By Matt Meador • Of the News-Register • 


A small drama unfolded the other day in a series of comments on a post in a popular local Facebook group.

Actually, it only started as a drama. It played out as a timely and necessary conversation. And it only started as a drama because I misread an important remark.

A member made a post asking if there were any Black-owned businesses in the area that he could support. Predictably, the conversation almost immediately became defensive, prompting me to write an essay on legitimate reasons why a white person might wish to support a merchant of color.

When we live in a town where 86 percent of the population is white, it stands to reason, I argued, that the overwhelming majority of local merchants are also white.

There are many reasons why white people might wish to support businesses owned by Black people. Most involve closing the wealth gap or strengthening the economies of Black communities.

A white person might also intentionally seek out a merchant of color just to show support and solidarity with a group that might not enjoy the same enthusiasm among broad numbers of mostly white consumers, an advantage that an average white-owned business might enjoy, I argued.

Sometimes seeking out a merchant of color is just a nice gesture, considering the disturbing number of white people who actively avoid using minority-owned businesses, either as a protest against affirmative action or worse. Occasionally, a white person might even wish to expand his or her horizons by visiting a merchant of an unfamiliar culture, I said.

But when a local professional of Mexican heritage succinctly pointed out several problematic points in my essay, I overreacted. In my defense, I had absorbed my critic’s remarks in their sum total, which was not quite what he intended.

After several hours of reflection, following my initial horror that I seemed to have gotten it so wrong, I took another look at his words. This time, I deconstructed his comments. I read his remarks literally, assigning any value judgment he mentioned only to whatever specific point he’d tied to that judgment, not viewing his critique as an overall condemnation.

Once I calmed down, I realized my critic was right. 

It’s not my place, of course, to tell him whether he’s right or wrong on matters of race — matters he’s lived and felt but I can only imagine. But in fact, once I’d calmed down and revisited his remarks, I found myself agreeing with him unreservedly.

Both the logician in my head and my basic instinct agreed on something else as well: I needed this lesson.

The whole affair brought a larger question to the forefront. Can white people even talk about race? More specifically, can a white guy like me address race in a forum like this?

Does my voice add value to the discussion? Or am I causing more harm than good by speaking up?

I am intensely uncomfortable writing about race. I have certainly never set out to be a white guy writing about race.

However, several circumstances came together to point me in this direction.

I came to realize very quickly that I needed to remain uncomfortable with it. In fact, the moment I get comfortable writing about race is the moment I need to stop injecting myself.

I realized from the outset that I could never speak for a person of color about race. But maybe just as crucially, I cannot speak to a person of color about race.

Think about it. I cannot lecture a person of color on matters of race, period. It amounts to “whitesplaining.” defines the term as “the act of a white person explaining topics to people of color, often in an obliviously condescending manner, and especially regarding race- or injustice-related issues.” The Urban Dictionary defines it similarly, as a white person lecturing on matters of race to a person of color.

There is a reason both of those resources list this word. Too many people are guilty of the act of whitesplaining.

Anyone who reads my words can get anything they want from doing so. But it’s important that I make it clear I am speaking neither for nor to any person of color.

In my essay on supporting Black-owned businesses, I did not make that clear. I’ve said it so often, I assume people know it. But I need to make it clear every time.

So who is it I’m trying to reach as a white guy talking about race? Other white people.

There are people who will listen to me because I am white — people who might dismiss a voice of color. Often, these people do not consciously or intentionally ignore voices of color, but they may give my words more weight just because of my skin color.

If I can persuade even a handful of these people to look at things from a different perspective, then my voice has value in this conversation.

The answer to whether white people can talk about race at all is complicated. The big takeaway from this episode was one of crucial importance, and that’s what I am emphasizing today.

White people need to sit back and listen for a change.

We’ve been telling the world how to be ever since we departed Europe and “discovered” distant shores. It’s time we calmed down and earnestly listened to the voices of people of color. I mean really listened — heard with an open heart and quiet humility.

This is not a damning of white people like me as evil, guilty, horrible, awful and mean-spirited. It is a suggestion that we have, collectively, not been very good at listening to the voices of people who do not look like us.

I promise you you’re in for a mind-blowing experience if you humbly listen to the stories people of color have to tell.

I have two people very close to me who are Black. These very close, decades-long relationships do not give me any special right to address matters of race. But they have, perhaps, given me a long-term sensitivity to how people of different hues are treated.

I try to minimize my mention of them because I do not wish to wear my friends of color like some sort of white merit badge. I see smug white people do this all the time.

“Well, I have some nephews and nieces who are Hispanic,” they say, using a term easy to misuse. “And I have a good friend who is Black.”

They seem to believe these merit-badge minorities somehow give them permission to speak for people of color.

To keep me accountable in speaking on matters of race, I consult regularly with people of color. The same people also vet what I write.

I realize not everyone’s experience is the same. There are broad spectra of opinions running through communities of color. But I believe it’s my duty to make sure what I say is as close as possible to the collective experienced truth of those I am trying to support.

I am grateful for the local professional I mentioned above, the one who gently corrected me when I got something wrong. He helped me be accountable when I erred, and respectful conversations like ours are desperately needed these days.


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