10 Mistakes White People Make When Talking About Race (Participation)

Over on SirensMag.com, we’re in the midst of a race-themed issue. Heavy/scary, I know. But I can’t tell you how much the act of discourse about this all-important topic has opened our eyes – and those of our readers. But not all discourse is good discourse (see idiotic political blabbermouths of late). It’s easy to botch an important discussion about race with fear, ignorance, or just plain silliness. Uninformed–or even overly politically correct–white people are the major offenders, sure, but anyone without adequate information can be guilty of sounding like a racist or an idiot (wait, that’s redundant). With the help of some favorite (and vocal) celebrities and writers, here are 10 things not to do when trying to have an intellectual discussion about race–which, to be clear, you should do. But first learn from these mistakes:

1. Thinking It’s Not OK to Talk About It

Race is such a touchy topic because it is often associated with all of the negative history and oppression of minorities in this country. Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans share a history of physical and social abuse at the hand of the white majority. Yes, that leads to anger and distrust, feelings so strong that they’ve survived for centuries. But the only way to bridge the gap and move forward as a more unified society is to talk about it: all of it.


We are supposed to be engaged in a cultural conversation about race – a dialogue largely taking place on television and at the movies. We’ve traded unquestioned racism for a twisted multicultural correctness. Everything is celebrated, nothing can be discussed. We seem to want to live in an imaginary world without racism, where we celebrate differences but never base our beliefs on them.”- Sallie Tisdale, author of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Harvest Moon and Lot’s Wife, Stepping Westward and Talk Dirty to Me

2. Using Culture-Specific Slang to Relate to Other Races

K-Fed, you ain’t. And you just shouldn’t try to be–ever.


Black people have a wide array of colorful terms that come in and go out of style and can be used in a myriad of different ways. White people, it will be extremely tempting to try and incorporate these terms into your everyday language. Don’t. When you guys start using our words, that’s when we know it’s time to stop using them.- Nick Adams, author Making Friends With Black People

3. Assuming Biracial People Identify More with One Side Than the Other

The majority race in America today isn’t white, black, or even Latino. It’s biracial. And this will only increase with each successive generation. We’re a society that loves to check off boxes, but the greater challenge is to stop seeing people as shades and start knowing them for who they are.


As the child of a black man and white woman, born in the melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who is half-Indonesian, but who is usually mistaken for Mexican, and a brother-in-law and niece of Chinese descent, with some relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac, I never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe.- Barack Obama, Kenyan/White American, Illinois Senator, presidential candidate

4. Thinking Race Is Only an Issue for Minorities

The tendency is to think of “race” as something that only black/brown/Asian/Hispanic people have – whereas “white” is the default setting ( i.e., we say “American” to mean white, but “Black American,” “Asian-American,” etc. to identify other Americans of different colors). Everyone has a race. This is a nation of immigrants, from England, Ireland, France, Germany, Poland, Africa, Asia, and beyond.


To be white is to have a race and a racial perspective as well, and that needs much greater acknowledgment in our culture. Discussions of race will always be limited until white Americans can have an honest, open discussion about what it means to be white in America – the good and the bad.- Molly Faulkner-Bond, biracial Harvard grad who explored issues of interracial friendship in the current Sirens issue

5. Using Outdated Terms When Describing Different Races

Oriental, Colored, and Indian went out of style a long time ago; in fact, they’re considered offensive. So, too, is lumping every Spanish-speaking person into a general category like “Mexican” or any Arab-looking person as “Persian” (it’s a specific country, people). Feeling the need to identify is a nervous reaction we have when faced with issues of race. Black, white, Asian and Latino/a are generally accepted, but when in doubt, how about you just call someone by their actual name. Who says we have to classify ourselves all the time anyway?


