Like Learning a Foreign Language

I found my social activist soulmates in Pittsburgh: What’s Up?! Pittsburgh, a group of white activists who invite racial dialogue on the street by being “sign holders, stranger talkers, conversation openers, and spectacle makers.” They have been doing actions similar to the ones Keren and I have been doing with our “Talk With Me About Race” sign. Some of the What’s Up signs say things like “Talk to us about racial justice” and “We need you to fight racism because it still exists” and “End white silence.”

In addition to the street conversations, What’s Up participants do 8- to 10-week study groups on white privilege and racism, in which white people learn about these topics and take responsibility for their part to change and heal these wounds. There are many excellent resources, including information on the study group curricula, on the What’s Up site. I encourage you to check it out.

Driving from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia this morning, Keren said something that I think might be helpful i

One of the What's Up?! Pittsburgh street engagement signs.

One of the What’s Up?! Pittsburgh street engagement signs.

n encouraging white folks to engage in dialogues about race and racism. She noted that learning to listen and talk about race is like learning a foreign language. I think that’s an apt framework for this effort. If you or a friend or family member wants to start a racial discussion, maybe think of it like you are a foreign-language learner. You know you’re going to make mistakes — that’s part of the learning process. Just like accidentally using a swear word while in Italy, you need to apologize to others, learn the right word for what you meant, forgive yourself, and move on. But don’t stop talking!

And just like visiting a foreign country, there are culturally appropriate things to say and do and it’s your responsibility to learn what you can before going there. Do your reading, join a study group, watch some informational videos.

And, if you find you’re making lots of mistakes, being regularly misunderstood, or feel the mood in the room go cold when you’re talking, then maybe you need some more intensive help. The racial-justice equivalent of Berlitz lessons is available if you need it. Programs like Witnessing Whiteness in St. Louis and What’s Up in Pittsburgh are here to help you learn to hear and say what you need to.

April 25, 2015 Blog Posts