What I Wish My White Friends Knew

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When I listen to the talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, I have started to notice a pattern. We talk about diversity in terms of us and other; seeking to understand differences. Dialogue becomes about how my experience, as a person of color is distinct, unique and cumbersome compared to my white friends. We converse around difference to understand, but this still makes my experience centered around the invisible standard of being white. This leaves our conversation lacking something. I have so many friends who are tired of catering their experience as an education for those who are white.

This an incomplete dialogue and we need to expand the conversation. Dialogue about diversity is lacking because it is centered on whiteness. Now, bear with me. There’s plenty of research, scholarship and chatter about privilege and white privilege . . . and all those things are deeply needed. Much of this conversation, however, approaches whiteness as a barrier to overcome (think white guilt) or a bar that needs to have been achieved by people of color. Viewing difference has been set by the lens of whiteness. Because of this, it’s important to have a broader conversation around diversity and whiteness so that systems can change and we can empower true diversity and equity.

Our society has set up systems that either can help empower or hinder an individual. Think about how often someone “comes out of” a situation—whether it be housing, education or home life. (Note: these environments aren’t exclusive to those of color, but there is a strong correlation of poor education/housing/access being concentrated in communities of color). The problem with this however, is then that the success of a person of color from these environments becomes the “exception” . . . and then that label of whiteness gets transformed . . . It becomes the description of how far I’ve come, the ribbon and award. But my goal is not being “white’ enough.” My goal is being “brown.” It’s being me. It’s embracing the glory of what it means to be bi-cultural and multiethnic. Of being fluent in two languages of culture.

The degree in which you experience my “whiteness” comes from hurt and years of pain and navigating the system. It comes from thousands of microagressions . . . Those “tones” that people use toward me—or police in my own voice. It comes from being followed in a store, asked “what am I” and a million other “innocent” questions about the features of my body. But this is insufficient. It still upholds an invisible standard of whiteness against my body.

This is why our dialogue is lacking. Understanding whiteness isn’t about me. It’s not about the privilege I don’t have or the things I won’t experience. I can not be the measure of whiteness because I will always fall short. Understanding “whiteness” needs to be a journey of owning and understanding your own identity. It means doing the critical learning and thinking of why it’s important that you’re white.  And so this is what I wish my white friends knew: Whiteness is not something you overcome, it’s something you utilize.  

I watch my white friends and allies exchange ignorance for intelligence, wearing it as a symbol of pride. Knowledge is invaluable. Education helps me feel safe, it helps me have those challenging conversations. But please don’t think it exempts your whiteness. It does not suddenly become “you” and then “all those other white people who don’t know.” No matter how much you “know” about the experience of the other, it will never change that those experiences happen. Being able to understand or articulate the “system” doesn’t make you exempt from it, any more than it makes me fit into it.

The challenge is when “knowledge” becomes a blind spot. Knowledge replaces our experiences rather than working to inform it. It’s easy to think awareness transforms outcome. I assure you it doesn’t. Being “woke” doesn’t excuse or erase the way one is part of a system (note: that’s just applying colorblindness towards yourself).

Too often I see well-intended, dominant-culture allies make their journey about “whiteness” about me, understanding the minority experience, rather than understanding themselves. Using your whiteness looks like crossing barriers through your own likeness so I don’t have to also be the educator as a live-in example.

I have led many teachings, trainings and classes where my experience just became knowledge for someone else. I still leave the room to face the many microaggressions of my day.

“Is your hair always like that?”

“You can get a tan?”

“You look too young have a Masters’ degree.”

Sigh. I’m gonna say it again. Your knowledge does not change my experience.

Rather, being your knowledge is part of the journey of being “woke.” It’s allowing what you know to transform your whiteness. Knowledge should be a catalyst which makes you aware of the system and your place in it—hear this: you never get removed from the system. This is why it is a journey for all of us and one in which I need your whiteness.

I need you to recognize your place in the system and what that means. I need you not to advocate for me, but to empower me to speak for myself. Use your place in the system to help me stand on equal ground with you. Use your place in the system to teach others to listen to my voice. Use your knowledge to help other white people see the system.

Being white and woke is useful for me—yes. Sometimes it can create a space for a listening ear, empathy, or feeling seen in the midst of feeling very invisible or unknown in a situation. But being white and woke is power that is needed with other white folk and an equally important journey for yourself. I don’t need a white savior, I need someone who will advocate among their own people. I need you to multiple your wokeness for the sake of your own people—not mine. I need someone who is in the system to navigate it and make spaces for me to step into. Be a white friend who shares their journey of what it was like to become woke. Help me, as Kathy Tuan-MacLean, states, move around the furniture of the system.

Ruthie Johnson

Ruthie Johnson

I'm a Florida girl in a Midwest world. My life has been full of the unexpected. I write about this unexpected journey, multiculturalism, and faith. I'm a firm believer that Jesus shows up most beautifully in the messy in-betweens of life.I write, read, cook and art.
Ruthie Johnson

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  • This is SO helpful and insightful. As a white person, I feel guilty about my privilege, but then there’s always a danger that the feeling of guilt becomes a badge in itself, as though it makes the privilege okay, just so long as you feel guilty about it.

    I really appreciated you offering a way through, a better way to be, as well as offering insightful critique about the shortcomings of being ‘white and woke’.

    • Thanks Tanya 🙂 Helpful to know how it sounds to non-white, learning ears. Thanks for reading!

  • Jade Perry

    “But my goal is not being “white’ enough.” My goal is being “brown.”
    I. know. that’s. right! This was such a beautiful piece and I loved the concrete tools that you give in it! Happy to connect with you here as the contributor for the post after yours and as someone who also works in Higher Ed!! *Throws confetti! I’m so grateful for your words here and will certainly be checking out more of your work! Let’s connect, if possible!

    • yes, please! Are you on Twitter? can you DM me your email?

      • Jade Perry

        Will do! I’m on Twitter @Jade_T_P! I think I can only DM if you’re following me as well? I’m so bad with Twitter lol

  • “I need you not to advocate for me, but to empower me to speak for myself. Use your place in the system to help me stand on equal ground with you.” Your post is encouraging. I appreciate your thoughts and insights. Blessings to you!

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