Things Not To Say As a White Person When Talking About Racism (Updated)

Not all white people are racist.

True. Also irrelevant. Not all white people are racist but we all benefit from being white because we live in a world that is structured to give white people advantages and that makes whiteness the default.

#notallwhitepeople is also an attempt to change the subject from people of colour and racism to how most white people are good and why are talking about racism anyway?

Sexism is much worse than racism.

Unknowable. However, we do know that being a white woman is easier than being a woman who is not white. The funny thing about oppression is that it operates on multiple axes, you can be black AND a woman. You can be black and a woman and disabled and a lesbian. These are not separate categories, which is why intersectionality is so important. Thank you Kimberlé Crenshaw for giving us a way to talk about oppression in a more nuanced way.

Some white women bring up sexism in conversations about racism with women of colour. We change the subject to sexism because it is something we can talk about with authority, unlike race, where we often feel uncomfortable because we have a vague feeling that it’s somehow our fault. Quick! Let’s talk about something else! We white women need to remember that WoC know as much, if not more, about sexism as we do. They do not need to have sexism explained to them. They are aware. So. Very. Aware.

We white women also need to remember that feminism does not have an entirely unracist history. Some of the suffragettes in the USA were also members of the Klu Klux Klan and fought for the vote for women because they were outraged that black men could vote and they couldn’t. Even though in practise many black men were prevented from voting. Always know your history.

I don’t see colour.

Get your eyes checked.

When white people say they don’t see colour what they’re saying is that they don’t notice what race someone is. Let’s just say that’s possible and you really can’t tell what race anyone is—how is that contributing to a discussion about racism? You’re making the conversation about you and your perceptions of the world. The people who experience racism see the world differently. We’re talking about them, not you.

Why aren’t we talking about class? Lots of white people are poor, you know. Capitalism is the root cause of all suffering. Discrimination against the working class is worse than racism.

Unknowable. Once again instead of talking about racism the subject is changed. Let’s not talk about race, let’s talk about class! Let’s not.

And once again with forgetting that people of colour can also be working class and thus suffer the double whammy. Or triple whammy if they’re a woman. Or quadruple if they’re disabled. Etc.

Let’s not forget that rich, famous POC still suffer racism. Oprah has been discriminated against because she’s black. More recently tennis star James Blake was attacked by the New York Police. There are endless examples.

Me? Privileged? My parents worked in a coal mine! My mum was murdered! I have no legs! I live in a hole on the side of the road!

I’m sorry for your suffering but you’re changing the subject. We’re talking about racism not about how you have suffered. Everyone has suffered. Most of us have been discriminated against in one way or the other. But that’s not what this conversation about. We’re talking about race.

I’m not racist. My ancestors didn’t own slaves. This is not my fault.

Congratulations. Also irrelevant. White supremacy gives all whites an advantage PoC don’t have regardless of their individual actions. Systemic racism is not about individuals being good or bad. It’s about whole systems discriminating. Those systems need to be torn down.

White is a broad category. You can’t put wealthy USians in the same category as poor Romanians.

White is indeed a broad category. So are statements that can be used to change the topic from talking about racism like this one.

Whiteness is also a changing category. It used to be that Jews and the Irish and Italians weren’t included as white.1 But now they are. Talking about past constructions of white when we’re trying to talk about racism here and now is changing the subject. Don’t.

You know what else is a broad category? People of colour. Think about how many different peoples are encompassed by that term in the USA. Many of them with little else in common other than being discriminated against because they’re not white.

Why do we have to keep talking about racism? Obama is in the white house.

Because racism still rules our lives. Mango is a fruit.

In case you don’t get it that’s me sarcastically pointing out that there is little connection between those two statements. There have always been exceptional PoC—Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth—who’ve managed to succeed despite the overwhelming odds against them. It says little about systemic racism.

Slavery was ages ago. Blacks people should stop using it as an excuse.

Actually slavery wasn’t ages ago. Trust me on this. Or, you know, read this book or watch the movie.

Long-term institutional oppression is not an “excuse”. Read this. No, really, you need to read Ta-Nehisi Coates explaining the systemic reasons black people in the USA are worse off than whites. It was true in the past and it is true today.

Asian people earn more than whites in the USA! They’re not oppressed.

How many Asian actors are there playing leads in Hollywood movies? How often do you see Asians on your tv screen? How many books are there by Asians on bestseller lists? And this is a problem even in Asian countries like Singapore.

Leaving aside representation Asian-Americans do extremely well in high school yet a lower percentage go to elite universities in the US than whites.2

Being held up as the “model minority” has a myriad of downsides.

Yes, racism is terrible I’m going to fix it by writing novels with more POC characters even though I know very few POC.

