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Now this is a sensitive topic, and I do not wish to offend anyone's sensibilities - but at the same time, I want to know of an effective way of dealing with the disproportionate emotional work required of me, as a black male living in a white majority country.

I have experienced that talking about racism and race issues with white people can be particularly emotionally draining and frustrating, because of the constant defensiveness, deflections, "tonal" arguments and gaslighting.

I prefer not to discuss race issues with white acquaintances, because in some respects we live parallel lives, and humans have a tendency of not seeing (or trivialising/being dismissive of) things that don't affect them directly.

Over the years, I have become fed up with these kind of issues. I do understand that some white people do really want to understand and be part of the solution. However, I don't feel it's my duty to do the emotional work of unpackaging these issues (some of which may involve reliving personal instances of humiliation etc), especially when the "listener" can decide to walk away at any time and ignore it all, since they may have no "skin in the game".

I would like to know how to POLITELY, RESPECTFULLY BUT FIRMLY, deal with any attempts by white people to engage with me on discussing issues involving race without taking on the emotional burden of explaining things and WITHOUT sounding bitter, resentful or fedup.

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    @Sentinel OP is in Europe but repeatedly rolled back edits adding this information to the question. – Em C Apr 12 '18 at 13:34
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    I'm locking the question to give us all a chance to talk about it on meta. The existing meta question seems overly confrontational, but I'll pitch in an answer there today. – Jon Ericson Apr 12 '18 at 15:12
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    @u_r_grounded In order to prevent this question from being closed, or having the controversy distract from your very real concerns, I have made edits that directly address the discussion in meta. Please feel free to revert if these edits do not match your intentions, but I have worked hard to highlight your concerns rather than minimize them. I'm working from the assumption that while your specific situation is definitely a black-white issue, it does match a larger general situation of being a minority in a situation with an uneven power dynamic. – Chris Sunami Apr 13 '18 at 16:17
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    @u_r_grounded See also my comments here for my philosophy on the edit: See also my comments here: interpersonal.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/2776/… NOTE: My edits have since been reverted by another person. If you would like to see them, they are in the edit history. – Chris Sunami Apr 13 '18 at 16:25

10 Answers 10

17

I saw your update:

POLITELY, RESPECTFULLY BUT FIRMLY

Polite, respectful and firm: "I'm sure you have good intentions [polite to assume good will] and while I respect people's viewpoints, I intensely dislike this discussion. I am glad that you will respect my preference [respectful as you're assuming the "sale" of them ending the topic]."

It's also very firm.

because in some respects we live parallel lives

We all do. Imagine you complain about a traffic jam to a Holocaust survivor: do you think your experience and the survivor's experience are even remotely related as far as pain of a moment? No. We don't know every experience other people have gone through and we all live different experiences; some try to understand others, but recognize no one does it perfectly. We have at least 3 options if we don't want to discuss a topic - be direct, be indirect, or ignore.

Be direct. "You don't come from my [race/background/experience] and you'll never understand, so I don't want to know or hear what you [think/believe/feel]." You make it clear that they are not your equal in your experience and never will be. It's direct so most people will get the message.

Be indirect. "I have to go catch [something]" or "I forgot about [something]" or "I'm not really interested in this topic, sorry, [change topic]." This is more polite to move the conversation to another topic.

Ignore. This works beautifully at work when you're in a meeting and the conversation is on a topic that you don't want to engage in at all, like politics. It takes a LOT OF WORK, but learning to tune everyone out regardless of what they're saying is a major skill that is very rewarding. You'll ultimately learn to be self-directed even in a world of noise.

Of course, we could engage the person with the belief that they might have a good intent and try to show kindness, even if they don't "get it." What should I say to someone who tells me they survived the Holocaust? Is "sorry" enough? Nothing I say will ever make up for their experiences, but thankfully, I've known a few who didn't expect me to fully understand and didn't judge me for it. Those are wonderful people!

