Pop quiz: When you read an essay written by a person of color about their racist experiences in America, how should you respond?
- Scroll past, and read something else.
- Leave a comment in support of that writer.
- Follow the writer on Twitter, and proceed to trash their writing. Be sure to tell them they’re the reason why this country is so fucked up!
- Pen a long, detailed note praising the writer’s piece. In very polite, articulate language, explain why what happened to them wasn’t actually racism. Go through the effort of finding the writer’s email address so you can deliver your “aha moment” directly to their inbox.
A and B are acceptable answers, here. C is not, for obvious reasons.
D is also a wrong answer. D is as incorrect an answer as C.
I’ve spent years writing articles about people of color, critiquing books by authors of color, and penning my own personal essays about cultural identity and racism. In the comments, tweets and, emails from white people who flood my inbox, I’ve been called “divisive,” a “liar,” an “idiot,” a “c*nt.” Over time, I’ve built up enough tolerance to handle the mean-spirited—even threatening—diatribes.
But microaggressions are far more troubling to me, the kind cloaked in compliments and proper punctuation, the type of criticism that can be boiled down to a few short, seemingly innocuous phrases:
I know I don’t know you, but what you think happened to you, didn’t happen to you. The pain you experienced wasn’t real. It was all in your imagination.
These repudiations are laced with colorful personal anecdotes:
I was once teased at school, too, for having braces/glasses/acne! Teachers couldn’t pronounce my [white] name, either. Cruelty isn’t always about race! It’s the same for everyone.
There’s usually an adorable postscript at the end:
P.S. Do you understand, now? We are living in a post-racial world!
In the words of civil rights activist and scholar Angela Davis, “Human beings cannot be willed and molded into nonexistence”—but this is exactly what some white readers try to do when they attempt to re-educate me and reclassify my lived experiences. It’s a white colonization of words, instead of land.
From the beginning of time, white people have told people of color that their experiences aren’t really their experiences, that their stories aren’t their stories, that their truths are subjective, debatable, biased, coincidental, arbitrary, unsubstantiated. Our suffering is fictional—a mirage of sorts.
Instead of reading some of the greatest cultural critics of our time, like writers James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, or Ta-Nehisi Coates, these deniers choose to reconstruct the stories we writers of color tell. They fret that our raised voices threaten their version of the truth. They refute claims of “cultural appropriation,” as author Lionel Shriver recently did in her keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival when she said, “Any story you can make yours is yours to tell.”
Rather than doing the work to dismantle discrimination, they blame “identity politics”—the sociopolitical alliances of historically marginalized cultural groups—for poisoning the fantasy of the just, integrated, and level playing field they’ve created in their minds.
In a few sentences, the naysayers censor our histories and whitewash our realities until all that remains is a wink and a nod—the experiences of people of color reduced to a footnote. It seems it’s far easier, far more comfortable for them to compose a 300-word rebuttal dismissing a first-person account of injustice and oppression, rather than choosing to:
- Stay silent.
- Read the person of color’s testimony again. Sit with it for a while.
- Resist immediately drawing a parallel to one’s own non-racialized experience.
- Connect the person of color’s story to the issues they’ve historically faced and continue to face today, including racial profiling, police brutality, voter disenfranchisement, mass incarceration, and deportation.
Not doing so is both shameful and harmful.
Erasure, no matter what form it takes, is ultimately an act of violence. It is blatant racism’s more refined—though equally vicious—sibling. It normalizes white supremacy, and perpetuates the lie that racism only involves malicious intent. It explains away the very real trauma racism causes.
Empathy and compassion don’t require much effort; they’re largely instinctual human emotions. When a person of color is trying to process an experience of racism, instead of immediately forming an opinion, draw on your emotional reserves and meet them where they are.
It’s not so difficult to treat the stories of people of color like the fully formed—and informed—truths that they are. It shouldn’t be so hard to believe them.
Anjali Enjeti’s work has most recently appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, The Guardian, The New York Times, Washington Post, NBC, Pacific Standard, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at the Etowah Valley Writers Institute, the MFA program at Reinhardt University.