Race Relations 101 – What if I screw up?

One of the biggest reasons people give for not wanting to engage in conversations about race is that they’re worried about doing or saying something offensive. After all, race is a fraught topic in the United States (and elsewhere, even if the issues are different), and the overwhelming impression well-intentioned but clueless people get is that any phrase can be a trap.

This is partially true – there is a lot of history, and as the colorblindness issue illustrates, even the most earnestly good-natured sentiments can come with a lot of baggage. But it’s also a cop out; just because something is difficult doesn’t mean that there’s no reason to engage in it. Let’s take a look at the issue and see what we can make of it.

Talk about it.

The very worst thing you can do is stop talking. Refusing to join conversations about race reinforces the idea that race-based conversations are bad (or racist in and of themselves), and won’t help you grow.

If you worry about being able to participate meaningfully, sitting back and observing is perfectly fine (even encouraged! see Tekanji’s Guide to Minority Spaces for some advice on how to act if you’re not sure). Get the feel of the space, learn the rules, and try to be respectful and interact productively. But interact. You will never learn if you don’t.

(Do keep in mind, of course, that the responsibility for growth is yours; it is no-one’s job to educate you. If you have a question and you don’t think where you are is a good place to ask it, find somewhere else, or speak privately with someone who knows the space a bit better. If nothing else, ask it here and I’ll try my best to answer it.)

But talk. Participate. Engage.

Don’t get defensive.

This really is just a sub-theme of the above, but it’s so important that it stands on its own. If someone says something that rubs you the wrong way, think about it. Yes, sometimes you will get attacked. That’s an unfortunate part of the world we live in. Not everyone is nice, not everyone wants to help you, and sometimes you’re the most available target.

When that happens in a minority space or in the context of a difficult conversation, take a step back: ask yourself whether you’re feeling attacked because of the conversation (“White people have white privilege, and as a white person, you do too.”), or because of a specific incident (“You’re an asshole.”). If it’s the latter, take it like you would any other confrontation; deal with the person and the situation, and don’t let it color your perceptions of other people in their identity class, or discussions of that type.

If it’s the former, keep talking. Specific thoughts on how to deal with topics that come up will have to wait for later, I’m afraid… but the important part is to recognize that you personally are not being attacked, which brings us to…

Recognize that you are not your group.

The macro and the micro level are not the same. Just because white people as a class have certain general outcomes doesn’t mean that you personally had that happen. Just because black people generally have certain other outcomes doesn’t mean that any given black person you meet will have had those outcomes.

My external genitalia can tell you certain things about me. It indicates likelihoods and probabilities. It indicates that I am part of the class that is likely to undergo sexual abuse or harassment, although I have been fortunate enough to live most of my life free of these things. It indicates that I probably was urged toward the arts and social sciences, instead of the hard sciences. It indicates I was probably touched less often as an infant than my brothers were; it indicates that I am likely to be paid .76 on the dollar compared to men in my profession.

It indicates these likelihoods, but it does not make them fact. I am an individual. Some probabilities apply. Others do not.

Talking about groups is talking about probabilities and power structures. It’s talking about big -H History. It’s talking about aggregates and averages, fuzzy boundaries and arbitrary lines. It’s useful, it’s important, it’s huge… but it doesn’t minimize well. Just knowing something about the way a group is treated doesn’t mean that you know anything about the way a certain individual was treated.

Keep this in mind when you’re talking. Just because someone says negative things about a group you’re a member of doesn’t mean that they’re insulting you personally. (It doesn’t mean that they aren’t, either, but it’s not generally the case.)

(A word on specificity here: my personal pet peeve is using universals when talking about groups. While they can be useful for certain things, those things are exceedingly narrow. It’s a tough issue to balance without going into the specifics of a given conversation, but something else to keep in mind.)

Own up.

If you said something that offends people, say you’re sorry. If you don’t understand why it offended them, ask them about it – but apologize anyway.

This should be simple, but it’s often not, particularly when you didn’t mean to be offensive, or it was something you didn’t have any control over. It’s still good manners to say that one is sorry, and to make a good faith effort to remedy the offense and attempt not to repeat it.

Realize that you’re dealing with a lot of history.

It’s not all about you. If someone reacts poorly to something you said or did, remember that there’s a lot of history involved. When they’re reacting to your actions, especially in the case of pervasive social problems like racism, sexism, ableism etc., they’re reacting to them in the context of years of lived experience and decades of cumulative hurt.

An example that’s familiar to most feminists: You’re walking down the street, absorbed in your own thoughts, when suddenly a man stops you and tells you to smile. For him, it’s nothing – he thought it was a nice day, you didn’t look like you were enjoying yourself, and he took it upon himself to brighten you up. For you, however, it’s just one more incident in a long line of things telling you that you don’t own your body, that you exist for other people’s pleasure, and that conformity and pleasing others is more important than whatever you personally feel or think.

That’s clear enough, regardless of what you might do or say as a result. The major hurt is in the metamessage, not the actual incident.

It works the same way for race. Confronted with example no. 256,340,542 of subtly racist imagery, you’re liable to be hurt and frustrated… even if it was well-meant, unintentional, or so subtle some people have to squint to see it. You know it’s there. You know the history behind it. And you know why it’s wrong and what kind of hurt it does to people.

So when you’re in a conversation (or going about your daily life), and someone points out that something you did or said is racist and hurtful, remember that there’s a lot more than just your personal history and intentions involved. No one expects you to be omniscient or a mind-reader; you can’t be expected to anticipate every reaction other people are going to have. But you are expected to be gracious and understanding. Saying you’re sorry will go a long way. And if you don’t understand why they’re reacting that way, ask about it and take that to heart.