I had to deal with my prejudices. I had to learn to ignore the taunting labels of other blacks who had everything figured out, including how I should act according to the color of my skin. I am human first, and that’s where my efforts have gone.– Donna Leonard Conger, author of Don’t Call Me African-American

6. Believing Stereotypes

Yes, black Americans dominate most sports, more Asians are accepted into MIT than any other race, and Latinos have been known to tear up a dance floor. Though some race-specific stereotypes seem like positive assumptions, imagine yourself on the other end, with high expectations placed on your shoulders simply because of a scrutinized minority. White people don’t have the pressure to be the best in math or sports; they just have to be good enough. Everyone else should get the same slack.


One could say (I don’t) that stereotypes are benevolent: All Asians are smart and hard-working. All Asian men are geeky engineers with high-flood-water pants and calculators on their belts. All Asian women are either passive, submissive chrysanthemums or seductive, manipulative hotties. I suppose it’s true that these aren’t hugely destructive stereotypes, but they are stereotypes nonetheless, and they can have hurtful consequences. I think to get rid of these stereotypes, Asian Americans are going to have to be more vocal and political. The same goes for other races.– Don Lee, author of Yellow: Stories

7. Thinking Affirmative Action Has Anything to Do With Someone’s Success

One of the most controversial issues of the past 20 years is affirmative action, a term widely over-used and often misunderstood. It was supposed to explain educational and hiring policies put in place to encourage more diversity on college campuses and in the public sector. The naysayers made it sound like minorities were given hand-outs, which has resulted in an assumption, even years after most of those progressive policies have been killed, that a successful minority must have been given an easy ride. How about you ask Oprah if she was given an easy ride when networks constantly told her she looked and sounded too “ethnic” early in her career? Do you think the late CBS anchor Ed Bradley was given a break when he accidentally became the first African-American White House correspondent, a result of his network sending him to cover what they thought would be a Jimmy Carter loss? And of these two “View” hosts, who do you think earned their coveted role more: Lisa Ling, a trained journalist, or Elizabeth Hasselbeck, a “Survivor” contestant?


A white boy that makes C’s in college can make it to the White House.– Chris Rock

8. Assuming One Man’s Success = An Entire Race’s Progress

It’s commonplace to celebrate the breakthrough successes of minorities, the firsts, the bests. These people deserve our accolades, certainly, but the success of a few doesn’t mean an oppressed minority is triumphant. We still have a long way to go. The day we stop clapping for the minority in a “good for you, kid” condescending manner is the day we’ve made real progress.


I never thought I was going to be a success. I was the longest-produced comedy at Warner Bros. and I don’t feel special. When you have to work harder just to break even, it’s hard to feel special. I got cancelled so they could put Cavemen on the air. It doesn’t make sense.– George Lopez, whose The George Lopez Show was the longest-running, most profitable all-Latino show in the history of network television

9. Thinking Cultural Exclusion Is Racism

White people are in a difficult situation in this struggle to talk about and understand race. On the one hand, they are reprimanded for being the majority that alienates all other races. But are minority races guilty of the same exclusion by keeping to themselves? Or is such elective segregation the only way to preserve community and a strong racial identity?

I don’t even like the term ‘self-segregate.’ Kids group together on common lines of interest and experience. If Hispanic kids want to sit together and speak in their mother tongue, that shouldn’t bother anyone, but they should have the same opportunity to meet other kids. My decision to sit with people who I share things in common with is not the same as legalized imposition of segregation.

— Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph. D, author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Can We Talk About Race?: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation

10. Declaring You Are “Colorblind”

There is no such thing as colorblind (in fact, it’s a long-running Stephen Colbert gag for just that reason). It is not a racist stance to see color, but a fact of life. Ignoring it promotes ignorance.


You cannot live in this country and not see color. We all need to step out of the naiveté box and stop pretending it really doesn’t exist. We need to understand that we live in a world that gives certain people privileges because of the color of their skin.– Oprah Winfrey

Heather Wood is co-founder and Editorial Director of SirensMag.com. To see original article, click here.


