How to Talk to Your White Friends About White Guilt

How to Talk to Your White Friends About White Guilt

Preparing for the year ahead.

Published January 16, 2017

I'll never forget the way that November 9 (the day after Election Day) felt to me. I opted for the N train to Chelsea so I could cross over the Manhattan bridge. I needed a dose of mid-morning sunlight to kill whatever was trying to settle itself onto my skin. I sat, indifferent, against the hard seat, tried to read my book, tried to position myself nonchalantly. Failed miserably. Like a schoolgirl fresh from her first heartbreak, I had allowed myself to lose a bit of faith in our government. Faith, that I knew was undeserved.



It wasn’t until I got to work that I realized what the difference was. I looked around at my office full of my peers: we, the first and second generation Millennials and Gen-Xers, spiked up on coffee, occasionally feeding on Kind bars or the various lunchables scattered around the Flatiron neighborhood. The people with whom I felt in general agreement with that sh*t was f**ked. The difference crept in there and on my way back home. I watched as the city warmed again. As people filed on and off the subway cars, turning to their riding companions or their phones, possibly reading over the day’s political updates or figuring out what to order on Seamless when they got home. I noticed that the white faces and the colored faces were doing different things. I noticed that week they were saying different things as well. It was in those moments that I understood not everyone around me shared the same worst-case scenario.

White Guilt

Everyone had a stake in the outcome of this country’s development and in it’s demise. It was that night and the several that followed that I realized my white cohorts were bewildered and left feeling helpless or otherwise empowered.

I saw white people react in different ways to Trump’s election. I had a few conversations with white friends that week that triggered my defensiveness. Despite the fact that they were wrought with pain and worry like everyone else. Despite the fact that they were people I cared about, trusted and knew had good intentions. I saw dozens of prominent white bloggers and media influencers posting link after link of news articles about hate crimes popping up across the nation. I immediately wondered if sensationalizing hate crimes was the best medicine at a time like this.


🙏 Rabbi Joel Simonds, incorporating the words of Rav Kook

A photo posted by Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) on

So their response was, then what do I do?

I had to sit back into the question. Let it settle around my shoulders. I had to recall the first grade, and being told my skin was “dirty.” I had to recall walking down the street with my cousin when I was 15 and having a beer bottle thrown at us by white supremacists. I had to recall that time over the summer when a woman at the library told me that my son was “well-spoken” even though all he said was hello. I considered the delicacy that was the line between racism and human error. Between ignorance and tolerance. What do we tell our white friends? How do we form allies?

Tell Them to Speak Up

Remind them that despite how uncomfortable it feels to admit, their voice matters more than ours. White voices weigh heavier on the scale in this country. When people of color speak too harshly, it’s seen as violent. When we speak too softly, it’s overlooked. When white people make a fuss  —  no matter the volume  —  it’s supported, promoted, taken seriously. Tell your white friends not to tweet their concerns, or write a strongly worded Facebook post. Ask them to say their peace in audible protest, to their friends and family members, to their government officials in person or by letter or phone call. Hold them accountable for stepping up to the mic.

Because ours isn’t on.

“[Tell them] to fight with us. To help us open doors by speaking up for what’s right, both within their families/personal circles and professional settings as well.”  — Maiya Norton, marketing professional

Tell Them to Respect Our Culture

Black culture is a gumbo pot. It’s the result of individual nationality and the nationality of one’s parents and ancestors. It's the combination of living in America and whatever neighborhood you grew up in. It is not all-inclusive or one dimensional. It includes hip-hop, African ancestry, praise and worship, activism, cornrows, Southern traditions, and things only Black mamas say. Lately, a price tag has been placed on the things we were once mocked for. And so sometimes that’s what it feels like  —  a mockery. Like spending hours making a delicious gourmet meal and watching as your guests pick it apart, taking only the fancy garnish and leaving the rest to spoil.

Cultures should absolutely be shared  —  it enriches our lives and gives us a deeper understanding about the world’s interconnectivity. But the cultures that people are gaining the most money from are also cultures which have historically been kept from thriving somehow. The interest in Black culture seems to stop right around political reform, social equality and community support. Funny how that works.

Tell Them to Think Outside Their Box

Gentrification is not bad. In fact, we asked for this. We wanted to end segregation and fought hard to ensure our way out of slavery and into mainstream society. But that door swings both ways. While gentrification is not, in theory, a bad thing, it does create a unique problem. No matter what, a community has to be supported by its members. Your actual physical community, its schools, stores, subway stops, sidewalks and street vendors. Those are your people. If white people avoid it (despite enjoying the low but rising rent) they are essentially draining their communities. Everyone, Black or white, should have some knowledge of local issues. In the age of Facebook, it doesn’t take more than a quick keyword search to find dozens of community groups looking for volunteers and supporters.

Next time you have a very Black event on the calendar, bring that very white friend who wants to support people of color.

Tell Them to Listen

I had a conversation recently with a friend who is half Cuban and half white. He openly admitted to identifying as white. It was how he was raised and what his daily environment mostly consisted of. But on the topic of Black music and Black history he suddenly had a lot to say. He had read books, he knew what was up and he was on the side of equality. Which felt like a really polite and supportive way of saying “yea, yea, yea…”

As well-intentioned as he was, he was doing something that tends to happen a lot in conversations like these. He was talking over a Black voice on a Black topic. Listening is an act of kindness and today, it is the most important step in activism.

Be aware of the fact that the root of the problem is most often poverty. if you have not lived in poverty, you likely don’t have much insight into the other half.

“Listen, first. Come with ears. And understanding. Ask how we want and need the help and to also be aware each answer may differ based on who answers.”  — Joel Daniels, artist

Tell Them to Tell Their White Friends

I’ve been told on several occasions that I don’t “look like a mom.” Presumably, it is because I still look young and unencumbered that people often unknowingly bash parenthood and children in my presence. They feel safe enough to say things that they otherwise wouldn’t if they knew I was a parent. This is my only insight into what it must be like to be white, conscious and surrounded by other white people who are still in the dark. In those moments, are they silent? Do they raise an index finger and correct uneducated statements about people of color? Tell your white friends to speak up. We don’t need to know how much they respect Martin Luther King’s legacy or how they actually feel that hip-hop changed the world.

Their white friends may need to know that.

“If you see something, say something. You can defend us when people make jokes at our expense.” — Daniel Johnson, writer

What to Tell Your Black Friends

Here’s the hard part. You actually have to listen to your white friends. Accept what they have to say, their questions and their wide-eyed look of dismay. Don’t get frustrated and tell them they just don’t get it. Don’t wave away their concerns in a huff. Have conversations.

You also can’t expect white people to get involved if you’re not. Being Black is not a protest and neither is wearing a shirt that says how Black you are. Step foot into the thick of it. Make choices that are inclusive of your entire community.

The answer to racism is not to fight until one side wins. It’s to educate. Share wisdom, open conversations and mouths and minds. It may be easy to sink into a mood of despair or to assume that every white person you pass on the street would prefer it if you weren’t there. Want to feel hopeful? Every generation that has come to age has brought forth change that its predecessors could not fathom. Nothing is impossible when there is a force behind the effort. Collectively, and peacefully, change can come. We have to first demand it, then we have to insist that our white allies demand it as well.

(Photo: Steve Debenport/Getty Images)

Written by Ashley Simpo


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