by Lee Mun Wah
Recently, a white man shared that whites would be more receptive to looking at their own racism and privilege if they only knew how much BIPOC cared about them. Everyone in the room was white except for me and I could see how moved they were when they heard this. Once again, I found myself at a crossroads: Do I share my truth and risk alienating this particular white man (who was my friend) and the whole group or do I swallow my pride and just smile along with everyone else, knowing how touched they were with the brilliant insight he just shared?
Of course, I knew exactly the dilemma I was facing, even though no one in the room was looking at me, because if they had, they would have seen how my expression changed…how my silence was deafening. You see, what I was experiencing is what most under-represented groups go through daily in every institution in this country: code-switching. Leaving parts of ourselves at the door because the cost is our survival, our job security, being labelled a ‘troublemaker’, ‘overly sensitive’, ‘too ethnic’ and the list goes on and on. Sound familiar? And if it doesn’t, why not? What don’t you have to hide or disguise yourself when you come to work or a classroom? What ‘privilege’ allows some automatic access and acceptance while others experience continuous scrutiny and doubt?
As I waited, with what seemed like forever, I was trying to sort out how to share my upset that this was once again: all about them. In truth, he was partially right, but not for the reasons he thought. You see, I had a different perspective. We as under-represented groups have been ‘taking care’ of whites since the inception of this country. Not because we cared for them so much, but because of what could happen to us if we didn’t. We have had to care for whites by complimenting and agreeing with them, changing the way we speak and dress, hoping that with more degrees and living in a mostly white neighborhood would allow us to ‘blend in’ and to finally be accepted. All of this, to survive in a mostly white male dominated world that still views BIPOC in the year 2022 as poor, uneducated, lazy, dangerous, uncivilized, rapists, alien, prone to violence, drugs, gangs and welfare.
The primary reason BIPOC confront whites on racism is because it is so unjust, so disrespectful, so violent and abusive. We bring up racism because we care about our dignity and well-being and because racicism wounds and demeans the heart and soul of our children, our families, and our communities. Or as one young Latina woman recently shared: When I can’t tell the truth about racism, it is like swallowing glass.
I remember a famous white diversity trainer sharing with me that she had come up with an exercise to make whites more ‘comfortable’ to talk about racism. And I remarked: Why? What’s wrong with whites feeling uncomfortable? What wrong with whites not being able to be the center of attention or not being in complete control?
And so, I told my truth to these folks in the room and not one said a word in response. You see, their silence was also a ‘privilege’. I left feeling unheard and unseen. And the words of Maya Angelou came back to me: I may not remember what you said or did, but I will always remember how you made me feel.
So, what did I need from them? I wanted them to tell me honestly how they felt about what I had shared. I also needed them to be curious and to be moved enough to take responsibility, to self-reflect, and to ask me more about my past experiences with whites and how it affected how I related or didn’t relate to them in this moment. As Thich Nhat Hahn once shared: