How to Be White (after #PoCC12) – Part 7

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Chris Thinnes


If you want to check out the earlier items in this series, look for links in the navigation menu to your right.

Dear Reader:

Dr. Batiste quoted Dr. Seuss in the closing moments of #PoCC12: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” Sage words, indeed — but easier said than done. There’s a sadness that kicks in each year — I’ve felt it, and I’ve heard eleventy-seven stories from others who have felt it — at that moment when you realize that it’s ‘over’ and that you’re ‘going back.’

When I’m uncomfortable, I usually start with ‘funny’–

 –and then I move on to ‘serious’. And on the way to the airport in Houston, and on the way home from the airport in L.A., I was thinking about a few more ‘invitations’ in the “How to White (at #PoCC12)” series I’d wanted to mention, but didn’t have time to explore.

Three of them were these:

10. Talk to White People and People of Color about Race

Duh, you say? Okay, well, you know as well as I do that it doesn’t happen as much as everyone says. I don’t mean those light and fluffy conversations that are easy to have about things in the news, or other people’s actions, or shared ‘values’ or ‘beliefs’ — I mean active, intense, respectful, and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about our own actions and our own words, and their intent and impact, on each other. As an ally, there was no more challenging (or fulfilling) experience these last few days than actively listening and speaking to people of color and their allies about our roles and our actions during the conference. Good friends, people of color and white allies, pushed back against some things I was thinking of doing or saying, the likely impact of which I wouldn’t even have considered unless I was willing to ask and they were willing to tell me. Good friends, people of color and white allies, pushed me to do and to say some things I wouldn’t have known it was my responsibility to do or to say, if they hadn’t been willing to tell me and I hadn’t been willing to listen. Check your thinking. Check your plans.

11. Understand Microagressions and Cop to Them

There were some master classes in microagression available for further study at #PoCC12, most of which were intended (and a least one of which was obviously reserved for a general session). For other great examples of microagressions see “The Microagression Project.” For other resources (and maybe, ironically, for another example) see here:

12. Take This Work Into Your Personal Life

Sure, it’s hard work to advance conversation, reflection, and skill development at school. Oddly, it can be harder still in your ‘private’ life. Sometimes it’s most difficult to invite and to confront these issues with the people you care most about. I’ve really just started to understand that this is the most uncomfortable of the work and, because of that, the richest and most important.

I wasn’t sure what to say about any of these three ‘invitations’ in the space of this blog during the conference. But guess what was waiting for me, like an odd little gift, when I got back home? What better way for me to do so then when I returned to L.A. to find out that my son had just told some Latino classmates on Facebook that they were racists?

Ah, you see! Telling the story that way — in other words, telling you what ‘happened’ without telling you ‘the story’ — makes “Let me explain” sound a little ridiculous, right? I thought of explaining what happened first, and what they said first, and what he actually ‘meant’ by that, and all the things he thought and felt beforehand that explained how much the Latino kids meant to him, or how much he sincerely values diversity in his school community — but when I just tell you what he said, you see how offensive that could be — directed from a white 9th grader to a Latino 9th grader — if we’re trying to discern the difference between the intent of one’s words or actions, as opposed to the impact of one’s words or actions, in an effort to heal and to support each other. Right?

You still on the line, Mrs. Durham?

Here’s what happened — which, in my opinion, is entirely irrelevant for the Latino kids for whom he said this, but absolutely essential for him to explore effective strategies as an ally to collaborate, to include, to reflect, and to respect his classmates of color. He attends a great public high school in LAUSD which, as near as I can tell, has a more diverse community overall than any of our local independent schools. On that campus are a number of smaller ‘learning communities.’ The one in which he’s enrolled is a humanities magnet program, in which — for three or four of his ‘core’ classes — white students represent a larger percentage of the population than in the other learning communities on campus (the School for Advanced Studies, the Media Academy, the special education program, and the general program). The kids in his program are known as the ‘CORE’ kids.

He read a facebook post in which a Mexican-American student wrote (and I’m summarizing the spirit of it), “we hate the white kids in CORE because they’re racists and they act like they’re better than us.” My son was offended, and he said (1) that they were wrong, and (2) that that was racist because [tricky logic, here] he didn’t feel like he was better than anyone else.

Super-subtle stuff, maybe . . . But I told my son that while I was proud that he was willing to step up into the conversation, and while I realized he intended to address something he felt was unfair, that he might have missed an opportunity to be more respectful and inclusive even if, at some level, it didn’t feel ‘fair.’ We were going in lazy circles of conversation over burgers and fries until I took it out of context, remembering something I’d heard in a grief counseling workshop years ago.

“You know when someone has just lost a loved one, and they’re grieving, and people aren’t sure what to tell them even thought they care and want to help?” I asked.


“And you know how sometimes people come up to them and say things like, You shouldn’t feel badly. They had a long life.? What do you think the person whose friend, or mom, or brother just died is thinking?”

“They’re thinking, ‘F*%$ you,’ probably,” he said. “Don’t tell me I shouldn’t feel badly.”

“Right. But what did the person who said that intend to communicate?”

“They wanted the person to feel better. They wanted to help.”

I reminded him I didn’t think he was trying to make things worse in the situation with the kids at school, but only better — but that the impact of his telling the other student that he was wrong, and that he shouldn’t feel that way, might be different. “You were angry because you felt like he was calling you a racist. And you don’t think that you’re a racist. But you pushed back by telling him that he was wrong, and that he’s a racist, and kind of pigeon-holing him the same way that made you so angry to begin with.”

My son was willing enough to ask, “Yeah, but what are you supposed to do?” And I suggested that the other boy might actually hear him if he didn’t deny him his experience. “If someone says they feel like they’re encountering racism, don’t tell them that they’re wrong and that they should understand you better. Maybe try to understand him better, and let him tell you something you, or maybe your white friends, might need to hear. I guarantee you that if the Latino kids feel like the white kids are shutting them out, that there’s something some white kids are doing or saying — even if they don’t mean it –that’s making them feel that way.”

The conversation went on — and I’m starting to feel funny about saying much more because I don’t want to speak for him without his knowledge, and because this is about an idea and not about him. Suffice it to say that he is a brave young man, and that he acknowledged that he could have caused a problem even when he intended to solve it. And he realized that the next time he could maybe ask a question to find out more about why the Latino kids felt that way. And that he might be the one who gets to, or needs to, talk to some of the white kids in an effort to help them understand the dynamics better.

He knows that he navigates certain spaces, if not all, with a comfort, and a power, that the students of color in his learning community don’t have, no matter how many times we tell ourselves it should be otherwise. And he feel like it isn’t fair, at some level, that he might have to step outside his comfort zone to do things other kids don’t have to do.

At the end of the day, though, it’s pretty simple. Borrowing from Spiderman, naturally: “With great privilege, comes great responsibility.”

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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes