Race, The World, Social Justice

I’m done teaching white people lessons on race

No one ever said unlearning racism was easy. Trust me, I’ve been doing it my whole life.

Do you ever feel like you have to teach white people around you how to treat you and your people like human beings?

Well congratulations, you’re probably a person of color in the United States!

There’s a particular strain of racist thought that seems to believe that people of color owe white people explanations about what racism is. And this here Black woman refuses to give in to it.

Don’t get me wrong, I know my statistics. I know what to say in response to “black on black crime” and “reverse racism” and “all lives matter.” It’s just so incredibly exhausting to have to recite these facts over and over again, only for them to be received with skepticism and empty retorts.

Crack a Toni Morrison novel, watch Malcolm X with Denzel, something…

I’ve spent so long unlearning white supremacy only to turn around to coach white people through the same thing?

Nope, no thanks.

This task is often expected of marginalized people at predominantly white institutions. I recall one incident in particular that happened to me during college:

I’m in a late afternoon meeting with an art history professor. We are discussing an essay revision and move on to the topic of the upcoming presentation. She asked whether I would like to give a presentation on the one painting discussed in class that featured African-Americans. A painting of a slave auction.

When the painting had come up on the projector in class , there was an eerie stillness in the classroom. The painting did not get more than a few throwaway comments from the class about the artist’s style and the era of the painting.

Now being the huge art history nerd that I am, I was just as concerned with dissecting and analyzing the painting as I was with the troubling subject matter. I gave my analysis to the class, winning the high praise of the professor. Maybe she thought that I was an expert. You know, like a Black expert on Black people? She wanted me to share this golden knowledge with our all white class. What’s the harm in that?

My college years were a time of rapid growth and change for me as well as a time of deep depression and confusion. The question of who I was as a Black woman at a PWI probed at me day and night. Here it was again – what did it mean for a Black girl to give a presentation on Black people to an all white class?

“I’ll pass,” I said. “I’m not here to be the Black girl teaching the class about Black people.”

That’s literally what I said, and yet I did so in my normal, obliging talking to a professor manner that I had learned early on in my schooling. I didn’t miss a beat and brought up the painting I had been thinking about presenting on, but I thought about the incident later that night.

Was I better qualified to talk about the slave auction painting? Wouldn’t I be the one who twinged as some prep school kid from New York’s Upper East Side avoided my eyes better than he could avoid saying the word “Black”?

It seemed like if I was going to be in room full of people uncomfortable with race, I might as well give the painting the dignified and thorough presentation that my ancestry deserved. But the more I imagined one of my white classmates fumbling over the cruelties of slavery, wondering whether they were saying the right things and visibly uncomfortable, the more I liked the idea of it.

No I’m not a sadist, but isn’t it good to struggle with race in America? Should someone who never has to think about race or the implications of racism in their everyday lives be handed information from the oppressed on their oppression?

They should probably learn the way that I did.

You know, learning about people of color by seeing them as human beings who write books, make films and live lives outside of the stereotypes that we are fed through the mainstream media. Having empathy and compassion while truly witnessing the way that marginalized communities are affected by institutional racism.

I had to unlearn white supremacy in order to realize that I was enough. Would it hurt for white people to learn about me the way that I was forced to learn about them for 446 pages out of every 500 page history book?

  • Rowana Abbensetts

    Rowana Abbensetts is a writer and mental health advocate from Brooklyn, NY. In addition to her blog, Spoken Black Girl, which focuses on mental health issues through the lens of Black womanhood, Rowana also writes short stories and is currently working on her first novel, Departure Story.