We absolutely need more books with PoC characters but we also need those books to be written by PoC. Sometimes write what you know is good advice. If you only know white people stick to writing white people. Right now in YA publishing there are more PoC characters written by whites than by PoC. That’s part of the problem.

Also, while I agree that representation is hugely important, better representation won’t automatically fix everything. If only . . .

My great great great great grandmother was Comanche so I understand.

*head desk* Okay, yes, if you go far enough back we all have mixed backgrounds. I’m a descendent of Genghis Khan. But so is a 0.5% of the world’s population. In my day to day life no one is looking at my epicanthic fold and thinking I’m anything but white. There are, obviously, many white passing PoC. I am not one of them. Nor are you with your great great great great grandmother. We were both raised white by white parents. Every day we benefit from our white privilege. We are white.

We white people need to stop trying to make everything about us. Every one of these strategies is about changing the subject to make us the centre of the conversation. Enough already. Often the best strategy is to sit and listen and read and learn.

Here are some other posts on what white people shouldn’t be saying when discussing racism. Via @fonticulus and @SamJBrody

TL;DR We white people need to stop changing the subject so that we talk about anything other than racism.

Note: While much of what I’m saying here applies more broadly, I’m largely talking about the USA because that is the country whose history I know the best. And, yes, before you say anything, I am a US citizen. I am an Australian-USian.

There are many many more examples of what not to say. Please add them to the comments. Thank you!

  1. Of course some Jews and Irish and Italians aren’t white. Once again this is why intersectionality is so important. See for example the African diaspora Jews in Israel and the discrimination against them there.Thanks to @sarahrhamburg for reminding me of this. []
  2. I couldn’t find the stats for Asian-Australians. []


  1. Michelle on #

    I ask this out of genuine curiosity (and perhaps as a furthering of the discussion). In this post you say, “We absolutely need more books with PoC characters but we also need those books to be written by PoC. Sometimes write what you know is good advice. If you only know white people stick to writing white people.” Your YA novel LIAR features a black girl as narrator. In the intervening 5+ years since the book’s publication, have your thoughts on white authors writing PoC protagonists changed?

    • Justine on #

      I discuss that question in this post. And intend to expand on it in another post soon.

      • Michelle on #

        I can’t seem to get the link to work. But I’ll definitely look forward to your future post on the subject.

        • Justine on #

          Weird. The link is working for me. It’s just the post before this one so you can use the navigation button at the bottom of this post.

  2. Veronica Schanoes on #

    “Well, I’ve never seen [insert racist thing here] happen!”

    No shit, Sherlock. You’re white. You are much less likely to witness or experience racist discrimination. Why not trust the experts here, the people with all the experience of being non-white?

    “[Insert racist thing here] happens to white women, too!”

    Yes, white women are told their looks are not acceptable by a misogynist culture. Yes, white women are labeled “sluts.” And no, it is not the same experience as when things like that are done to you in the context of a racist society that devalues your race and heritage. It’s very different. Again, be quiet and listen to the people that have the experience.

    • Justine on #

      Exactly. I didn’t cover “There is only one race” either. It depresses me that there are so many of these . . .

  3. Shveta on #

    As always, I love you, Justine. 🙂

  4. Debbie Reese on #

    Can I offer one? As a Native woman? I get this one a lot.

    Person, with wistful eyes, says to me “When I was a kid I wanted so bad to be an Indian.”

    I wait for them to say more. I hope they will share realizations they’ve come to, as an adult, but they don’t say more. I know they say that as a way to tell me that they like Indians, but they have no idea what it means to be me. They don’t really want to be me. They want to be that Indian who is one-with-nature.

    If they were me, they’d have a lot of scars inside them. Some little ones, some big ones. Some from childhood when the principal would say “all you Indian kids raise your hands” and then hand us a tablet and pencil (supplies we’d get due to federal funds). Some from being spat on or cursed at when sports fans didn’t like you protesting their mascot–even if it was a silent protest. Some from being told that your concerns about how Native people are depicted in children’s or YA literature don’t matter, because fiction is fiction.

    I love who I am. I don’t talk about what we (in my case, Pueblo Indians) do, because then people will try to do it, too, and tell me they do it to honor me.

    I love who I am. And people who tell me they want to be an Indian… they don’t love me. They love their idea of me.

    • Justine on #

      Thank you for sharing that. It’s so heartbreaking. And thank you too, Deb, for your wonderful blog. I’ve learned so much.

  5. Toby on #

    I’m just here because Scalzi retweeted this. But I ended up confused and scolded. I just wanna be a person.

    On second thought, maybe if we didn’t spend so much time talking about how shitty racism is, maybe we just get on with life and fight till we die like everybody else. Explain to me why there is so much talk about racism, other than selling more papers. It’s like an industry of its own.

