The differential experience of race

"From the time I opened my eyes, I have been told that as a white person, I am superior to people of color. There’s never been a space in which I have not been receiving that message. From what hospital I was allowed to be born in, to how my mother was treated by the staff, to who owned the hospital, to who cleaned the rooms and took out the garbage. We are born into a racial hierarchy, and every interaction with media and culture confirms it—our sense that, at a fundamental level, we are superior. / In my workshops, one of the things I like to ask white people is, “What are the rules for how people of color should give us feedback about our racism? What are the rules, where did you get them, and whom do they serve?” Usually those questions alone make the point. / In the course of my work, I’ve had many people of color give me feedback in ways that might be perceived as intense or emotional or angry. And on one level, it’s personal—I did do that thing that triggered the response, but at the same time it isn’t only personal. I represent a lifetime of people that have hurt them in the same way that I just did. And, honestly, the fact that they are willing to show me demonstrates, on some level, that they trust me. SAB: What do you mean? RD: If people of color went around showing the pain they feel in every moment that they feel it, they could be killed. It is dangerous. They cannot always share their outrage about the injustice of racism. White people can’t tolerate it. And we punish it severely—from job loss, to violence, to murder. When I’m doing a workshop, I’ll often ask the people of color in the room, somewhat facetiously, “How often have you given white people feedback about our inevitable and often unconscious racist patterns and had that go well for you?” And they laugh. SAB: Do you ever worry about re-centering whiteness? RD: Well, yes. I continually struggle with that reality. By standing up there as an authority on whiteness, I’m necessarily reinforcing my authority as a white person. It goes with the territory. For example, you’re interviewing me now, on whiteness, and people of color have been saying these things for a very long time. On the one hand, I know that in many ways, white people can hear me in a way that they can’t hear people of color. They listen. So by god, I’m going to use my voice to challenge racism. The only alternative I can see is to not speak up and challenge racism. And that is not acceptable to me. It’s sort of a master’s tools dilemma."