Dear White Friends Who Are Upset By The Way I Write About Race

I can’t undo an experience that left an indelible mark on my racial psyche.
Publish date:
February 7, 2014
race, privilege, friendship

As most people who know me already know, I was raised in a white family and grew up in an almost entirely white environment throughout my teen years. Subsequently, and because I place a high premium on friendship and loyalty, that means I have a disproportionate amount of white friends from my youth.

It also means that sometimes these white friends from my youth lay claim to feelings of alienation at my admittedly somewhat intransigent efforts at forging racial awareness and encouraging a more inclusive, far-reaching cultural dialogue.

A few recent pieces I’ve written have elicited concern from a few such friends. This piece among them, in which I try to reconcile with my parents' decision to raise their black adopted child (me) in an all-white town, and their overall lack of racial conversancy, prompted one friend to suggest that I wasn’t using my platform properly to discuss interracial adoption: "From your public perch you might consider that you are inadvertently creating a perception that the chasm of race is too burdensome to traverse so don’t even bother trying. Would you prefer that children not get adopted?”

Another friend was concerned by the way I characterized my parents, who I write about in the piece as having loved me and parented me well, but who also made choices that suited their personal lifestyle preferences over what might be most culturally beneficial to their children, which I find problematic as an adult and a parent. She asked: “Isn’t there a kinder way to describe them?”

And still another friend felt that my description of the young white women from college in this piece was unfair (as a point of clarity, I was describing the friends of my friend): “Why is it OK for black people to talk about white people in a stereotypical, racist way?”

Finally, one friend said, when I told her that I can’t undo an experience that left an indelible mark on my racial psyche: “I'm just talking about friends and family and how we talk about them regardless of race. Does this mean you can say anything you want about the people you love and they just have to suck it up because they are white?”

First of all, anyone who uses the phrase “regardless of race” is, for the most part, someone who does not have to regard race. That is important. It is a cornerstone of this conversation. Next, I’m not really here to protect the feelings of my adult white friends -- when we were younger, teens and twenties, my close friends and I were still trying to figure it out, and I was far more willing to allow for their lack of racial awareness then.

But as adults, they should know that the main pillar of racism is that the feelings of white people be protected at all costs -- feelings of fear, intimidation, powerlessness, poverty, incompetence, any kind of discomfort whatsoever.

So that when you, white friends, feel any of these things, you can leave the conversation altogether if you want. That’s an option for you. You can walk away and resume your life in a world that does not regard race, and not ever talk about it or feel uncomfortable about it again. Your cultural amenities will not have altered.

I urge you not to walk away, though. Your feelings will heal. The issue will remain.

Am I discouraging interracial adoption? No. I believe in adoption, but interracial adoption is tricky -- I represent one narrative of an interracial adoptee whose experience was hindered by a lack of cultural awareness.

Is there a kinder way to describe my parents? In that context, I feel like I described them accurately. There have been numerous other occasions during which I have gushed about my parents (primarily in my books), especially my mother, whose emotional IQ and guileless wisdom is unparalleled.

Why is it all right for black people to talk about white people in a stereotypical, racist way? I do not believe that referring to white college-aged women circa 1990 as “prodigiously pleased with their body privilege” is either stereotypical or racist. Not stereotypical, because it's actually rather normative, what glossy magazines are made of (and one of the main reasons I wrote a book about the identities of black girls in America). And not racist, because, well, black folks can’t be racist -- racism is a social power structure that inculcates and perpetuates white superiority over black people.

But the larger question of overall kindness in this particular discussion of race is a bit harder, because I’m not entirely sure that there is a kinder more compassionate way to talk about this issue, this history, this reality that feels so cruel -- so tethered by an almost insistent lack of compassion, rooted in such hideous maleficence.

And while I recognize that my approach to race (both in conversation and writing) might not always be the best or most effective, or even all that appealing to some folks, I never want to needlessly hurt anyone, and try to always make sure that I never come from a mean-spirited place. Because mean-spirited behavior sucks, is nonproductive and entirely self-serving, and also because, as we all know, there’s enough of it out there already.

But also, though most of us can discern mean-spirited or bullying behavior, I think it’s possible for us to have different points of reference when it comes to kindness. Kindness to my mind is when we take all that is everything to us, the most important, we hold fast and dear to it, then jam it into our hearts and trust our voices to do the rest.

Unfortunately, the conversation on race in America will likely never be this kind.