a fuckton of dollars. But, instead, I just have enough pent up frustration to power another thousand articles like this one.

White folks, we all see color. It’s ridiculous to pretend otherwise. What’s more, I want you to see me as black. I just don’t want you to lose your damn mind and treat me like a second class citizen solely based on that blackness. And, for the record, that’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted too, despite your carefully curated understanding of his I Have a Dream speech. The Promised Land had nothing to do with being unable to see racial differences. That’s just ridiculous and lazy. It’s about treating each other the way we hope to be treated: with fairness and respect. It’s about equality, accessibility, and inclusivity in all facets of American life.

The problem isn’t that I’m black and you’re white. The problem is that we live in a society designed to benefit you because of your whiteness and oppress me because of my blackness. You didn’t have anything to do with how that system was constructed, but any racist attitudes and behavior uphold that system instead of tearing it down. Don’t you want to stop upholding that unfair, oppressive system? If so, think of being called out as a blessing. It opens a door to a better way of showing up in this world. It leads to personal growth. And once you walk through that door, you can turn to help others through it as well. Or you can ride away from that opportunity on a tidal wave of your own self righteous defensiveness, which helps no one, least of all you.

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