Does it ever feel like white people are scared to talk about race? Is there an unspoken belief that people outside of a certain race cannot partake in conversations about other races? I’m here to say, don’t be scared. Cancel culture has created an atmosphere of judgment and quick consequences, instilling fear in those discussing topics related to race.

Instead of invalidating and speaking over groups who deal with racism, be curious. The Black struggle in America is still real, and nuanced conversations are more effective when everyone participates. 

Racism has evolved within society, and while instances of blatant racism still exist, the complexities of implicit racism should be taught and understood by the general public.

To clarify, talking about the Black  experience doesn’t always imply racism or offense. Yet, I’ve often refrained from talking about my own Black experience to ensure others, typically white people, feel comfortable.

My first time talking about race was in my college essay. Although it wasn’t my intention  to write an essay about race, it was a constant and necessary part of my lived experience. As an Ethiopian child adopted by a white family, navigating a white world became the new normal for me. I never realized how much it limited my conversations around race until I came to college.

At NC State, I attended the weekly ‘What’s On The Table’ event hosted by the African American Cultural Center (AACC) where we had in-depth conversations about issues in the Black community. From Black hair to Affirmative Action, we covered a wide range of topics and heard everyone’s thoughts and opinions.

These spaces have opened my mind to valuable and beneficial perspectives while simultaneously validating my life experiences.

Referring back to my college essay, after I completed the first draft, the time came for critique and edits. I asked my high school English teacher to give me feedback on ways I could make the essay college-ready. He responded, saying he didn’t think he was the right person for the job because he was white. At the time, I thought it was admirable that he didn’t want to critique an experience he couldn’t relate to. But then, I stood there puzzled.

If my English teacher can’t edit my essay, and he is implying that white people aren’t equipped to do so, who do I ask?

Growing up in a white household in a predominantly white town with white teachers, white coaches and white mentors, how do I improve the storytelling of my Black experience?

Since I had no other option, I turned to the only other Black student in the class. Although we spoke occasionally, I had a feeling he would be the best person to talk to. We spent hours going through each paragraph, editing out unnecessary parts and critiquing the essay. He was incredibly helpful and I am so grateful for the time he set aside to help me. To this day, I think about what an amazing stroke of luck that was.

I wonder though, what would have happened if I were the sole Black person in the room? Would I have to search for a stranger in the hallway, hoping that because of their race they were qualified to critique my essay? Would I have to settle for a subpar essay, one that sounded generic and lacked a unique essence? Would it have garnered sympathy points for my struggles, or simply been dismissed for lacking a formal structure?

Even though I want to write about the Black experience, I take pride in being a writer and producing quality work. I expect to be given the same opportunity for constructive criticism to help elevate my work, regardless of whether or not I’m in a predominantly white setting.

This memory resurfaced when my friend Alianna Kendall-Brooks, a second-year double majoring in Political science and English, had a similar experience in her creative writing class. She wrote a poem about her biracial identity experience. When the poem was read in front of the class in a student-led poetry workshop, there was minimal engagement from students, particularly non-students of color.

Kendall-Brooks believes this is a result of fear when it comes to covering issues of racial identity. She said, “The people who commented on my poem were mostly the only other people of color in the classroom. I could hear the stutters and the awkward silence of my white peers, and it made me sad. Just because I’m talking about a racially charged subject, doesn’t mean that feedback can’t be provided to help improve my poetry. I think sometimes when talking about race and Black issues in society with white people, they almost seem to be scared to talk about it and scared of me, as if I’m going to automatically dox or cancel them. I find it offensive because you’re profiling me based on what I look like, assuming I can’t be objective when talking about issues that regard race.”

You don’t need to walk in someone’s shoes to empathize and educate yourself about their experiences. If the topic of the poem were heartbreak or drug addiction, people wouldn’t need personal experience with these topics to provide critique because it’s about the poem itself, not the subject matter. 

So how can teachers, professors and future bosses be better equipped to handle these situations and provide feedback when students want to talk about race?

Kendall-Brooks said, “Professors set the tone for the classroom. If it seems they’re scared to say the word Black or African American, then all the other white people in the class are going to be scared to talk about it too.”

When asked about how these circumstances can be improved to support constructive feedback rather than offensive feedback, Kendall-Brooks said, “Recognizing that Black issues are everybody’s issues. Just because it’s an issue pertaining to a certain race doesn’t mean that it’s not affecting everyone in society. When it comes to the brutal killing of unarmed Black men, that’s an issue for everyone in society, not just Black people. Microaggressions and racial prejudice in the 21st century, that’s an issue for everybody, not just people of color.”

Human rights issues and social conversation about multicultural experiences shouldn’t be taboo to talk about. There is no permission needed, but always show respect. 

Kendall-Brooks said, “It’s important to be cognizant and aware of how what you say can be interpreted, but it’s also important to be willing to address your own ignorance and privilege.”

Kendall-Brooks said, “I’m used to being one of the only advocates in a room. Every day when I’m the only person to talk about Black issues or the issues of people of color in a white setting, I feel that way because no one else is willing to talk about it since they think it doesn’t pertain to them. So they don’t.”

The experiences of both my friends and myself when looking for literary feedback from white teachers and classmates is discouraging and disappointing.The truth is not all writing about the Black experience is good. A good topic doesn’t always mean a well-written one.

Students deserve fair evaluation and objective critical analysis of literary works. My high school art teacher once said “not all art is good art,” which goes against what we are generally taught, that there’s no such thing as bad art because it’s ‘art.’

But…that’s just not true. We’ve all seen questionable art, and even a non-artist could give feedback on a piece if they took the time to understand the goal, methods and story the artist was trying to convey.

I think it’s time to change the awkwardness of talking about Black issues in white spaces. We can have deeper than surface-level conversations about topics we may not all relate to. If we can empathize and critique literature about traumas we’ve never experienced, why can’t white people do the same with racial issues?

Just be respectful and join the conversation.