Watch What You Say

As a race scholar in this current season of racial awakening for many White Americans, I am increasingly requested to speak to various groups about systemic racism, anti-racism, and other race-related concerns. Most of these talks are meant to help people engage in difficult discussions, or to help them understand some everyday ways to practice anti-racism. I regularly take questions from participants, and the majority of their questions demonstrate an honest desire to learn or interrogate their own understanding. It will come as no surprise to many, however, that some of the questions I receive are…more interesting. Some are not even questions at all, but instead express counternarrative opinions and beliefs, or are thinly veiled attempts to discredit my expertise. Most of the time I smile (or not), calmly restate what I’ve already explained, or provide new perspectives for further consideration.

During one recent talk, a White attendee asked a question that I believe came from a place of true curiosity, even as it subtly conveyed some dismissal of everything I had presented on anti-racist behaviors: “Why do White people have to watch what they say so as to not offend, but people of color can say whatever they want?” I had to laugh a little, because many White Americans ask this question at some point, in one variation or another. And more importantly, I understand the underlying confusion this question communicates.

Today’s social climate increasingly calls for people to use more inclusive, considerate language, and many people use social media and their dollars to hold individuals and companies accountable for problematic expressions (which includes what some people call “cancel culture”). There is also continuous debate over racialized phenomena like identity politics and microaggressions. Because White Americans comprise the majority of those called out for racially-insensitive (or outright racist) expressions, many White Americans feel as though they are being asked to “watch what they say” while people of color can “say whatever they want” without consideration for who they might offend.

I understand the sentiments. History, however, reflects a different reality.

To be non-White in America necessitates constant awareness (even vigilance) of who you are, where you are, what you say, and what you do.

In truth, people of color, particularly Black Americans, have always had to watch what we say to avoid offending White Americans. Not only have we had to watch what we say, but also what we do, to whom we speak, how we express our emotions, and where we are when we do any of this. To do otherwise has proven to be dangerous and even deadly for people of color in America.

We could trace this historical truth back to American slavery, but we need not even make that case here. (Most people probably agree that enslaved Black Americans could not say whatever they wanted to their enslavers without consequence). Instead, we’ll begin in the late 1800s, when W.E.B. Du Bois, a foundational social scientist, penned the theory of double consciousness explaining how Black Americans must not only understand what it means to be Black, but also what White people think and feel, as a method of survival. More contemporary research not only establishes that Black Americans still experience this sense of double consciousness (that is even more pronounced for Black women who sit at the intersection of race and gender), but that other people of color experience similar “two-ness” as well.

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

-W. E. B. Du Bois, 1897

History is replete with examples of Black Americans facing dire consequences for what they say (and do), often paying with their lives. Emmett Till was murdered by two White men for allegedly flirting with a White woman (who later recanted her testimony, admitting that Till had done nothing to her). Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated for leading a non-violent movement for civil rights.

More contemporary events clearly illustrate how non-White Americans must watch what they say or face significantly sharper (and more) retribution than White Americans face. In 2019 Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democratic congresswoman for Minnesota, came under fire for a tweet that many saw as anti-Semitic. She was pressured to apologize, but even after she did President Trump called on her to resign her seat in Congress (which is especially interesting given his own anti-Semitic remarks). When Grammy-winning artist Lecrae spoke out about racism, he was dressed down by supporters, many of whom were White evangelicals, who said he was spreading divisive messages.

Research also shows us that emotions are racialized—non-White people must constantly work to manage our emotions in order to avoid being negatively stereotyped, or put our jobs at risk. We must convey amiability and warmth (“Smile more!”), especially in response to racial issues, and avoid emotions like anger or frustration, even in jobs where these emotions are typically welcome and encouraged (e.g. litigators). Further, minoritized people often do things like work to hide accents or maintain limited styles of presentation (e.g., no locs or other “ethnic” styles) in order to better facilitate upward mobility.

(During my talks, this is typically when I pause to drive home an important message: these are not isolated incidents—they are historical, ongoing patterns.)

On the other hand, White Americans have historically carried very little personal risk over what they say (almost certainly without concern for their lives). For example, when South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson shouted out “You lie!” to President Obama during his speech to a joint session of Congress in 2009, or when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi ripped up a copy of President Trump’s State of the Union address, both experienced relatively benign backlash compared to the repercussions for non-White Americans. Denial of this reality only serves to further minimize the impacts of racism (“You’re the racist one, not me!”).

To be non-White in America necessitates constant awareness (even vigilance) of who you are, where you are, what you say, and what you do. Expecting White Americans to share equal accountability in the same manner is imperative if we are to finally address the issues of racism and discrimination embedded into the fabric of this country.

Happily, the individual who asked why “people of color can say whatever they want” expressed appreciation for my response and for an expanded understanding of the issue: they said they simply didn’t know these things were true. The irony of the entire situation, however, was not lost on me at all: that even as this White individual felt free enough to ask their question, I, as the Black expert on race and racism, had to manage my own emotional and verbal response in order to best facilitate that moment of learning.

We still have quite a distance to go.