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    1). It suits my personality perfectly. I'm not an obsequious person, who smiles politely and turns the other cheek. I tend not to suffer fools gladly (especially on recurring behavioural patterns). Thus, this answer feels the "most natural" to me. – user16607 Apr 13 '18 at 9:49
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    2). It expressly does what I asked for. It provides a response that allows me to remain professional (i.e. polite and respectful) but FIRM, and allows me to avoid the nasty stereotype of the "angry black man". In a way, it allows me to say "Stay the hell in your lane!" whilst remaining calm and professional. This suits me perfectly, and is balm for my soul. – user16607 Apr 13 '18 at 9:49
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    3). It has a brilliant gradation to it in that it comes with a "nuclear option" that allows me to escalate things further if the person remains insistent ("But why can't you tell me?, we're friends!", "How will I learn if you don't tell me?", "I thought I was your friend!", "We have to be able to talk about these things, etc".) - all the whilst, remaining calm and professional, and not having to resort to swearing due to frustration and feeling cornered. – user16607 Apr 13 '18 at 9:50
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    "You don't come from my [race/background/experience] and you'll never understand, so I don't want to know or hear what you [think/believe/feel]." This is incredibly dismissive and accusatory; I'd call it rude. A far more polite approach is the one the OP takes in the question: "Being a person who is not of my race, there are a lot of things you haven't experienced. I find it incredibly draining and unpleasant to explain those experiences, so I don't want to discuss the issue." This is both more polite and more honest. The OP doesn't want to spend the effort, which is certainly their choice. – jpmc26 Apr 13 '18 at 18:54
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    U_r - the real challenge here is, I think, that you have misunderstood what this site is for and how it works. It is purely a Q&A site. It is not a discussion forum. The question has been edited because the question structure did not fit our structure requirements. Not because of any "white fragility" or any other offensive assumptions you may make about the community, but because the site just doesn't work like that. – Rory Alsop Apr 14 '18 at 11:44
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I've been the white person in that situation, and probably more blundering than I want to admit. I have friends who are black, gay, and transgender, and all of them have had to deal with clueless majority people expecting them to be always-on ambassadors for their groups. It's exhausting. (As a member of a minority religion I get some of this from your side, but not nearly as much as I've seen others get.)

I've seen my friends use two types of responses, depending on how well they know the person. For acquaintances, they say something like this:

I try to avoid discussions about that. I know you mean well, but I get this a lot and it can be pretty draining for me.

Explaining the negative effect on you signals to a polite person to change the subject.

If the person says something about wanting to learn rather than wanting to have a discussion (which could easily turn into a debate), you can suggest other resources.

For closer friends -- and I've been on the receiving end of this -- they elaborate on the "draining" part. A black friend once explained the discomfort of being in a white-majority environment with casual racism (you know, the suspicious look, holding the purse more closely, crossing the street quickly, that sort of thing) by comparing it to some experiences we'd both had as women in the professional workplace. A transgender friend explained the discomfort of having her entire community judged and scrutinized based on what one person says; she can only talk about herself, not transgender people in general, but she's had trouble communicating that so she avoids these conversations. The key is to let the person see a bit of what you deal with, enough to get the idea that there's a whole lot more there -- you're showing rather than telling that it's a topic fraught with emotion. As I said earlier, this is for close friends, not casual coworkers.

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    Thanks very much for your answer (I wish I could upvote it several times more). Sending you virtual hugs from over here :). Thanks for not being overly defensive and willing to listen/learn. Clearly, you have walked a path off the beaten trail that few have cared/dared to. For what it's worth, I'll have no problems whatsoever, dicsussing issues of race with someone who has made the effort to educate themselves, and is willing to listen and learn - as you clearly have! – user16607 Apr 11 '18 at 19:32
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    @u_r_grounded: What you wrote in the question is a great answer if someone asks for more details of why you don't want to discuss it. If you have the time/energy, say some of that! I (and I hope most other reasonable people) can accept that a subject is painful / emotionally draining for someone without understanding the details of how / why. So instead of getting into specifics, you can try to keep it at a meta level and talk about how talking about it makes you feel. Possibly that's a good way to find out if someone is willing to listen and learn in the first place, but I'm guessing. – Peter Cordes Apr 13 '18 at 8:25
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A friend of mine shut me down pretty effectively by saying:

I'm not a spokesman for my race.

