Discussing Race with White People

I worry that I am The Black Friend, you know, the one mentioned before a white person blurts out something racist. “Some of my best friends are black,” they say, thinking back fondly to a high school English class, a coworker at a summer job, or a person of color (POC) who liked “white” things, like rock music or Debate Club. Growing up in a predominantly white town and attending Ivy League schools, it was almost inevitable that I would be the first black friend or acquaintance to a suburban white kid. The worry is not that I am one of few black people in someone’s life, but rather that I am the excuse for his casual racism.

Being The Black Friend is a burden. Black Friends are responsible for correcting racial misconceptions, teaching history and culture, cultivating meaningful relationships, while respecting feelings of discomfort, disinterest, and confusion. We are educators, beacons, guides into black communities, cultures, and lives. Lesson plans should be created on overt versus coded racism, on the first time The Black Friend was called a nigger (a feeling that haunts, if you’re curious), on the acceptable uses of that word (there are almost none, especially to people unwilling to acknowledge its history and power), on the discrediting of black achievements, on the School-to-Prison pipeline in its various forms, on the importance of #TeamNatural, on the origins of rap and hip hop, on the horrors of appropriation, on the insults of “Oreo” and “pretty for a black girl,” on the continued existence of racial power structures despite de jure rejection, on microaggressions, on the individual, sometimes mindless, actions that recreate oppression. Then, of course, a teaching manual emphasizing nuance and patience, teaching how to avoid alienating a white audience while addressing self-care needs. Instead, it is a constant and self-taught balancing act.

In law school, opportunities for these conversations have increased as the media finally turns its attention to police brutality and misconduct. We’ve seen cops shoot children and strangle asthmatics. We’ve heard of the racially-motivated murder of devoted parishioners during bible study.[1] The constant threat of violence that Black parents warn their kids about has been revealed. As we clumsily wield the legal tools to unpack grand jury procedures, standards of guilt and punishment, and pitfalls in policy reform, I find myself engaged in honest conversations with white people about race.

And, frankly, it’s exhausting. So much so that many POC avoid these discussions completely. However, it’s a safe bet that Harvard POC are The [Insert Identity] Friend to someone, and it’s our responsibility to have these difficult conversations with our white friends and classmates. Historically, sociologically, personally, we know these students are likely to rise to power in their chosen career—law firm partners, business owners, future senators and governors, perhaps presidents and Supreme Court justices. It’s also fair to say that without morally vindicated and powerful allies or the presentation of minority rights as a benefit to the powers that be, progress will continue to be slow. The world will be better served with leaders with a working knowledge of the “minority” experience in the United States.[2]

The Civil Rights and Civil Liberties framework strives for equality and freedom through reform of the existing system. Parameters were erected in the Constitution. We, the people, must demand those promises are respected. To protect marginalized and minority groups, their needs and experiences must be prominently in the minds of lawmakers, politicians, advocates, and reformers. With so much at stake, we must be willing to engage in the conversation about race.

The most difficult part of these conversations is setting a common historical and factual foundation.[3] Without understanding the ripple (sometimes, tidal) effects of American history, ending up on similar ground is unlikely. For example, without understanding the systematic dispossession of Black wealth and property, or the systematic exclusion of Blacks from established institutions of higher learning, or the systematic disenfranchisement of Black citizens, it’s impossible to understand the depth of Black American poverty, the importance of affirmative action, and the trouble with voter ID laws. Legal education, except in classes designed around social justice, tends to take the ahistorical view on race or avoid it for the sake of time and comfort.[4] While true that the overt legal support of our racist legacy is gone—e.g. Equal Protection Clause, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act, Brown v. Board, Loving v. Virginia—that legacy still colors the minority experience.

In that vein, the “color blind” rhetoric has to stop. Color blindness is the idea that to create equality we can simply ignore racial or ethnic distinctions. Color blindness papers over the very real social disadvantages of POC, making it impossible to devise a solution.[5] In fact, color blindness simply makes it easier to accept the status quo, on the basis that individuals have arrived at their social stations by some other merit or lack thereof.

Understandably, I suppose, the general resistance to discussing race creates a reliance on platitudes when the topic finally does arise. Participants on all sides want to avoid accusations and insensitivity and so stick to played out metaphors and concessions. The discussion needs to move further. It needs to illustrate the extremes and nuance of racism. People of color experience both race-based microaggressions as well as more devastating consequences. It’s precisely the scale, nuance, and pervasiveness of racism that makes it such a compelling and total problem. In my own life, I am constantly aware of my race and worry that something will happen because of it. I always accept the receipt when I go shopping. I “tame” my hair for job interviews, or risk it being the reason I don’t get a job. I am fully aware that people wonder if I deserve my education.[6] I’ve gotten passed over for service in stores and followed through malls. More than once, I’ve seen the concentration on a white service provider’s face as she slows her speech and reaches for small words for me to understand. In indigent communities, immigrant communities, more heavily POC-concentrated communities, race can also be the basis for housing and employment denials, school expulsions, airport searches, detainment, deportation, due process miscarriages, police violence, and even death. That is to say, the problem from this altitude can seem small and discrete, and thus easy to dismiss. But race has a major effect on the daily lives of many, if not most, people of color.

