Aja Barber is a writer and consultant who lives in London. Aja's work deals in race, feminism, fashion, sustainability and ethics. You can find more of her work at her Instagram account @ajabarber

Chalk it up to Brexit, or current hostile Presidential administration in America, or just a general swing towards a special brand of politics which largely exclude the voices of marginalized people, but something happened in the last few years where I have seen the general white collective (that I know personally) be hit like a ton of bricks by the existence of race and racism.  

In the US where I’m from, I believe some people got a little too comfortable with the idea of a swift new post racial world being brought in on the wind of the of the election of President Barack Obama. But I believe this comfort ultimately lead to some of our undoing. Instead, what I witnessed as a black person was the racism that I always knew existed just beneath the surface in the United States (and elsewhere) bubbled right up to the surface.  

Perhaps it was that our general lack of education on the topic failed many of us: we were brought up to believe that to even speak of race was considered “rude” and that “colorblindness” was the way forward.  But unless we change these conversations this path will continue. We must absolutely break the cycle.

The notion of “colorblindness” actually makes little sense even though I know where folks were going with it.  No matter how hard we try there is a huge difference in equality and equity. Plus because we all know that racism is actually a problem, since when did any problem disappear by a general collective willingness to ignore it?  It certainly hasn’t been the case with gender norms. It hasn’t been the case with sexual assault. Ignoring things never wills the problem away but mostly sweeps it under the rug.

So you want to join the conversation on race and you have no idea how or even where to begin?  I’m here to help you with a few basic tips for having a more productive conversation about what can be considered a very challenging topic:

Do listen to people of color, marginalized people and anyone with less privileges than you.  Having privilege doesn’t mean you’ve never struggled or faced adversary in your life. Privilege simply means you’ve benefited from certain advantages in life that you personally didn’t manifest.  Going to a concert venue and not worrying about how you will navigate the space and whether or not there are enough ramps, means that you have able bodied privilege (so do I). Learning about privilege and the hierarchy of different privileges will only help you in realizing when to be quiet and when to speak up.  

Listen with the intent to learn and not the intent to talk or be heard.  Listen with a truly open mind and try and leave your defensiveness at the door.  It’s the only way you will truly learn and it’s worked out for me in situations where I have more privilege than the person speaking.

Do remember that “white supremacy” refers to a world where “whiteness” is so often the default.  Many times I believe people get tripped up on the word “white supremacy” because they believe that myself and others are accusing them of wearing hoods and igniting burning crosses on black people’s lawns.  While white supremacy can include those extreme actions, white supremacy in conversations today most often refers to the pernicious and hidden oppressions which affect us all at different levels. It’s the the action of walking into the grocery store in the Lake District and being unable to find shampoo that looks like it would suit my hair.  It’s the feeling of moving in spaces where all too often I am the only black person but should not be. It’s the idea that when you google the phrase “beautiful woman” the first few images presented are … white.

The book White Fragility explains that in 2016-2017 in the US, the top ten richest Americans were 100% white (seven of whom were the richest people in the world) and Congress was 90% white.  From those numbers, I need not tell you about top military officials, authors, teachers, film directors, college professors and even owners of professional sports teams because I’m sure you can guess where this is going.

Do remember that not every marginalized person you meet is going to want to speak to you about these heavy topics.  I spent most of my life existing in a predominantly white area. And I can tell you for certain that sometimes survival includes pretending to not see the pink elephant in the room that is so often race. It is a life of constantly proceeding into conversations with a hint of race being sure to tip toe as if not to upset the white person you are having an “open” conversation with.

It’s the stress of hearing someone say “I’m not being racist but …” and then knowing that what will come next will be very racist and you somehow as the brown person will be tasked with soothing the white person as if to not rock the boat.  And it is a heavy load to carry. If I wandered through much of my life, sometimes flat out avoiding the sticky topic that is race, chances are there are other black people and ethnic minorities out there just like me. It is a burden to always be expected to speak on race and to carry the conversation about the very thing which can sometimes make your life more challenging than others (and yet some refuse to even see it).  

I saw something recently online where someone pointed out that if your black friend tries to talk to you about race they’re not doing it because they are trying to upset you.  They’re telling you because they love you and want to continue the relationship. The inverse of this is that if a black person doesn’t want to talk to you about race perhaps they’re either exhausted by the topic or there isn’t the level of trust there that is needed to have the conversation.  Just like non black people we are varied and our opinions are many. If anyone had the solution to racism, we could all pack it up and go to the bar.

It’s okay to not be sure of these things because no one is born knowing it all (certainly not me).  But it’s not okay to be uneducated about these topics if you want to have an actual meaningful and truthful conversation.

If you’d like some additional reading material I would suggest:

Renie Eddo Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race

Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want To Talk About Race

Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility