White Folks Need to Stop Assuming We Know Everything About Race


Distributed by OtherWords.org.

If you don’t understand why football players are taking a knee, take it as a sign you have more to learn.

By Jill Richardson

As white people across the nation criticize Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who “take a knee” for the national anthem, they ought to know something first.

White people in America have no idea what life is like for black people in America.

How can I make such a broad statement? How would I possibly know?

For one thing, I’m white. I grew up in a mostly white town. Like many white people, I was raised to oppose racism, at least as I understood it then. I celebrated Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I wasn’t quite sure who Malcolm X was — I’d heard the name, but we never studied him in school. I’d never heard of other black leaders like Marcus Garvey or Bayard Rustin.

I never used the N-word. I wouldn’t even write it in my essay on Huckleberry Finn in ninth grade English. And I’d never even heard of most other racial slurs for African Americans — or any other race for that matter. Nobody used language like that.

But that was the extent of my background when, three years ago, I found myself assigned to be a teaching assistant in a sociology class on race. The professor would give the lectures; I would lead the discussions.

To say it was terrifying is an understatement. I didn’t know any of the material I now had to teach, and I was flying by the seat of my pants.

Fortunately, I did know how to listen. And I know how to empathize.

In the years since, I’ve taught hundreds of students of all races — first as a teaching assistant and now as an adjunct professor.

And it’s funny. When you start listening, you learn things.

I learned that being black in America means people who aren’t black think it’s OK to touch your hair whenever they want — often without asking, even if they don’t know you.

When my students inadvertently made racist remarks, it didn’t hurt me as a white person. If I weren’t white, it would’ve stung. And I would’ve had to remain cool and professional while continuing to do my job — something I learned nonwhite people have to do all the time.

I learned that decades of housing discrimination robbed black people of wealth while allowing whites to buy homes and build equity. The effects of those disparities live on.

Long after segregation was legal, we continue to live in racially segregated neighborhoods, and students like Michael Brown attend schools so poor I couldn’t even fathom that such a place would be called a school.

How can anyone succeed in college or find a good job if they barely even have one class a day where a teacher shows up and teaches, as was the case in a district detailed in a 2015 “This American Life”?

Each year, I face the same conundrum: My students inhabit different worlds. The white students think they know all there is to know about life in America. My job is to gently show them they have no idea — as I had no idea — what it’s like not to be white in America.

I can’t speak for black people, and I wouldn’t try to. They speak very well for themselves. I’ll just say that those of us who are white should listen when they do.

And to do that, white people must overcome their defensiveness. Not every protest against racism is a personal attack against them, the flag, the country, or whatever else.

So if you’re white, next time you see black football players take a knee and don’t understand, take it as a sign you have something to learn.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. 


  1. If you really want to know more about the Black Lives Matter movement and why the NFL players are taking a knee, try Pod Save the People, DeRay Mckesson’s podcast on iTunes.

    • “If you really want to know more about the Black Lives Matter movement…”

      Bob Lord did an excellent job explaining to me why the Black Lives Matter movement is important and should be understood by whites. I was wrong headed about the movement, at first, but now see why the movement is important.

      …try Pod Save the People, DeRay Mckesson’s podcast on iTunes.”

      Thank you for pointing out to me another source of information; I will tune in to it.

  2. bob to say black people in this way assumes all black people are the same. ben carson and al sharpton are not even similar let alone the same. you would not say this about white people. I know black history better then most black people I have talked too, so skin colors is not the most important thing ;but the content of their character as dr. king said. people have more in common then skin color and political correctness trys to say differently.

  3. Very true Bob, white America needs to listen to black America. Very illuminating from a Black woman’s perspective is “It’s the Little Things” by New York Times reporter Lena Williams about the racism she has experienced as a professional reporter.

  4. Note to Readers:

    In the past, I’ve posted only my own work from OtherWords. But it is a free syndication service, so I thought I’d see if there was any interest in the work of other writers. This piece I thought was very good.

    Feel free to use this comment thread to let me know if you’d like to see more of this.


    • I thought the article you posted was very interesting and an easy read. I would like to see other articles, Bob, for a different point of view on important subjects like this. Thanks for sharing it!

