White people are talking to one another these days. Eagerly reading books. Earnestly participating in whites-only discussion groups — a type of racial segregation with an entirely different feel and meaning from the power-hording exclusions of the past.
This is our work, to face up to and come to terms with what feminist and white anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh calls the “unearned entitlements” that society bestows on white people. (See the list that McIntosh laid out more than 30 years ago in her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” and notice how full that knapsack remains today.)
As I have worked through (in order) the books White Fragility, and Between the World and Me, and There There, and How to Be an Antiracist, I have been thinking about language:
- How white names have erased other cultures.
- How shifts in capitalization initially confused me.
- How hard I tried, as a young feminist, to incorporate gender-neutral language into my writing and daily speech.
And because I made such an effort to replace generic male pronouns with the admittedly awkward “he or she,” I have become more aware of when unconscious bias — the privileges of race, class and sexual orientation that I take for granted — still trips me up with how I use and view language.
Here’s what I am learning:
Lesson 1: Do your homework.
During the uncivil tug of war over whether to call Minneapolis’ largest lake by its original Dakota name or the one that honored racist politician John C. Calhoun, I never bothered to investigate how to pronounce Bde Maka Ska. Instead, wanting to look “woke,” I simply used it.
A friend who lives near the former Lake Calhoun gently corrected me when I referenced ba-DAY-mah-kah-SKA, putting the primary emphasis on the final syllable. The correct pronunciation of what translates into English as White Earth Lake has a flow, emphasizing the second syllable of the second word. Ba-day-mah-KAH-ska.
“But that’s not what the spelling suggests!” I told my friend. No matter. Not my language, not my place. Instead of embarrassing myself further, I found a video online that helped me pronounce the name correctly, and then I practiced. By now, the pronunciation is second nature.
Lesson 2: Fake it till you make it.
The first time I was asked to introduce myself with my pronoun preferences was when I began volunteering for a feminist health organization in January 2018. “Hi, I’m Amy, she/her/hers” sounded awkward at first. Eventually, like “he or she,” it just seemed natural. The practice has also helped me be more cognizant of non-binary people, those who identify as neither female nor male.
I had witnessed the pronoun challenges of my transgender first cousin, who spent some long, hard years transitioning from male to female and who later grew impatient when people made pronoun mistakes — as her parents, my aunt and uncle, sometimes did. My husband once referred to Renae as “he” at a family gathering, watched her stiffen and felt himself want to melt into the floor. Instead he apologized and moved on, acknowledging Renae’s feelings before his own by staying with the conversation. By remaining present, both literally and emotionally.
Lesson 3: Find safe spaces to work things out.
I recently joined a “Dismantling Whiteness” group at work. I seek out people I trust with whom to discuss issues of race and inequity, of power and privilege, of unconscious bias and changing language patterns. Like me, they are white; like me, they are trying. Like me, they sometimes are confused.
As a former editor, I closely followed the decision by prominent media outlets last summer to start capitalizing the word Black again, in the wake of the social upheaval that followed the police killing of George Floyd. Was this a gesture meant to reverse centuries of horrific treatment? Was it intended to help Black people earn some overdue respect? Or was it time to remind whites of our complicity?
A commentary last July in the Washington Post argued a different point of view. If we capitalize only Black, said author and historian Nell Irvin Painter — who herself is Black — then we fail to acknowledge that whiteness is a race, a social construction that for centuries has elevated some people at the expense of others.
I choose, here and elsewhere, not to capitalize white. Not yet. I fear leaving any impression of allegiance to white nationalism or of appearing antagonistic toward social change or of differing with Black people’s right to claim their own identity. I’m just not sure it is my choice to make.
This is why white people are talking. We must figure it out among ourselves. “I feel like such a stumbling white person,” I told a Black colleague last year at a pre-COVID work meeting. She laughed and touched my arm. “Keep on stumbling,” she declared.
Our turn, finally, to have a reckoning with race.