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Why Don’t My White Friends Talk About Race? Here’s What They Told Me

Heather (bottom right) with her three brothers (Photo: Courtesy Heather Barmore)

My anger was palpable long before the announcement by the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri. I was already antsy. Wanting to fight. Craving some sort of confrontation, as I often do when life doesn’t hand me lemons, but lobs them at my head. When I learned a decision was made, I was ready. I wanted to go in and tell people what I really thought of them and, most importantly, their silence.

I am a feisty person and when I hurt, I use my words not for good but for bad. This pain was amplified by knowing full well that Darren Wilson wouldn’t be indicted. A feeling that many of us had sitting at the bottom of our guts like a heavy meal. I wanted my friends, my largely white, female following, to get angry, to say something and to feel that hurt. So, as a writer, I used my words. I put out 140 characters that explained exactly how I felt:

I would love to see those social justice/social good folks to at least mention Ferguson. I bet you think this tweet is about you. It is.

I took aim at a select group of women who I know are prolific in the social good space. When the United Nations Foundation asks for their help to spread the word about vaccinations, they are there. When the ONE Project asks them to participate in a trip to Ethiopia, they are on the first plane. In a split second of compounded anger, I questioned why their loyalties were so tied to the people of Africa, but they couldn’t bring any attention to what was happening in their own backyard.

See? Anger.

I added to my Tweet in a Facebook post by writing this gem: Systemic racism doesnt hold a candle to vaccinations.

I am grateful that I had the sound mind to not allow my outrage get the best of me. Because it could have easily swallowed me whole.

People might not have said so publicly, but I was being an asshole. I was in the mood for a fight. I felt like challenging others and being challenged right back. I was coming across as the “angry black woman,”— a persona I don’t ever wish to be, as it is quick to turn off engagement and cause others to shut down. But there was a deep ache and an inability to breathe in the hours leading to the announcement made by District Attorney McCulloch. A feeling that spread around the Facebook pages and tweets of my black friends. This wasn’t just about Michael Brown’s death, Darren Wilson or Missouri. This was about decades of being treated as less than human by those who had sworn to protect and to serve. We are exhausted and exasperated. And, for me, this is was about the very real impact of excessive force by police officers who once shot my black brother nine times. This was personal.

I pulled back, however, and am grateful that I had the sound mind to not allow my outrage get the best of me. Because it could have easily swallowed me whole. I then went back to Facebook and presented the following question:

A no BS question:

Why is it that many of my white friends have no problem chiming in when global organizations need something but when it comes to discussing and speaking out on an event close to home racism, in this case you all remain silent?

It makes me sad and a little upset but I really want to know. Is it fear? Is it because you don’t know what to say? What’s going on?

I thought that I would receive a few replies. I sat back and braced myself for the deafening silence, thus proving my point. I steadied for a fight. These are five responses out of 133 comments:

-“I think there might be a fear of causing offense. Or maybe it’s like how a lot of men won’t comment on women’s issues, assuming it isn’t *their* issue. It’s interesting, but many of the white people I see who WILL comment are LGBTI – I think that they might have a better idea of what discrimination feels like, so they’re more willing to speak out.– Sue Davis
It’s hard to comment when you’ve been told to sit down and shut up because you’re white. But I want to speak up, and I do when I can.Miranda Wicker

-“Honestly, I always say the solution is “walk a mile in my shoes” not enough people actually spend time with people who aren’t like them. So there is fear and just a lack of one on one commonality. It goes both ways. My husband and I still surprise each other with stuff.Margit Detweiler

-“I get paralyzed. I get slammed with every emotion on the spectrum – grief, anger, love, sadness – and it ties up my thoughts and my fingers and my opinions so all I can manage to do is sit and watch. This isn’t how I would choose to interact with the world but it’s often all I can manage. It took me 36 years to be able to sit calmly and observe, rather than scream and cry and shake. Hopefully, it won’t be another 30 years before I’m able to weigh in with something useful.Amber Adrian

-“I sat on this overnight because I wanted to choose my words wisely. Like many of your white friends I live in a racially not-very-diverse, conservative area. My Facebook friends list represents people from all walks of life, from the people I went to a small rural high school with to my friends on the coasts and abroad and nearly every socioeconomic status. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what to say that will HELP rather than just add to a noisy chorus. Anything I say risks being misunderstood by one or more groups and devolving into a flame war that completely misses the point. Also, I’m just a muller in general and not usually one of the first voices to speak up on ANY topic. I think many of us are not silent, but just take longer to figure out what to say.Meagan Francis

I read every single one of the replies. There were comments from women who are normally reticent to discuss difficult issues, especially anything having to do with race. These are women with family friendly brands. They have made their livings online by being non-controversial and avoiding the icky parts of life. The icky parts that I love to dive into head first. But there they were, chiming in and telling me of their own fears and worry thus mitigating my own ache. I didn’t tell anyone that last part but I am telling you now: I was infuriated, outraged, aching beyond belief and I continue to find synonyms for each of my feelings. With each thoughtful, profound, honest answer given in response that outrage abated.

Often anger is a manifestation of not being heard. The people of Ferguson, Missouri have risen after not being heard for years and the events surrounding Michael Brown’s death woke the sleeping giant. I am largely speaking for myself here, but I am more than aware that those of us in traditionally underrepresented communities simply want to be listened to. Last night all I wanted was for someone to hear me and know that I was hurting. Last night, a group of friends from all moments of my life participated in a civil, informative discussion. I wonder if people are really reading what I’ve said or if they’re simply skimming through.

Last night you heard me. You listened. You digested. You felt my pain and my exhaustion. You told me that you sometimes don’t comment or click like but you have always been there and continue to be.

And for that, I thank you.

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Heather Barmore

Heather Barmore is an avid C-SPAN viewer, former education lobbyist and an occasional blogger. For the last nine years she has been writing about her life at No Pasa Nada and politics at Poliogue: The Art of Political Dialogue. She has also been a contributor to BlogHer.com, The Guardian, and a host of other sites. When she isn't writing, she is speaking about women of color, politics, education policy and using social media for political engagement and advocacy. She resides in Washington, DC with the world's worst cat. You can follow Heather on Twitter at @Poliogue.