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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What do you think?

34 Responses

  1. Editor’s Note: Hey, Thanks | Tue Night

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

  2. Mindi Ferguson

    So wonderful. May we continue to hear and to ask/answer difficult questions, to challenge the status quo.

    • Heather Barmore

      Thank you, Mindi. It’s important to ask the difficult questions AND have difficult conversations.

    • Janay

      Hello Vicky. How are you today. You make the most fabulous cards sweetie. So beautifully co-ordinated, fab colours, cute image and wonderfully emothlisled.Lbes of love, Sandra xxx

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  4. Wendy Goldman Scherer

    Crying. Just crying. Words on Facebook or Twitter feel so inadequate to me. I do think people make impact in lots of different and important ways. Social media is one way; there are so many others. We all need to do something. We all need to take action. This just cannot be. It cannot. I do worry, though, about judging people’s commitment to social justice based on the degree to which they discuss the issues (or what they’re doing) on social media. It doesn’t mean they’re not talking about it or doing anything. I’m sure plenty are not. But many are. I, for one, am committed to being a part of the solution. I may be quiet on social media when it comes to the hard issues, but I am not quiet in my resolve. Thank you for writing this important piece. #grateful

  5. amy @teachmama

    great post, friend. I’m hearing you loud and clear.

  6. April

    we’re here. we’re listening. we care. i think it’s both overwhelming, foreign, and simultaneously too close to home for some of us. but that doesn’t mean we’re not engaged in our own way – pushing back against stereotypes and racism as neighbors, co-workers, friends, and most importantly as parents to the next generation. it’s subtler, but we’re here.

  7. Stephanie Precourt

    thank you, Heather. I see and am listening and hate that you are hurting. Words do feel absolutely inadequate but I couldn’t click away without commenting and letting you know I have heard you and am going to work on finding those words and doing more and doing better to stop this hurt.

  8. Becky C

    I am more than willing to have the conversation. However, I have had a few conversation with African American people I know that turned into verbal beat downs. The last time I tried to have a conversation relating to racism it was about why there are ‘black’ colleges and ‘white’ colleges. It started out great but at some point she got angry, kept talking over me and I was no longer part of a conversation but getting a verbal tirade launched at me. I stopped talking. When she finally ran down, I looked at her and said, “I don’t mind having the hard conversation but it needs to be a conversation. I feel like I was just verbally beaten up which is not ok.’ As a white person, I now am leery of entering into another conversation about race because I don’t want to get into another verbal beat down. I know that there is anger but I don’t understand the life. How can I learn and understand when I’m afraid to open my mouth?

  9. Maggie

    As much as I love and appreciate and receive this (and you), I ache when I hear Black women and men express caution at being received as an Angry Black Wo/man. I honestly don’t know how you could be Black and alive today and not be angry. I’m angry, too. Go ahead and be angry. Go ahead and strive to rise above–a noble goal for all of us–but don’t ever apologize for that, at least not to me. I hear you. I see you. I value you. I’m listening. Call me out anytime. If anybody’s threatened by that, they need to ask themselves–not you–why.

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  11. Cassie Boorn

    I saw your post on Facebook & it forced me to ask myself a lot of hard questions. Joining a bi-racial family has given me a first hand many of the injustices our system has created. Still, I find myself totally unsure of how (and when) to speak on these issues. I am glad you pushed me to think about that in a deeper way.

  12. Yolanda Noyes

    Wow Heather! Thank you so much for this very thoughtful response.

  13. Rachel Karman

    I appreciate this piece so much, as a fairly outspoken person I have found myself speaking out and fearing being “the angry ranting woman” and there are certainly times where I need to check myself and my anger when it comes to others’ lack of social media presence on the big stuff. That said, as a white woman I have been so incredibly frustrated with people’s lack of speaking out on this issue who are not Black. This is not a “Black issue,” it’s an everyone issue, it’s a humanity issue and while I understand the fear of being maimed by vile people on social media (good Lord I’ve been called some awful things), I think if this hit closer to home, if this were a white boy on his way to college, with no history of legal trouble white people would be speaking out much more because they’d want to be a voice is support and/or they’d fear it could be their son or their brother…but that’s what needs to change; I don’t care what color Michael Brown is, he IS my brother, it’s not us and them…we are all in this sinking ship, justice is not being served anywhere in this case and it’s not okay. We all need to be accountable for this no matter what color our skin. Keep speaking out, yell if you need to. Shake people up, we need it.

    • Heather Barmore

      Thanks for the comment, Rachel. You’re right, it’s a ‘human’ issue and this is something that will continue to happen until we are all able to be honest about systemic racism and inequality impacting us all.

  14. Liz Hazelwood

    The moment the decision was released I wanted to scream my outrage and disillusionment from the rooftops. I composed countless statements in my mind. That said, I waited a full day before making any kind of comment because I was paralyzed by the possibility of choosing the wrong words and causing more pain to people who are close to me. I don’t have that right.
    In the end, my words came from a six year old boy of color in my 1st grade class: “If you get in trouble and you’re white, you go to jail. If you get in trouble and you’re black, you get shot.” Stated simply, without emotion, as factually as if he were talking about his next play date or what he had for dinner. Using his words I was able to express that violence and civil unrest are symptoms and until we address the institutional racism that makes a six year old live that statement as his truth on the daily, we are doing nothing.

  15. Naomi Brewer

    I am carefully reading and re-reading your blog. Thank you for opening up the conversation. Like many I hardly know what to say because as 70 year old white women who grew up in the south, a student at Little Rock Central High School when it was first “integrated” (read token) and one who genuinely cares about this issue I am heart broken and looking for my voice. No one is a winner in this situation. I think this tragedy is an equalizer in the worst kind of way. I desperately wish there was a straight forward solution to the systemic racism in our society. I deeply appreciate your measured words and weep for the pain you carry in your heart and soul.

  16. For everyone who wants to write about Ferguson but hasn’t.

    […] read–then reread–Heather Barmore’s piece asking, Why Don’t My White Friends Talk About Race? Here’s What They Told Me.  That’s when I started counting the minutes until I would be home from an early […]

  17. Kristin

    Thank you. This is so important. The reminder that “Often anger is a manifestation of not being heard” is something we all need to remember.

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