#5: How do I learn what racism looks like in an unfamiliar culture?

Arty picture of light through the pages of a book

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

I am a white foreigner living in the U.S., so aside from my accent my privilege is most alike the rest of the white, middle-class, college educated community. However, I have an ignorance about racism here that I am not sure how to rectify. I have a much better understanding of what to look for in my country when being an ally but there are U.S. specific things I’d never heard of as being problematic or would have even considered researching, for example, there are some food related stereotypes that I would never have realised were a problem if I weren’t living here and heard people’s disbelief regarding certain commercials/comments etc. These differences provide a layer of context to marginalized people’s life experiences that I just don’t have.

Any tips on being a good ally when you are not super familiar with the history of oppression in the country you live and are not sure where the gaps in your knowledge are?

—New Around Here

I can empathize with this question a lot! While I was born and raised in the U.S., I grew up both white and fairly isolated from mainstream U.S. culture. Correcting my ignorance about U.S. racism has taken a lot of work, starting with recognizing that I was ignorant in the first place. You have a big advantage here: you are already aware of the gaps in your knowledge and don’t have the illusion that you already understand U.S. racism. Many people raised in the U.S. never get as far as where you are right now!

To be a better ally, there’s no way around filling in the gaps in your knowledge. This post will help you find satisfying, sustainable, and intuitive ways to learn more about U.S. racism. But first we’ll talk about what you can do even when you don’t know a lot about a system of oppression.

What you can do independent of knowledge

Even if you are unfamiliar with the details of a system of oppression, here are some things you can do that help fight that system of oppression:

  • Believe people who say they are experiencing it
  • Offer them verbal and emotional support
  • Offer them specific, practical, material support
  • Donate to or volunteer with organizations fighting it, as recommended by experts
  • Thank and reward people who help you learn about it

You don’t already need to know what the local racist stereotypes about food are to support someone when they complain about those racist stereotypes. Simply giving the benefit of the doubt to people experiencing oppression and making a good faith effort to be supportive of them when they talk about oppression is more than most people with relevant privilege do.

A beautiful flower-themed thank you card
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Address any emotional barriers to learning

Now we will talk about how to fill in the gaps in your knowledge, starting with another personal story. When I worked as a software engineer, I rarely had all the skills or knowledge I needed to do my job. Learning new tools or techniques on my own was something I had to do almost daily. But when it came to learning about oppression, I found that my fear and anxiety about being a “good person” was short-circuiting my brain and making me forget how to learn things. For example, when I did encounter new information about racism, I would be so worried about whether I had acted in a racist manner that I wouldn’t focus on remembering the actual information, or exploring it further.

A big breakthrough for me in my journey to act as an ally was to learn ally skills the same way I learned new skills in my software engineer career. For example, if I needed to learn a new programming language, I would find a book about it, follow a tutorial, read other people’s programs, and find a website where I could ask questions about it. It turned out I could do similar things to learn about racism. Once I was able to step back, take the focus off myself, and put my fear of being a “bad person” in perspective, I was able to think calmly and use my existing learning techniques to learn about oppression.

Other emotional barriers to learning are common, such as fear of learning that you harmed people in the past, or fear of not being able to maintain an important relationship with someone in your life who supports this form of oppression. Whatever it is, naming it and spending some time thinking about it can help reduce the fear and allow your natural problem-solving abilities to get to work.

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Choose learning techniques that work for you

Now let’s talk about specific learning techniques. Here are some of the ways people learn about a system of oppression:

  • Read a textbook about it
  • Subscribe to a blog about it
  • Search for people on Twitter who are experts and follow them
  • Read books about it (especially by the Twitter experts)
  • Find other people learning it and talk with them (online or in person)
  • Listen to and believe people’s personal stories about it
  • Go to a conference about it
  • Read research papers about it
  • Read news articles about it
  • Subscribe to newsletters by experts
  • Read fiction about it
  • Listen to podcasts about it
  • Attempt to explain it to other people
  • Watch documentaries about it
  • Watch (carefully vetted) YouTube videos about it
  • Watch TV series in which it is a major theme
  • Attend lectures by experts in it
  • Take a class, workshop, or training about it
  • Go to museums, monuments, or parks about it
  • Volunteer for an organization related to it
  • Take notes while listening to someone talk about it
  • Listen to music about it
  • Attend plays about it
  • Read comic books about it

Each person learns differently; you probably nodded your head at some of these techniques and made a face at others. I suggest reviewing what you do to learn about things that you’re excited about learning, and using those same techniques to learn about systems of oppression. If you hate reading books, don’t read books. If you love watching videos, watch videos.

Twitter as a learning tool

My personal experience is that my most practical, visceral, memorable knowledge of oppression comes from following people who experience that oppression on Twitter. My guess as to why this is such an effective learning strategy is:

  • Stories about people are easier to remember than generalized facts
  • Short, bite-sized pieces of information are easier to learn
  • Frequent repetition of similar information reinforces memory
  • We are more motivated by stories about individuals than large groups of people

Twitter alone is not sufficient to get a full understanding of a system of oppression, but it also has the delightful feature of teaching you about other resources to learn from: books, movies, news articles, podcasts, music, etc. It’s ironic that Twitter leadership has made operational decisions that enable oppression at scale when Twitter is also one of the most effective anti-oppression teaching tools we’ve ever had.

Specific advice for learning about racism in the U.S.

Coming down to practical advice you can use right now, here are a few recommendations on where to start learning about racism in the U.S.. This isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list covering all forms of racism in the U.S., but a selection of topics in several different learning formats. Racism and religious hatred are often linked, so I included some resources on religious hate. Try a few of these resources, find something you enjoy, and look for similar things.

In general, I recommend learning from resources created by people experiencing that oppression, rather than people outside the group. On average, these resources will be more accurate and useful, and you will also be giving credit and support to marginalized people. (While Wikipedia can in theory be edited by anyone, in practice many pages about topics related to systems of oppression are limited in who can edit them, and sometimes stewarded by people experiencing that oppression.)

Ally skill: Approach learning ally skills like other skills

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Learning ally skills can often feel overwhelming and impossibly difficult. Feelings like guilt, fear, and shame can turn off our brain’s ability to learn and take practical action. Naming your feelings usually reduces their intensity and allows your problem-solving abilities to come back online. A good habit to develop is to recognize when you are struggling to learn ally skills and ask yourself, “If I approach learning this ally skill the same way that I’ve successfully learned other things, how would I do it?”

Do you have a question about ally skills? Ask Dear Ally today!

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2 thoughts on “#5: How do I learn what racism looks like in an unfamiliar culture?

  1. So many good resources!

    I also recommend the podcast and website for “Yo, Is This Racist?” The hosts and guests are funny and sharp, and the discussions are wide-ranging because people call in about all kinds of random stuff, not just the standard “Is it racist when my uncle uses the n-word?” kind of fare. There’s a massive back catalog and a new episode every week.


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