During these conversations, POC should be wary of checking their own privilege. While some aspect of privilege—sexual orientation, education, financial stability, current success, immigrant status—may remove some disadvantage, it does not remove you from your blackness or brownness. “Checking privilege” is meant to acknowledge how a social vantage point can create information gaps. But when talking to white people about race, checking privilege makes room for the conversation to be discredited. We should acknowledge our relative expertise, while avoiding speaking for others.

Which brings us to the importance of Solidarity. You, people of color, will never be white, and you shouldn’t strive to be. The goal is not to create a society where some minorities slowly become more and more white. The goal is to create a society where whiteness isn’t privileged over blackness or brownness. By focusing too much on the possibility of individual ascension into whiteness, you may leave the rest of the minority population behind—bolstering, instead of rejecting, white supremacy. For example, eliminating affirmative action is a policy change that could marginally help Asian Americans gain an even greater share of educational and professional access, but will almost definitely be at the expense of Blacks and Latinos. A solution in the spirit of solidarity would go further and question the metrics for admission, the barriers to meeting those metrics, and the possibility of providing a systemic, rather than incremental, change to college and graduate program admissions. When POC talk about race and seek solutions, we should aim to lift all marginalized groups.

Lastly, learn to harness your anger. Anger should be legitimized as a tool for recognizing unfairness or injury. During these conversations, learn to recognize those triggers and find a way to explain them. Anger should not sit heavy on your heart, rather it should be a flare signal of an injustice and a motivation to explain and correct it.

The slow crawl of inclusion began after the Civil War, and continues, inch-by-inch, today. Our democracy can never reach its greatness without acknowledging and meaningfully discussing race. However uncomfortable, we will see the repetition of injustice as incremental and circular reforms are made by a representative body unconcerned with the effects of their policy or legislation.[7]

At the very least, we need to discuss race as often and as easily as we discuss class, gender, and sexual orientation. Instead of preferring alternative theories of oppression, at the exclusion of race, those discussions can serve as opportunities to discuss race as well.

Higher education will not be enough to protect us from a police chokehold or a racist gunman. Our children will continue to risk physical violence and financial destitution. Without these conversations, investigators will continue to say cops acted reasonably after murdering a child, their victims’ blackness enough reason to fear for their lives. [8]


[1] Remember their names: Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, John Crawford; Charleston Church Massacre victims: Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton, Susie Jackson.

[2] Honestly, by time our colleagues are in power, whites may no longer constitute a demographic majority, but it’s hard to imagine that translating into a redistribution of power. See e.g., gerrymandering, voter ID laws, the Three-Fifths Clause, and post-bellum Southern populations that produced all-white judicial and legislative bodies in majority black jurisdictions.

[3] We see this factual distortion in high school history books, in support of the Confederate Flag, in the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and in the Columbus Day controversy. It is true that many great things have come out of American innovation. It’s also true that many atrocities have occurred on American soil and in the American name.

[4] My criminal law professor, a scholar on race and the criminal justice system, gave a brief disclaimer on the first day of class about the disparate racial impact of the criminal justice system. After that day, we rarely discussed race again. In property, my professor used a full lecture to describe redlining and racially discriminatory housing policies. A classmate later said that we were being pushed a liberal version of the facts.

[5] A man once explained his color blindness to me. “My Mexican nanny was like family to us,” he said, oblivious to the history of Black and immigrant women providing domestic care to white families, often underpaid, without adequate legal protection, and at the expense of their own families.

[6] As if legacy students deserve their admission any more than beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action.

[7] In our current political circus, we rarely see rights conferred without a careful analysis about the power they may strip from wealthy, white males, in particular, but whites in power, in general. See the continued War on Women, embodied currently in an effort to restrict abortion and to defund Planned Parenthood. See the LGBT movement, in which marriage rights were achieved only after convincing those in power it will not tear apart the fabric of society. See the continued unpunished murders of trans* women of color as politicians struggle to fit them into their rights paradigm. See drug testing for welfare recipients. See the frantic push for cybersecurity and privacy measures as the patrons of Ashley Madison are revealed.

[8] See Darren Wilson’s testimony regarding his encounter with Michael Brown. See the independent investigations that deemed the murder of Tamir Rice “reasonable.”

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Leena is a 3L at HLS. She is from Tennessee. She received her B.A. in sociology and human rights from Columbia University. Prior to law school, Leena worked in communications at the NYCLU.

Latest comments
  • I love this: “Our democracy can never reach its greatness without acknowledging and meaningfully discussing race.”
    But this made me sad, and almost put me off reading: “they say…” about people with whom I share a skin color.
    Beware the broad brush, kiddo, with all respect; no group of people — race, gender, age, whatever — is a monolith, and those of us that make up the million specks that = ‘they’ want, as you do, too, to be seen and understood as individuals.
    I’m glad you wrote this, Lena, and glad to have read it. Keep going..

  • Learning and understanding history- the real facts and not the laundered information that has been bandied about in some institutions of learning- is vital to understanding why we are where we are today.

    None of us had a hand in the past but we suffer or benefit from it and we can make changes to help make the future better for all by facing facts and dealing with them honestly.

    This is a well written article. I could nothave said it better :).

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