Staying in Your Lane: A White Person’s Guide for White People

(Alternatively titled, “Not Being Shitty for Dummies”)

 

The advent of social media sites such as Twitter and Tumblr is indisputably a wonderful thing, multiplying the possibilities for communication, learning and understanding. However, if you’ve ever actually ever set foot on one of these websites, you will have undoubtedly witnessed their awful, hate-filled flipside. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to claim that most white people are not born with great skill in navigating the world without being somewhat offensive, let alone joining the online community. If you’re reading this I am assuming that you are not an out-and-out, self-proclaimed racist, as very few white people are these days. But racism is institutional and endemic, and even the most ardent white anti-racist is guilty of performing microaggressions, as innocuous as they may seem. Consequently, the phrase ‘stay in your lane’ has emerged, so to ever so gently nudge us in the right direction.

Just as the words ‘truffle butter’ will never again signify in my mind a luxury dairy spread, the phrase ‘stay in your own lane’ has evolved into so much more than just a polite traffic notice for awful drivers. We must turn to the ever useful Urban Dictionary for a modernised definition: To stay in one’s lane is to “mind your own business; keep moving straight ahead and don’t veer over into my personal affairs”. While ‘stay in your lane’ can be used in a variety of situations where an individual appears to be veering into an arena of knowledge that they are neither privy nor welcome to, here I wish to discuss it in specific reference to the ways that we white people can become more race-conscious.

It’s worth pointing out that I’ve only learnt the following from paying attention in multicultural online spaces. I most definitely have been a perpetrator in the past of the kind of actions that are listed below, but I think we can all agree that as we grow and learn, we would like to try and become kinder and more respectful to the other people we inhabit this world with. Additionally, I would never assume to know what all people of colour think or want from white people. These are just the things I’ve personally picked up and would encourage others to look into. And remember – staying in your lane is simple, easy, and 100% free of charge.

 

Whitesplaining

Okay, first of all, we have just GOT to stop this. Whitesplaining is when a white person painfully and very condescendingly explains to a person of colour aspects of their own oppression, as if they weren’t already aware of them. Let it be known that the irony of a white girl whitesplaining whitesplaining to some other white people does not escape me, and that this whole issue can be neatly packaged in this excellent video from MTV’s Decoded with Francesca Ramsay:

Oh god, the word whitesplaining sounds weird in my head now. Explaining to a black person how something they find offensive is actually very not offensive is perhaps the pinnacle of this toe curling phenomena. Often this occurs because we would rather be wrong than face up to the uncomfortable truth of our own complicity in a racist social infrastructure, e.g. “It’s not offensive because I don’t personally find it offensive / I don’t want to face up to the consequences if I admit it is offensive.” Oppressed groups have the ultimate authority on the ways they react to the terms of their own oppression. As a white person, telling a black person how to react to the oppression they themselves face every day due to the actions of white people, just comes off as highly patronising.

Racism doesn’t disappear by white people continually stating that it doesn’t exist. In fact, we’re kind of perpetuating it more with that sort of thinking. We’re white, and as such do not get to decide what is racist and what isn’t. Our opinion on the matter helps very little. Let’s try and come to terms with that. Quickly.

So if you ever feel like you’re about to explain why that Family Guy joke was actually only ironically racist and why your black friend shouldn’t be at all offended by it, just stop for a moment, take a deep breath and perhaps instead: don’t.

 

Black Spaces

If there is a discussion of an issue within a community you are not a part of, which does not affect you in any way, you almost certainly have no need to comment on it. Face it, if you are haven’t got a basic understanding of a subject, then ranting and raving about your entitlement to an opinion is still going to do next to nothing to help further the discourse. Hey, I think I’ve got great opinions on how to solve this whole EU/Brexit mess, but you don’t see me bowling up to Brussels and crashing the European Parliament. Because I am not informed enough to have a say. Not everyone wants our opinion, and that’s okay.

 

If you don’t understand it, it probably isn’t intended for you

The contents of the #GrowingUpBlack hashtag on twitter, references in Beyonce’s Lemonade, and almost every dance trend in recent memory: all things made by black people, for black people, that quickly find themselves adapted to suit white people. There is a reason we look stupid when we dab. I know, I know, it is very frustrating not to feel included in a fun feature of popular culture. But the fact is that black people have been creating pop culture for decades with little to no recognition, and it’s time for us to stop barging in and claiming things for ourselves (insert weak colonisation joke here).

Not everything is about us, not everything is intended for us, let black people have their own culture and spaces. Does this mean I’m not caught singing and dancing along to Formation in the privacy of my own room on a regular basis? Or course not, but there’s a time and a place for the “we are one race, the human race” hippy bullshit, and it is not in the middle of Beyonce’s heart-wrenching tribute to the struggles of the African-American woman, or a discussion of the effectiveness of the Black Lives Matter campaign.

 

Cultural (mis)appropriation

Modern multiculturalism has many obvious benefits, but this doesn’t mean we are able to interact with race outside of its historical context. Especially when, as white people, we kind of have a reputation of taking things that don’t belong to us and misusing them. Appreciating a culture is one thing, but appropriating it is another, and should be completely avoided. For example, the trend for white festival-goers to wear bindis on their foreheads (or to be quite honest wherever it is humanly possible for them to stick them) is insensitive to the fact that many South Asian women in Western countries face targeted racial hatred for wearing them, as well as other items of traditional dress. Is it fair that we are able to wear bindis as a fun costume, whereas South Asian women and girls are bullied and attacked for wearing them as a cultural practice?