9 thoughts on “10 Mistakes White People Make When Talking About Race (Participation)

  1. Race is indeed a complex topic where people have vastly different, and often strong, opinions about, so it is not surprising that there are many misconceptions floating around about it. I wholeheartedly agree with their statement that “the only way to bridge the gap and move forward as a more unified society is to talk about it: all of it.” I believe that this is the only way that the various misconceptions about race will be corrected via a shift in social norms.

    As for the misconceptions itself, I have seen various people (including me) have one or more misconceptions about race on the list. One of the most frequently seen on the list is their (and my) refusal to talk about race. Personally, before coming to WSU, I have been rather scared to talk about such a “controversial” (I don’t know if that’s the right word for it) topic in fear that some will take offense to it. This then perpetuated various misconceptions about the topic, which does no good for society.

    I now realize that the only way to clear up the misconceptions is to talk about the topic using facts and proven statements. I aim to continue doing this in the foreseeable future.

  2. I feel that the ones who make the mistakes in talking about race is the ones that don’t talk about it often; it just seems that a lot of people just follow media and others peoples opinion when it comes to knowing about race. Me myself personally I don’t talk about race that much because I don’t know the specific facts and all that. I really wouldn’t want to make myself seem ignorant talking about it to someone who knows a lot more, so with me I would let them do most of the talking and speak on what I know not what I think.

    I feel most of the conversations I’ve had or heard people having about race mainly falls in the category of the stereotype. I’ve heard just about all of them for every race, black people are ghetto, white people have it easy, Asians are smart and geeks. So basically when your this race you have to be able to walk, talk, act and think I certain way; when I hear things like that I just laugh inside because to me its ignorance and honestly I’ve been caught doing that but as I mature I just learn to keep my mouth closed and ears open and just listening and understanding.

  3. I think that my biggest problem when it comes to talking about race is that I feel that I do not know enough about it. I am always paranoid that I will say the wrong thing or accidentally offend someone. So, I completely agree that most people just feel that it is not OK to talk about race and that it is a touchy subject because it is often associated with negativity. I think that we all need to realize that race should be discussed often so that we can learn from each other.

    Often times there are false stereotypes associated with race. I think that if race was more of an open topic then many of those stereotypes would fade out because people would recognize that they are not true. We need to realize that one stereotype does not apply to every single person and that it is okay to talk about these issues more openly.

  4. After reading about the mistakes that white people make about race, I agree that they are all very true, as sad as that may be. I can specifically relate to the fifth mistake, “Using Outdated Terms When Describing Different Races.” I know that many people, including myself, are not as up to date as they should be on what terminology is considered the most appropriate and accepted for different races. This can be one of the main reasons why white people avoid conversations about race.

    I believe that number ten, “Declaring You Are ‘Colorblind,’” is more of an excuse than a mistake. I think white people pretend they are colorblind because they don’t want to have to address issues about race. As long as they pretend that race doesn’t exist, they don’t have to look at the positives and negatives that are attached to it. I believe that mistake number eight, “Assuming One Man’s Success = An Entire Race’s Progress,” is also another excuse for white people to avoid seeing racial problems. If white people can convince themselves that a race is successful, they are also telling themselves that it doesn’t suffer, and therefore they are allowing themselves to be naive and avoid seeing any existing problems.

    – Sarah Farmer

  5. While reading the article, “10 Mistakes White People Make When Talking About Race” I found myself realizing how I don’t make many of the mistakes because usually just mistake number one, thinking it’s not OK to talk about race. Not talking about the controversial subject of race is easier then talking about it for a lot of people because if it is not talked about no one can get offended or talk about the issue incorrectly. However, I have come to realize that talking about race is very important because it is everywhere and the only way society can move on from the negativity surrounding race is to talk about it. It is also important to stay informed about race and to know mistakes people make when talking about race so that when it is brought up in conversation it can be talked about in a positive way.
    The other mistake I related with was number six, believing stereotypes. Stereotyping is a common thing in any culture, yet stereotyping can have negative effects because while they might be true based on statistics like, Asians are accepted into MIT than any other race, it is most certainly not true for every Asian and created an unwanted pressure to do good in school. I stereotype without even thinking about it because it is easy to think everyone does it, but if race was talked about more in a positive way then stereotyping would occur less and less the more race gets talked about.