      • A few weeks ago under a similar post I said that when people of color talk about race I shut up and listen.

        And you accused me of wanting to give up my white privilege (not something actually possible, which says a lot about your understanding of the world) and accused me of all kinds of race traitor-ness.


        • “…and accused me of all kinds of race traitor-ness.”

          First of all, Tom, I didn’t say I actually with the outside message Bob posted. What I said was that it was interesting and that I would like Bob to share more of these outsides messages. Just because I asked him to do that (as he had requested input) does not mean that I agreed with the message, just that it was interesting and I often enjoy reading other points of view to be considered.

          Secondly, The reason I took you to task over the “I shut up and listen” comment was because I felt the message showed your willingness to tip-toe around whatever blacks say or do. That is not as much a sign of respect as you think it is. The black experience in America is a good thing to try and understand, but sometimes even blacks do dumb things and it does them no service to simply overlook it when some of them are wrongheaded. Listening respectfully and striving to understand what is being said is not the same thing as capitulating by shutting up and acting as if everything blacks say and do is golden.

          What the heck does “SMH” mean? I can’t think of any smart aleck put down that fits it, so curiosity forces me to ask. I know you are not going to answer, but you should consider that not knowing what it means takes away the sting of whatever nastiness the comment might make. If you want the comment to sting, I need to know what it means.

          • My statement about shutting up and listening just means that white people like to yap a lot about what black people should and should not do.

            Everything else you read into my statement is projection on your part.

            Capitulating? What is being surrendered? What am I giving up? In what way is listening “tip-toeing”.

            What are you worried about giving up?

            I actually only replied to your comment to get a little of those white nationalist views of yours out in the air, which it clearly did.

            Sometimes individuals do dumb things, Steve. Individuals. You surrender nothing listening, it is not capitulation.

            Do be scared, Steve. Black people are not coming for you.

            FYI, SMH means Shaking My Head, which I am still doing, LOL.

      • Comment in response to “For Sure Not Tom”>

        I apologize for this message not being attached to the original posting, but there were no “Reply” opportunities left.

        “FYI, SMH means Shaking My Head, which I am still doing, LOL.”

        I was surprised you shared the information, but thank you for doing so. And thank you for the comment being a perfectly reasonable one and not a vulgarity or attempt to shock. :o)

        “My statement about shutting up and listening just means that white people like to yap a lot about what black people should and should not do.”

        That is an unfair statement, Tom. I have never stated anything about what black people should or should not do. They can live their lives however they choose. But I also am not forced into silence when a black person or people do something that dumb, wrong, or stupid.

        “Capitulating? What is being surrendered? What am I giving up? In what way is listening “tip-toeing”.”

        “Listening” is not surrendering anything, Tom. Losing your ability to speak honestly and openly is surrendering something and, like many liberals, you find it difficult, if not impossible, to say anything that might be viewed as a criticism of black people.

        “What are you worried about giving up?”

        I am worried about being forced to silence because liberals try and create a universal sense of shame at speaking openly and honestly about race relations. Nothing is accomplished by remaining silent and nodding in approval because you are afraid of offending a black person. You should not be afraid to speak frankly, Tom.

        “Do [not] be scared, Steve. Black people are not coming for you.”

        No kidding, Tom. I am not afraid of black people. Two of my oldest friends are black and they come over to my house for a weekly poker game. These are people with whom I have shared a blanket when we were cold and shared crappy food with because that was all there was to eat. I have fought with them at my side, bled with them when we were hurt, and cried with them when our people were hurt or killed. I would gladly have laid down my life to protect them as they would have me.

        And please don’t start quoting that stupid statement “Some of my best friends are black, etc.” During my life I have been led by black NCOs and officers, I have led black soldiers and officers, and I have competed with and shared my personal life, hopes, dreams, and ambitions with black contemporaries. No, I am not afraid of blacks or what is happening with their finding a voice and speaking out about the way they have been treated. But I will not accept being forced – or volunteering – to sit down and shut up. Such actions contribute NOTHING to improved relations or improvement in the way black people have traditionally been treated.

        “Everything else you read into my statement is projection on your part.”

        Tom, it is projection when you actually state something in your posting. It is just me taking you at your word.

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