(She's African American, and she say's I'm "the 2nd whitest white person I know")

To be honest, I was a bit stung at the time because I was honestly, earnestly, and I guess a bit naively trying to understand - which I think is exactly what you're dealing with. But I got it. And we're still friends.

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I think that motivations for not wanting to engage are not as important as the overall desire to engage or not. If someone wanted to ask me questions about something that I didn't want to talk about, I'd respond with "Thanks for asking; I don't discuss that with others." When I say that, I smile and try to be as gracious as possible.

I find that the response of "I don't do [X]" is not argumentative and doesn't give anything to debate. If someone asks why I don't, I'll respond with a simple "I choose not to" and if they get insistent, I say "Suppose I explain why. How will that change the fact that I don't discuss this?" That makes it plain that I'm not interested and it would be a long process with an unchanged ending, so we can all save ourselves a lot of trouble.

Given that the whole point is to simply not engage, this (I think) will be the least frustrating. It is for me and changes the focus of the discussion from "why I don't do this" to "whether I would do this". It prevents my emotions from rising relative to something painful and allows me to focus on something other than the situation that causes me to not want to talk about something.

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If your goal is to not upset people then try to treat it like any other request that you don't have the time or bandwidth to deal with.

Tell them "I don't have the time to have a long conversation explaining this to you right now." I use similar statements when rebuffing requests from everyone from relatives to coworkers when they are asking things of me that I don't have the time to deal with.

If your reasoning for not wanting to explain something is less to do with not having the time and more because of the complicated nature of the subject. Tell them "This is a complicated subject, I don't want to go there with you right now." Making the obstacles to you explaining it to them internal makes it harder for people to try to argue around your resistance with telling them.

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    +1 Thanks for that insight. However, this is just deferring the conversation to another time, and somehow, they are also not getting the message that "I don't want to go there" with them (at least, until they have demonstrated that they are aware of the thorny nature of the subject, and they are prepared to be uncomfortable) - otherwise, they'll persist (I've been there many times). – user16607 Apr 11 '18 at 15:27
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    You could add a bit to this about what to do if they take this as "ask again later" and keep asking - do you just reuse the excuse? Make it more direct? – Cascabel Apr 11 '18 at 17:00
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The other answers are good. Let people know that non-black ignorance of the black experience is a significant part of the problem, and they can help by educating themselves. If you had a set of resources to recommend, you'd be helping lighten the burden long-term. I personally find following black and activist twitter accounts has been a very informative thing to do (books and essays by these writers also very good):

  • DeRay Mckesson
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Roxanne Gay
  • Samuel Sinyangwe
  • Carvell Wallace
  • bell hooks

Honestly, there are many more. I would suggest including some evangelical Christian anti-racism for people in that episteme, but although Russell Moore is to some extent on the case, I don't know of a thorough theological anti-racism text. I'm sure they exist, but boy, a lot of racists seem to still attend church and think Christianity supports their racism. I've argued with them on Twitter from time to time. My wife really recommends the 'Truth's Table' podcast.