When adopting features of a culture you know little about, or even that your ancestors may have has a hand in helping to destroy, we must ask ourselves these questions: Are you appreciating and enriching the culture? Or are you leeching off it, profiting from it, exploiting it for your own means, and using it as a punchline to a joke? If you feel like you may be doing any of the latter, take at least 10 full steps away from that culture, and return to your designated lane.

(Just please, for my sanity, stop getting dreadlocks. Stop it. If you don’t know why white people should not have dreadlocks, there is a great little article on The Tab about it here, but I personally cannot bear to go through it one more time because it makes my brain bleed. Please. It’s embarrassing at this point. I’m embarrassing myself even writing about it. Enough.)

 

False equivalence

False equivalence in this context in when a white person makes broad, sweeping statements about equality through role-reversal. Here are some you may have heard or even said:

 

“If I said what you just said about white people about black people, you’d call me a racist.”

“White girls getting corn rows is just the same as black women getting weaves!”

“Well if a black person did ‘whiteface’ I wouldn’t be offended, so blackface shouldn’t offend you.”

 

Now these are all frankly nauseating further examples of white people assuming that their words and actions exist inside a bubble, free of historical, sociological and cultural context. We cannot draw comparisons in any of the above scenarios, because we have not taken into consideration that black people (and other POC) exist within an oppressive hegemonic system which puts them at an immediate disadvantage to us within society.

Now this can all be considered quite well intentioned, up until the moment that racial slurs are brought into the equation. Nothing makes me lose my shit faster than a white person saying something along the lines of, “if black people are allowed to use the N word, why can’t I? I thought we wanted equality.” You know why we can’t say that word. Do not say that word. No not say it jokingly. Do not say it ironically. Do not say it when black people are around, don’t say it when black people are not around. Even if you have a black friend says you’re allowed to say it, I have not even the slightest of clues as to why you would. It is not radical, it is not progressive, it is not helpful, it is in fact the opposite of all these things. It is not for you. You’re not original, you’re not funny, and you’re aligning yourself with slave owners and racists. You’re a douchebag who uses damaging slurs for kicks. Kindly go eat a dick.

And if you think this is all a load of left-wing nonsense, I’m sorry to be the one to inform you but political correctness does not exist. It is racist people’s way of making common politeness and decency seem ridiculous and unattainable. If you try and pull the ‘free speech’ card on me, watch me pull my hand from my pocket and slap ya with it in public for being obtuse. You know damn well nobody is trying to take away your fundamental human right to free speech, and its borderline offensive to people who have actually had their freedom of speech restricted to even suggest so. People who say this also tend to be the sorts of people who whine about there not being a Straight Pride Parade or a White History Month. You sound like the child at the birthday party who cries that they didn’t get any presents, even though it isn’t their birthday. You sound like a real life Dudley Dursley. Personally, I could not live with that.

Being called racist will never be as damaging as the actual racism POC face every day. So instead of kicking against that, take a minute to try and understand and learn the complicated socio-political waters you are wading in.

Going off on a loosely-related tangent, could somebody please, PLEASE, for the love of gods, lend me their online subscription to The Times, because as it stands I am unable to read Janice Turner’s FASCINATING looking article entitled “’Stay in your own lane’ mindset is the new apartheid.” I tried to enquire about (read: mock) it on Twitter and quickly found myself blocked by Turner herself, which is hilarious but ultimately unfortunate as I was rather hoping to find out if the article could possibly match up to its title. Sidenote: Can we make ‘this is the new apartheid’ the new ‘that’s what Hitler would have wanted’ in terms of discussion-enders? Because I personally think it’s a corker.

You know what is like segregation? Segregation is like segregation. Being asked politely not to butt in on a subject we know next to nothing about is not.

 

 

With minimal tweaking, the simple guidelines above can be fitted to almost any community that should be respected in similar ways. Staying in your lane does not mean that you are intellectually frail, it does not mean you cannot stand up for yourself or your opinions, or that inter-culture or inter-race discussion is not important or valuable. It means that you are aware of your surroundings, of your online audience, and of the impact of your words. Does this mean that you cannot interact with and appreciate other cultures? Of course not, just be respectful. It’s the same with anything. If you’re in the presence of someone who is doing something that makes you uncomfortable, who then continue to do said thing after you’ve notified them of this discomfort, you’re gonna kinda think they’re an asshat.

So what can we do as white people? If you have a platform afforded to you by your white privilege, allow POC to share that platform in order to speak about their own experiences instead of misguidedly speaking for them. For god’s sake, LISTEN TO PEOPLE OF COLOUR. If you see your white friend being racist or performing these microaggressions, make it clear that it is not okay. Sure, call me a buzzkill for starting an argument with you about it at a party, but if you’re my friend and you’re white, I’ll hold you to the same high standards to which I hold myself. All I know is racialised attacks are being reported more and more frequently in the press, and I don’t feel standing idly by while my own race perpetrates that is an adequate way to conduct myself.

So if I have to tread carefully on the internet and take more into consideration the words I put out into the world, then it’s a small price to pay to not exist as a patronising, insensitive arsehole. Far be it for me to tell someone what they should and shouldn’t do, how they should and shouldn’t conduct themselves, online or otherwise. But if what you are really keen to do is to exist somewhere between the boundaries of insensitive and downright racist, then maybe it’s time for you to do some introspection. I eagerly await any comments telling me how I’m talking shite; better writers than I have their comments sections flooded with white whinging about similar topics, so go ahead.

Until then I’ll just be over here, minding my own business…

 

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Image via Lady Clever

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