    • Justine on #

      Your comment is exactly why we need posts like this. Because you don’t understand that racism is real and kills people because it doesn’t affect you, which is why you’d rather the conversation go away so you don’t have to think about it. Not going to happen.

      • Ellen oh on #

        Oh no he didn’t… Oh my god he did. Can I insert the eternally head banging gif here?

        • Justine on #

          Well now puzzled readers can see why we have to keep writing posts like this, right? Got the evidence right there.

      • Toby on #

        Agree to disagree. What I don’t like is that racism masks bad behaviour that may or may not be related. Stereotypes persist. Why? The actions of a few badly behaved (black, white, and purple) causes suffering for the whole, and this is a much more powerful discussion.

        Lastly, say we defeat racism, then what? In a post racism world there is still so much to do. Let’s do those things now and not wait.

        I hope you can see this as engagement with your point of view, which is a view I have seen many places, and still disagree with, but I respect your right to it.

        • Justine on #

          You can respect me all you want but the problem is that you are flat out wrong. You have zero historical understanding of how we got to this point in history where black Americans are still denied housing, shot in the streets, imprisoned at a a vastly higher rate than white Americans. These are not accidents. None of these has anything to do with individual behaviours but with systemic inequality. With the fact that black Americans have fewer opportunities, less money and capital than white Americans and that is a direct result of racist policies that began with slavery. So, no, I don’t respect your point of view because you are ignorant, ill-informed and are showing no willingness to listen let alone learn.

    • Alisha Rai on #

      “Explain to me why there is so much talk about racism, other than selling more papers.”

      Because it kills people.

      Because it causes pain and suffering.

      Because it can affect livelihoods, financial stability, and interpersonal relationships.

      Because it’s super-sucky that there are humans in the world who would rather not examine a systemic issue that kills, hurts, and damages other humans because it personally makes them feel confused and scolded.

      This explanation’s just off the top of my head, tho.

      • Justine on #

        Perfect. Thank you.

  6. Ellen oh on #

    Also, would love to add the “All Asians wanna be white” comment that we hear way too often. It also goes hand in hand with the “Well you Asians are more white…” uh, no we are not. And if one more person patronizingly tells me Koreans clearly want to be white because of plastic surgery, I might do some serious harm. The fact that Asians get plastic surgery is not because they want to be white but because they have bought into a dangerous fallacy that certain beauty standards are more admirable. It is similar to the unrealistic standard of beauty in this country and the forever example of the Barbie proportions being an impossible standard.

    • Justine on #

      Thank you. It’s like assuming that white people who have their lips enlarged want to be black. Oh, but, wait, no one assumes that . . .

  7. Lizzie on #

    Great and necessary article to be written by someone in YA, as discussions on race in YA often get derailed in not okay ways. One thing I want to say, though, is that Jewish =/= white (“Whiteness is also a changing category. It used to be that Jews and the Irish and Italians weren’t included as white. But now they are.”)

    There are many Jewish PoC & erasing them and acting as though Judaism is a homogenous race (white) rather than an oppressed religion assists in denying antisemitism, especially antisemitism against Jewish PoC (like myself and my family; we’re Venezuelan Jews). This intersection of identities has been denied by many people who say that PoC Jews can’t actually be PoC since we are Jews, which is associated with whiteness. (Not as often someone will say I can’t be Jewish because I’m a PoC, but definitely the former is something I hear more often.) It’s a common rhetoric but a dangerous one. I hope you don’t mind me saying this — I don’t mean in any way to derail from your (extremely important) words, just seek to let you know about a small thing in your giant big amazing thing that left me a little unsettled.

    • Justine on #

      Not at all. Thank you. I had, in fact, just added a footnote to that effect after @sarahrhamburg reminded me of it on Twitter. I have white Jewish family and I do default to whiteness on Jewishness. I’m really sorry.

      • Lizzie on #

        I really appreciate you taking the time to read and respond to my comment. Like I said, I really did enjoy this article (and in general I find all of your articles very important and well worded), and the additional footnote makes it much easier for me to share it in good conscience.

        • Justine on #

          I’m so glad you commented. It’s really important for people to see how easy it is to elide some identities in talking about race.

        • Sarah on #

          Thanks for your comment, Lizzie! And thanks for adding the note, Justine.

          • Justine on #

            I’m feeling like I might have to write a whole post on whiteness and how it’s constructed in the USA and how white Jews came to be included in it. But it’s so complicated and I’d have to go into detail about my Jewish family and I’m tired. I really just want everyone to read Nell Irvin Painter’s brilliant book The History of White People.

  8. Susan Whigham on #

    Prisons for profit = slavery still happening

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