Q: Do you have any sources which can help answer my questions? I looked for posts through my lists but none addressed this question. A black friend of mine said she hated her “black afro hair” and wishes it was straight and smooth. I told her I like her hair the way it is and she shouldn’t change it. Is that racist? Because when I think about it, I was still basically telling her what she should think, which seems racist.
A: I personally think that’s a good way to start thinking about our impulses as white folks when we talk to POC. From my interpretation of your question, it seems like the post you’re looking for as a resource would be about white folks giving advice to POC. It’s not a bad idea for a post at all, but I think I can sum it up pretty easily: just don’t do it.
When I started thinking critically about my own whiteness, I gave purposeful consideration to the assumptions and impulses that seemed small while interacting with friends of color. I realized that when I was in a position to give an opinion or give advice, I focused mainly on my good intentions and forgot about my race. After years of ongoing work, I consciously stop myself when I start formulating any opinions along the lines of “I think you should [fill in the blank]” when I talk to or spend time with people of color. I think this is one part of checking our privilege as white folks: understanding that our natural reaction to what POC say, even if we want to give a well-intentioned response, has been conditioned by years of living white white privilege and existing in a racist society. Even though we are tempted to share our thoughts and opinions, we need to remember we are speaking with white power and privilege.
I will say that I don’t find anything wrong with paying friends a compliment, or, more specifically, you telling your friend you like her hair the way it is. Offering a positive where most white folks would offer a negative isn’t a bad thing. But the fundamental problem I see in your situation/question is that your friend did not ask for your advice about what to do with her hair, making your advice unsolicited. So I also think you are right to see this impulse as racist—the desire of many white folks to have answers, opinions, and thoughts on pretty much everything that isn’t about them, is all about racism and white supremacy. There is nothing wrong with asking POC “Do you want my opinion?” before you even think of it, and there is also nothing wrong with saying “I’m white so I have no comment” if you are explicitly asked for your opinion.
As white folks, we are not likely to become unproblematic or arrive at socially conscious perfection any time soon. I’ve learned there are good reasons why POC do not want/need white opinions/advice. One major reason is that I have no business and no right counseling a person of color about their decisions (or their bodies) when the social consequences and social experience will never be the same for me. Our opinions as white folks don’t matter when we never have to worry about things like skin color, hair, or racism.
You’re on the right track and I hope this helps.