  6. I thought this article was very interesting mostly because it was aimed directly at white people. As I read through I have to admit I completely nearly agree to everything the author was talking about, mostly because I can relate. Most of the time I do not catch myself doing most of those things but I think back I am totally guilty.
    But yes, I do I agree with what the author is talking about. Especially when she spoke about how we all (including minorities) segregate ourselves. Though I do not think it has everything, or even mostly, to do with race. In my personal opinion and experience, I think those people come together because of commonalities in their personalities. But then that feeds straight into the idea of stereotypes. Black people are stereotypically boisterous and loud and when they come together they can be loud together and not feel self conscious about it. Asians may come together because of academics and they feel comfortable talking to someone on an intellectual level.
    White people are good enough at any subject, which is something the author brought up. I think this is an interesting point because they have no stereotype except for being the “racist” race. Personally I think that is true but a lie at the same time. Black people talk about Asians the same way white people do and Latinos talk about white people the same way black people do. It truly is all about perspective.
    I do not get offended easily and I like to be brutally honest because that is my personality and I feel that being the way I am is the best way to respect not only myself but others as well. Once a person can figure out who they are on the inside, not who they think the world thinks they should be and own up to it, the world will come together. There are black people are intellectual and like reading and there are Asians that are loud and obnoxious as well as white people who can out jump everyone or design the world’s most technologically advanced and user friendly phone (Steve Jobs RIP).
    Once people can be who they are, talk about it, admit it, and respect it, racism has the opportunity to become obsolete. But people are too afraid to be judged or suffer due to prejudice. Get over your fears and be the change.

    -JT Cook

  7. “10 Mistakes White People Make When Talking About Race” This article really showed me how many of these mistakes I have made. Coming from a small prodominently white farm town with a small hispanic population and a sliver of black population, I personally have no real experience dealing with race. Which makes me feel stongly uneducated within this subject. Not wanting to say the wrong things, scared of being sterotypical, wrong assumptions, etc. The list could go on and on for white people. Not knowing how to tackle or go about the situation of talking about race within ourselves and to minority groups is a severe crutch in today’s society.
    People have deemed it not OK, there is bigger problems, they are colorblind, etc. None of that is even close to being the truth. It is okay to talk about, in today’s society we are not educated enough to know how to talk about it though. Always turning into what sounds racist or what can I get from this race conversation. The problem of race has plagued our world for centuries and continues to still today. Trying to be so called “colorblind” and sweeping this issue underneath the table will only create a worse porblem in the end.
    Sterotypes is a gargantuan issues in my personal opinion as well. One of my friends said, exact words, “I’m not racist, I just hate sterotypes” this shows how damaging sterotypes are. People masking themselves behind the fact that someone fulfills a sterotype. This is showing how white people make mistakes concerning race which causes ignorence to grow and ultimately deteriorate any progress people hope to accomplish concerning being able to talk about race.

  8. What this article showed me was that even though i came from a very small town and about ninety percent or so of people in my town were Hispanic, we were still separated. One of the sections in the article it talked about how people would separate within groups and stay with the people that are more like them. I would say at my high school that happened a lot even though majority of us were all the same. Some of the things that would happen would be is the students that spoke Spanish the most, we would call them the Mexicans because they showed more of their Mexican side then most people. Those students would stay together because they were more comfortable with each other and they could talk to each other in Spanish more. Their was also group that were Mexicans but because they did know how to speak Spanish a lot of them would stay together. Their were also many groups within the school that i always saw. However for me i was one of those students that got along with each and every group because i could pass ‘one of them’ so they would let me in. But something that i never understood was because we were all ‘the same’ some how they could not accept new people especially of different color. In about seventh or eighth grade my cousin who is half black came to the school people made fun of her so much because she was dark that she had to move to another school. It is sad hope people that do not like to be judged are quick to judge others.

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