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Words of Advice for White Would-Be Writers on Race

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Lisa Solod Warren's December 16th, 2009 article (which she has since been deleted) in The Huffington Post titled "Two Black Role Models Done In By Hubris" invoked a great deal of outrage. I caught wind of the article via Twitter where people were expressing emotions ranging from utter dismay to outright anger at - among other things - the racially patronizing tone in which the article was written. In a previous article I used Warren's article as an example for the importance of white writers to check their privilege before embarking on writing about racial issues. However, there are valuable lessons to be learned from the aftermath.

If you ever find yourself in this kind of situation, the best thing you can do is set aside your ego and listen. The knee-jerk reaction is to go on the defensive, but the best thing is to ignore that impulse and take in what is being said to you. Even in the heat of disagreement, it is crucial to try to empathize. Unfortunately, that's not what Warren chose to do.

Beware: The symptoms of Foot-in-Mouth Disease

First, Warren became dismissive, glibly stating: "it seems I am being labeled by some a racist. No rationale for that but people like to call out names." Then--not content with having only one foot in her mouth--she became defensive, saying "seems anyone who speaks about race is a racist."

Let's break this down one foot at a time.

If you write an article that results in a mass of people denouncing your article and possibly yourself as racist, it's not going to be for some arbitrary reason. Though it won't be comfortable, you need to accept the idea that you may have done what it is you are being accused. Calling the large group of people whom you offended irrational is not going to help. They're angry for a reason, you have to acknowledge that.

No serious person is ever going to say it's racist to talk about race. That's nonsense. The whole it's racist to acknowledge/see/talk about race thing desperately needs to go away. While the idea of colour-blindness may seem altruistic to some, it's really a byproduct of white privilege. The ability to see race as a "card" to be "played" is also a byproduct of white privilege. The problem isn't in acknowledging race but in letting race be a marker for determining a persons worth or quality as a human being. Since Western society confers unequal privilege to those who are white, white people and people of color experience life differently. To ignore this reality, to refuse to acknowledge race, is to willfully promote this inequality.

If you find yourself in this kind of situation and decide to respond, a piece of advice: don't ever try to back up what you said by citing the number of people of color that are your friends/colleagues/acquaintances. Saying something like:

"you would be surprised at the number of black people I know"

will not bolster your credibility. What will also not help is stating your political ideology as evidence of your lack of racism, even if it is "liberal democrat." Just because you consider yourself "liberal" or "progressive" doesn't mean you are automatically free of aversive racism. (Not to mention, the Democratic Party was known as "the white man's party" for much of its early existence. Don't forget, the KKK was comprised of mostly Democrats in its beginning.)

The last best hope for redemption

Even if you managed to fit not only both feet but your entire lower torso into your mouth, there is still an opportunity for redemption. You can make all the mistakes above and still manage to turn the situation around into a true learning experience. The way to allow such an experience help you grow as a person is by staying engaged.

Amongst the (justifiably) angry tweets, some including myself tried to reach out and engage Warren via Twitter in hopes of educating her on privilege. What could have transpired is a healthy dialogue on white privilege, aversive racism and how to identify and confront these within ourselves. The outcome of such a dialogue could have been Warren writing a new article about the whole experience and how she came to identify the racially condescending overtones of her previous article. She could have held herself accountable for her words. At the very least, she could have apologized.

Any or all of that could have happened, but it didn't. Warren chose to ignore the opportunity. Her last public words on the matter (that I could find) were: "I am the naive one. I never expected the post in HuffPo yesterday to go viral. I'm not a racist but it will be hard to convince otherwise." To forgo for now the logical quagmire of trying to prove a negative, it's unfortunate that Warren tuned out. Perhaps the sting of irony was too great; after all, her offending article was based on the alleged hubris and supposed downfalls of President Obama and Tiger Woods. If ever there was a more profound example of irony or hubris than what happened with that article, I don't know what it is.

Final piece of advice: Start here

Peggy McIntosh's paper White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (1988) is widely considered the primer on the topic of white privilege. Despite being written over 20 years ago, much of what McIntosh says still applies to our contemporary Western society. It truly is required reading for white writers and activists who wish to seriously engage in discussions on race. Lisa Warren may have brushed off the suggestion to read it, but I hope those of you reading this article that are white will take the few minutes it requires and read it now.

Cross-posted from Race-Talk.

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