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    It is important to keep in mind that there is no single "the black experience" and that the experience and viewpoints of black people is not homogeneous. pewsocialtrends.org/2016/06/27/… – Reid Apr 12 '18 at 5:27
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    Reid, that's somewhat true, people and communities vary widely. I'd happily drop the 'the'. How do you read that link though? There is a spectrum of experience and opinion in both communities, and the black spectrum varies significantly from the white spectrum almost all the time. If racism comes from inaccurate ideas projected on black people because they are black, the variations of black responses to questions are less relevant than the average white responses (as an estimator of the sample of white judgments of black people) deviating widely from where black people see themselves. – Atcrank Apr 12 '18 at 6:23
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    Deray is openly racist himself. I'd suggest excluding him for a better example. – user2921 Apr 12 '18 at 12:57
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    I'm surprised at the low ranking of this answer! I think this is the correct response. -- "I'll be happy to talk to you, but I need you to do some work first to get up to speed." I'd also add Desmond Cole's excellent article in Toronto Life -"The Skin That I'm In" torontolife.com/city/life/… – Chris Cudmore Apr 12 '18 at 13:04
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    I think this may be low-ranked because it is mostly a list of possible resources, and could be improved by adding more about the interpersonal skills involved: for example, can you elaborate on how you would make the recommendation while not actually engaging in conversation about the topic? – Em C Apr 12 '18 at 13:32
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You already have a good handle on what it is you want to do. You want to firmly and effectively close down conversations with people who are either uninformed or close-minded on issues of race, without taking on responsibility for enlightening them or being cast as the unhelpful person with a chip on their shoulder.

You’ve kind of already answered your own question through various comments and revisions of your original post. I don’t aim to put words in your mouth, but you already know that:

  • Mostly those people raising race issues with you know little about them never having had to know much about them.
  • Learning about them is going to make them feel a range of emotions which could include any or all of:

    • Surprise/horror/disappointment (at themselves, history, the world at large)
    • Disbelief, defensiveness and denial, or feeling accused, leading to a desire to rationalise it all away,
    • guilt, sadness, anger, anxiety or general discombobulation,
    • fear of loss of privilege

    • with understanding and rational acceptance being a long ways down the line for some people, and taking time to get to.

You don’t have the emotional resources or inclination to hand-hold them through that roller-coaster or be their emotional punch bag, and frankly I don’t blame you a jot.

What you have mentioned in comments is that you aren’t willing to engage

until they have demonstrated that they are aware of the thorny nature of the subject, and they are prepared to be uncomfortable

which links very closely to what Martie Sirois says in her Blog-post ‘The Kind of Racism You Don’t Even Know You Have’ <~~~ (I don't know why it doesn't look like one, but this is a link. Perhaps its just my monitor.)

It is not the responsibility of minorities (people of color, gay, trans, etc.) to educate you or to forgive you every time you have another, and another, and another lapse. It is your responsibility to take the initiative to do better on your own. How? Read black (or gay, or trans, or feminist) writers. Listen to their voices. When they are talking, do not knee-jerk and say something defensive in response. Just. Listen. The only time it’s acceptable to say something in response is if you’re going to take what you learned from that marginalized community or person, and use it to further the conversation and help educate other white people (or heterosexual people, or cisgender people).

So your answer lies there, and much of it in your own words already. You don’t want to put people off learning about issues around race, but you can’t do it for them. So sugar the pill a little with a compliment before you tell them what you have told us, unequivocally, and then stick to your position, perhaps something like this, or something paraphrased from the Sirois’s blog:

It’s cool that you’re interested, more people should be. But if you really want to know about this stuff there’s a road you have to travel and I can’t be your short cut. You’ve got to do some reading, listening and thinking about what you read and hear. You’re probably going to feel uncomfortable with some of it and need to take time coming to terms with some of what you find before you get to where talking to me will help either of us.

If they push, you need to hold to that:

It doesn’t help either of us to start from here

What you will then need to decide is how you will respond if people go away and do just enough reading to come back and complain that white privilege never did a thing for them….

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    Great answer. The only thing I'd add is that the OP can (and probably should) also mention that it's emotionally draining for them to try to "be their short cut". That also adds a sort of, "I won't talk about it because of my problem," tone to it, which is truthful, polite, and appropriate. It's also much more difficult for the interested person to dismiss. – jpmc26 Apr 13 '18 at 20:53
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I feel the same way when people talk about politics as I live in a city where my political views are different than the majority. I just don't feel like arguing about it, really ever. So what I do is just seem completely uninterested when someone brings up politics. I never say, let's not talk about that. I just only say a few words here and there. Or even better I start making lighthearted jokes about it to let them know I'm not taking their super serious heavy political discussion seriously. Then guess what. They laugh and somehow the topic changes without anyone even noticing (except me). And they stop bringing it up.

