Race-Talk is a Language White Folks Need to Learn

The cost of racial illiteracy is high — can we get a Duolingo course, please?

Tim Wise

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Image: fizkes, Shutterstock, standard license, purchased by the author

I’ve been white long enough to know there are different reasons why so many of my group have a hard time discussing race and racism in America.

For some, it’s about their own biases, which they seek to deny or at least keep from view, lest people conclude they’re not as open-minded as they profess.

For others, it’s defensiveness at the mention of ongoing inequality and unfairness still faced by persons of color. After all, acknowledging those might call into question the legitimacy of their own social status.

A third group would rather talk about class, gender, or sexuality — areas where, because of their relationship to those identities, they can focus on where they got hurt, rather than where they were advantaged (even as both things can be true, and often are).

For still others, it’s about a fear they might say the wrong thing despite good intentions, prompting a person of color — especially someone Black — to think of them as racist. So rather than risk it, they remain quiet, afraid to be the target of one of the woke mobs they’ve been told to fear by Bill Maher.

As an ironic side note, research suggests it is precisely when whites remain quiet in racial discussions that Black folks are most likely to think we have something to hide — specifically, racism. So by holding back for fear of signaling bias, we end up confirming the very suspicion we hoped to avoid.

But for my purposes, I want to focus on a fifth group of white folks who struggle with race talk. This group may overlap with the others but also comprises a not-insignificant portion on its own.

It’s a group whose skittishness is mainly due to a kind of functional illiteracy in the language of race, meaning the linguistics of racialized experience. This language is one that shapes how we speak of racial matters, and especially how directly or indirectly we do so.

Part of the tension between whites and Blacks comes from the lack of experience most white people have in Black spaces. This unfamiliarity makes it harder for us to discern the meaning behind…

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Tim Wise

Anti-racism educator and author of 9 books, including White Like Me and, most recently, Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020)