Kali Holloway, Salon, April 14, 2015
America loves teachable moments, those real-life Very Special Episodes of supposed cross-cultural exchange and transracial learning.
The problem with those teachable moments is that the same people always end up doing all the teaching. In matters of race (and sex, disability, gender and sexuality, but let’s stick to race right now), the marginalized are tasked with being educators. That is, people of color (POC), are expected to be patient and polite racial and cultural ambassadors who provide white people new to this whole “thinking critically about race” thing with a “way in.” The role entails charitably and unselfishly engaging questions, assertions and doubts from white people who’ve previously done precious little thinking about racism and privilege, but often have quite a bit to say on the topic.
When POC refuse to take on this dual role of spokesperson and resource library, they’re often accused of having shirked an assumed responsibility. The idea seems to be that we’ve missed an opportunity, that it’s our duty to hold white people’s hands and educate them, that we’re condemning some poor white person to a continued life of ignorance.
It’s a classic tool of derailing, this feigned helplessness and subtly accusatory question of, “If you don’t teach me, how can I learn?” (Implied answer: “I won’t, and it’ll be all your fault!”) The idea is lazy, circuitous and tantamount to accusing POC who don’t want to have the same tiresome, not infrequently pointless, conversation about race of being complicit in racism. The failure to erase racial inequity doesn’t result from POCs’ failure to be patient with uninformed ideas and questions. We live in a world saturated with racism and its runoff. The people who experience it with sustained regularity don’t always feel like talking about it. And that is absolutely fine.
Because here’s the thing: people of color are not obligated to teach even the most well-intentioned white people anything about race. They certainly can if they want to, but it’s neither their duty or obligation. The onus rests on white “allies” to educate themselves.
Here’s why: Conversations around race are often microcosmic representations of structural racism at large. Derailing tactics like the aforementioned essentially serve to divert the conversation back to territory where the derailer feels more comfortable, and perhaps most importantly, help reestablish the traditional power dynamic. Once again, a person of color must focus on and give precedence to a white person’s opinions and queries–and often, their expressions of disbelief–instead of merely being able to speak their experiences. It’s not irresponsible to refuse to let white voices take center stage in a conversation ostensibly about issues of anti-blackness or racism against other POC. It’s an act of resistance that’s actually called “decentering whiteness.”
Yes, of course, learning is good and working to be more consciously and unconsciously anti-racist is great. There should be a lot more of it! But no POC has to serve as any white person’s gateway. Part of the work of being an anti-racist white person is caring enough not to be part of the problem. Start by educating yourself.