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    This answer doesn't relate much to the issue posed in the question. Being a black person isn't a political position: you can talk with someone and change their political position (if that's never possible, that person is correctly described as unreasonable). This isn't the case for a person's black identity: no conversation is going to change the fact they're a black person. – bignose Apr 13 '18 at 0:50
  • Hi Steve! I understand this is quite an old answer, but can you relieve the worry expressed in the comment above (That this might not work due to a difference between discussing politics and issues related to skin colour) with an edit? How do you think the two are similar enough to work? – Tinkeringbell Jan 14 at 19:38
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If you're facing these kinds of conversations on social media, a great resource is White Nonsense Roundup. They're a volunteer organization that believes people of color have enough on their plates and shouldn't have to explain racism to white people, so they "round up their own" to educate about race issues. You can tag them in a post and a volunteer will take over for you in explaining the issue at hand. I've tagged them a couple times and they've been great.

If the conversations are in person, you can just tell them you don't want to talk about it and change the conversation. If they persist, remind them that just because you're a person of color, it doesn't mean you're an expert on the issue or want to engage in these conversations. Remind them that they're perfectly capable of doing their own research and that there are a plethora of resources on the internet.

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I can't really say that I "know how you feel" my experience is different, but it's somewhat similar. I'm a queer person, and being publicly "out" I often get put in the position of playing spokesperson and have to explain things to straight people. And that's admittedly frustrating, particularly when the questions are more of a facade used to proclaim innocence...

Lots of people really don't "know better" and I usually try to give them the benefit of the doubt. I try to be calm, I try to be nice, but at a point I definitely want to say "UGHHH STRAIGHT PEOPLE! Just Google it!"

What seems to work a lot of the time is just being honest with them.

I don't mind having a respectful conversation about this stuff, but I have my limits. If you're honestly just curious about the subject I don't mind answering questions, but please be aware of how personal some of these questions really are...

This sets the stage for a hopefully productive conversation, and if it starts to go off the rails, I can step away without too much fuss.

If you're flatly not interested in having these conversations, with an uneducated conversation partner, you can absolutely say that too.

Sorry, I usually find these conversations too taxing. If you're really interested, you can find some pretty good info on X, Y, and Z. If you still have questions after doing some research on your own, feel free to hit me up.

I find that it helps to assume that people are well meaning, even if they're a little ignorant. I know that in itself becomes taxing. An awful lot of people aren't really well meaning, and extending the benefit of the doubt becomes really exhausting, but it helps. Treating people like horrible, hateful bigots straight out the gate can become a self fulfilling prophecy. When approached that way, people get defensive and often start to behave poorly in response...

locked by Catija Apr 13 '18 at 15:17

This post has been locked while disputes about its content are being resolved. For more info visit meta.

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    apaul, if you have issues, take it up on meta. DO NOT use your answer to attack other answers or the other users on this site. – Catija Apr 11 '18 at 19:03
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Comments on answers is not an appropriate place to hash out your thoughts on racism. Take it to chat or move along. – Catija Apr 11 '18 at 19:05
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    This post is being discussed on meta: interpersonal.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/2780/… – apaul Apr 11 '18 at 20:15
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    Please @apaul... P.L.E.A.S.E. Don't rollback / edit and don't keep on adding fuel to the flame. I can't feel what you feel, as I can't feel what OP feels (I was born European, white and straight, bad luck ^^ - that's also why I stay away from this topic, I sit back, read and think, try to understand...). But this controversial topic (OP) has to be discussed on meta until the community reaches a consensus. Put the fight mode on "pause" for a while please. – OldPadawan Apr 13 '18 at 6:59
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    Readding an (to the community) even more insulting blurb immediately after the moderator lock expired and directly contrarily to explicit instructions is not acceptable conduct, in my opinion. Consider removing both. – Magisch Apr 13 '18 at 8:44

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