Political Flavors

How Not To Be A Whitesplainer: A Non-Comprehensive Guide

Posted in Editorials on June 18th, 2012

When I was at Netroots Nation, I got to experience what’s known in some circles as “the liberal white dude.” He is generally well meaning but also totally unaware of his privilege.

I got to see one of these “liberal white dudes” have a complete fail on race during a panel I attended. The panel was called, “Salsa, Cumbia and Merengue: Connecting to the Different Beats of the Latino Electorate,” and focused of various initiatives designed to increase voter registration and turnout among Latinos. The secondary point of the panel, as made evident by the clever title, is that Latinos are not all the same. A speaker on the panel explained that Latinos are more progressive on many issues than Americans as a whole, and the idea that they are conservative simply because of religion is untrue.

However, the first person to ask a question didn’t seem to have been listening. He appeared to be white. He said that he was working for a progressive Democrat running for office in a majority Black and Latino district and he wanted to know how “you people” think he can get “them” to vote when “their churches and priests” tell them that Democrats are bad and they have to vote Republican. Now, I can accept that this is possible, but this is not the type of question the panelists were looking to answer – they were presenting about their specific community outreach programs, not partisan political strategies. Secondly he took a long time to get to his point, when the panel was already running late (and they specifically asked for short questions). Third, his manner and tone were so demanding, it was very odd – as if he really thought that the panelists knew “THE ANSWER TO GETTING HISPANIC CATHOLICS TO VOTE DEMOCRAT” but they were just withholding the information enigmatically. The moderator told him they could speak after the panel about his specific question.

An audience member tweeted:

Definitely step one for how not to be a whitesplainer.

I don’t know if this man ever figured out why he was coming off as patronizing and rude. Or what the panelists told him afterwards, as I left to attend the next event.

But what I can say to you, dear reader, is don’t be that guy.

Don’t sit through an hour long presentation about differences in various parts of the Latino community and then ask a question that assumes all Latinos are the same.

Don’t be patronizing – especially to groups you are not a member of and don’t treat their culture as a puzzle to be solved.

Don’t demand one person (or even a small panel) of people be able to speak for their entire ethnicity.

Don’t make assumptions about another culture and presume you know exactly why someone behaves differently than you would like them to.

Don’t otherize people just because they have a different ethnicity or religion than you.

Don’t define someone else’s reality for them.

Here’s some questions I think he could have asked:

-Do you have any information about the impact of church attendance on voting among Latinos?

-In your experience, what kinds of outreach work best in a community with a large Catholic/Pentocostal Latino population?

-Have you had success working with churches to increase voter registration and turnout?

There’s probably still a way to ask the above questions and sound racist. But they’re more carefully phrased, and more suited to the length of answer a person can give during a 75 minute panel. They also don’t require a long and patronizing back story.

There’s an almost unlimited number of ways to be racist, and I doubt I could list them all – thus the fact that this post is not a comprehensive guide.

During the keynote the next day, Nicole Austin-Hillery, Director and Counsel of The Brennan Center and Jakada Imani, Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center said that white people and white liberals have to get more comfortable discussing race and racism. I believe that is true. We might make mistakes, but if we don’t try at all it will be much more difficult to overcome. Talking about race is uncomfortable for many white people – there’s fear of saying the wrong thing and being perceived as racist, discomfort with or denial of actual racist thoughts or feelings, and sometimes guilt about what atrocities other white people have committed. But by refusing to talk, we are making the problem worse.

…And if you try and fail like the frustrated organizer from Texas, Do apologize, Do listen to people who are explaining what you did wrong, Do ask questions if you need to, and Do try not to make the same mistake again. Don’t disengage.

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