Say you’re sorry.

I know I said it once, but I’m going to say it again. If you make a mistake, you say you’re sorry. If you don’t understand something, ask about it.

If you disagree with a person’s argument, do so respectfully. You have every right to point out their shaky premises or misattributions. You don’t have the right to tell them they’re being oversensitive, that they shouldn’t be hurt, or to grow a thicker skin. You don’t get to dictate other people’s feelings.

(And by all means, have a sense of self-preservation. If you aren’t getting anything out of a given conversation, go somewhere else to cool off. Don’t engage in toxic conversations. Do what you need to do for your own mental and physical health. Just don’t stop talking about things in general because one specific conversation went bad.)


That’s all, for now. I had a bunch of links that I thought of adding, but I really need to get back to work. Does anyone have any questions, comments, clarifications or things they want added? Please say so below.

Edit: Sometimes things just pop right up, don’t they.

Read Nanette’s beautiful piece at Feministe about the benefit of the doubt.

When people’s commenters (friends, co-workers, so on) choose forms of options 1 [just say “oh well, I know what he’s doing and that he’s not racist himself” and just let it pass] and 2 [scratch the site off my rotation and move on to somewhere else.] and opt not to mention that something is, even if unintentionally, racist (or wrong in some other fashion), it may be quieter and less painful for the original poster and less uncomfortable for those that like and support them, but that person is not necessarily being given the benefit of the doubt, in my opinion.

They’ve already lost it.

Remember – speak, engage, be honest and respectful. You don’t get anywhere by not saying something. It’s not giving someone the benefit of the doubt to excuse or ignore them, and it’s not being fair to them or yourself.

Here’s another one from Sara Speaking:

What kind of friend are you?
Not meaning to do something doesn’t undo the fact that it has been done. I didn’t mean to overdraft my bank account, but that sure as hell doesn’t change the fact that I’m a couple hundred dollars in the hole. I didn’t mean to hurt my friend’s feelings, but that doesn’t change the fact that she is, in fact, hurt. And I can either argue — oh, oops, I mean “have a difference of opinion” with her as to the state of her feelings and the justification thereof. Or I can be a friend, apologise, and kiss and make up.

And that doesn’t just apply to gaming. That’s part of life. Now I know some people just have really huge issues with admitting when they’ve done something wrong — but most of them are toddlers. Adults, allegedly, are responsible individuals capable of taking ownership of their actions and the consequences of those actions, even the unintended ones.


  1. annaham said

    Great post!

  2. ilyka said

    It’s not giving someone the benefit of the doubt to excuse or ignore them, and it’s not being fair to them or yourself.

    The soft bigotry of low expectations. “Ayup,” as belledame likes to say.

  3. Cara said

    *stands up and applauds*

    Thank you for this post. I’m a white ally who tries her best to follow these rules, and is constantly frustrated by the inability of so many other whites to even recognize that these rules exist, let alone why. You’ve laid it all out here beautifully, and I’ll have to remember this post for the next time the situation comes up.

  4. WIn all ove rthis bad boy ALL OPVE RIT

  5. *smiles* I’m glad you all like it. I just hope it’s useful for the people who don’t already know it. ;)

  6. thank you!! *grateful, relieved smile* I have been in dire need of a clue for some time, being a clueless redhead. Now maybe I can be less afraid of kicking my tongue when putting my foot in my mouth… *wry grin* That’s 90% of the reason I keep my mouth shut. The other 10% being my own historical baggage.

  7. Blog crush continues, undiminished.

  8. […] by Maia on September 3rd, 2007 After reading this post (by Magniloquence, via Starfish, thanks to both) I actually worked out what it was that was *really* bugging me about […]

  9. […] Race Relations 101 – What if I screw up? by Magniloquence at Feline Formal Shorts. One of the biggest reasons people give for not wanting to engage in conversations about race is that they’re worried about doing or saying something offensive. […] But it’s also a cop out; just because something is difficult doesn’t mean that there’s no reason to engage in it. Let’s take a look at the issue and see what we can make of it. […]

  10. […] it’s an old link. Whatever, deal with it.) Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was […]

  11. han2013 said

    I’ve been meaning to read this post for a while, had it bookmarked and everything :)
    A lot of the points you make here feel relevant (to me, at least) in discussions around QGLBTI+ issues. As someone who experiences racism and homophobia (also biphobia, whoo!), so much rings true, and I kinda want to print this out into a little booklet to hand out to straight people and white people who fall all over themselves to avoid any discomfort in the process of learning to do better, and unpack their often wonky ideas about race and sexuality.
    Even today I had to leave a comment thread on a post my friend made on facebook, because all the conservative people jumped out of the woodwork to make apologies for a picture of actual homophobic propoganda. I was attacked by two people for responding with disgust to a softly-softly bigoted comment, told that “swearing is just counterproductive” and asked “do you people want support or not?” – my friend, the original poster, didn’t bother to help me out. They did, however, take pains to send me a text and a private message saying that the homophobe on their page had apologised to them (!!!!!!) and asked a lot of questions “around social issues” – my (possibly soon to be ex-) friend is straight, white, cis, Christian. Not the best source for unlearning your bullshit, I’d have thought..

    Anyway – sorry – this post is great, and I am sure I’ll be linking to it lots xo

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  14. Hey there! This post could not be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my old room mate!

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    Fairly certain he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

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