White participation in the national conversation about racism and racial reconciliation is long overdue. Often, ways of talking about white anti-racism encourage us to engage in endless soul searching about our own racist thinking. Unlearning individual racism does not constitute racial progress in and of itself.
In almost every way, it matters less what white people think and more what white people do.
Here are three things white people can do that will increase racial equity for Black people, based on sociological research.
1: Sit next to Black people in the cafeteria.
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum | Basic Books addressed difficult questions about the racial divisions that continue to plague integrated institutions in the United States. White people tend to perceive that Black people choose not to interact with other white people, but there are many spaces in the U.S. in which there are very few Black people.
Who we talk to affects the information we learn. For example, student success increases when other students sit next to them and talk with them about course material, and invite them to participate in study groups. Parents get information about things like teachers, the school, and extracurricular activities from talking to other parents.
It matters when white people choose to only sit by and talk with other white people, even if we think we do this because those are the people we already know. We can increase informational equity by sitting next to new Black people, and having casual conversations with Black people we encounter on the playground, at youth sports, before and after meetings, and so forth.
2: Don’t assume Black people are rude if they don’t want to answer your personal questions.
It helps to recognize that the ways white people usually talk with people we have just met might be uncomfortable to many Black people. White people often open with questions about personal lives (Where do you live? What do you do for work?), and we tend to think these questions are friendly. But, as sociologists Anne Warfield Rawls and Waverly Duck show, Black people often find these questions “nosy” because they generate information about status hierarchies (Tacit Racism, Rawls, