Talking about race for the sake of talking about it only makes you guilty of virtue signalling

By: Zara Khan, Contributor

CW: racism

Perhaps you’re at a conference, class or even a meeting. Wherever you may be, I’m certain you’ve come across this strange ritual. Sometimes it’s expected, other times it’ll take you by surprise, but you’ll know it’s started when you hear a word like “equity.”

Then it begins. On one hand, the ritual begins where your white colleagues or classmates will spend a few hours or so emphatically declaring that “racism is bad” and that “we should do something about it” in various forms.

On the other hand, you, a person of colour, will sit there and nod your head, while everyone makes awkward eye contact with you. Whatever the case may be, if you’re anything like me, you’ll know that it’s a trap.

A trap? Yes. You see, these conversations aren’t meant for people like me. Rather, they are an opportunity others use to cleanse themselves of any harm they do as a white person. They rarely resonate with me.

Recently, while attending a virtual conference, I found myself part of another ritual, again. The topic of discussion? Equity in hiring and networking. I stayed silent. I knew that engaging would only leave me feeling frustrated. But, I caved and made a point.

I explained how I never had the opportunity to learn the social codes I needed to navigate predominantly white spaces. This left me feeling othered. “It is difficult to make a good first impression at an industry dinner if you’re too worried about what fork you should be using,” I said.

My point was met with an awkward silence. Though, perhaps in an effort to empathize, one person joked about how they too were unaware of the technicalities of cutlery usage. To be quite honest, I was upset.

Through sharing my experiences, I made myself vulnerable. I wanted to move the conversation in a different, more meaningful direction but I quickly realized that my point was more of a detour.

Issues of equity are often talked about like they are simply theoretical exercises and when I shared my lived experiences, others treated my comments as if they are out of scope. While we talked about systemic barriers during the conference, we did not talk about what those barriers might actually be. When I brought one up, the point was awkwardly swallowed and ignored.

Perhaps this explains my cynical view. These discussions feel like pointless exercises in alleviating white guilt, exercises I’m forced to sit through. So yes, I can’t help but roll my eyes every time I hear the word “intersectionality.”

Perhaps this explains my cynical view. These discussions feel like pointless exercises in alleviating white guilt, exercises I’m forced to sit through. So yes, I can’t help but roll my eyes every time I hear the word “intersectionality.”

Perhaps this explains my cynical view. These discussions feel like pointless exercises in alleviating white guilt, exercises I’m forced to sit through. So yes, I can’t help but roll my eyes every time I hear the word “intersectionality.”

Honestly, I don’t think this is intentional. I’d like to believe that these panels and discussions are held in good faith. But that doesn’t change the fact that I am simply frustrated by their lack of depth.

Consider the term “person of colour.” I have to confess, I dislike it. The vast majority of the world’s population are people of colour. There are far more differences between our experiences than the current discourse seems to acknowledge.

We are not a monolith. Yet, we are treated as such. Though there are some similarities, it’s fundamentally unfair to equate my experiences as a South Asian person to an Indigenous person’s experience.

Specificity is essential to having meaningful discussions. Rather than talking about people of colour as a whole, we could highlight the experiences of specific ethnicities. Rather than asking about what systemic barriers exist, we could pick one such barrier and consider its causes and effects.

Taking care to make sure that the terms we use allow for specificity should generate meaningful discussion and make space for relevant lived experiences.

Now, let’s consider how we can have more meaningful discussions during events like these. Honestly? We need to be listening more. During conversations like these, people seem to talk for the sake of talking, myself included. But if you really have nothing to contribute the best thing you can do is listen. Listen and learn.

During conversations like these, people seem to talk for the sake of talking, myself included. But if you really have nothing to contribute the best thing you can do is listen. Listen and learn.

This brings me to my second point: ask questions. This is the way you learn. Now, there’s an art to asking a question. You want to make sure that your question is appropriate. Say a classmate mentions that they’ve experienced a racially-motivated assault. Maybe don’t press for details. But, you might ask them about what they found most challenging about navigating the legal system afterwards.

Asking a question like this will perhaps teach you something you didn’t know. Ask questions that will clarify the gaps in your knowledge, ask questions that will force others to think. This is how we generate meaningful conversation.

Ultimately, we need to reframe how we approach discussions of equity. We should use them as opportunities. Opportunities to understand others, opportunities to solve problems. Yes, racism is bad. Yes, we should do something about it. But what should we do about it? We don’t seem to ask ourselves that question enough.

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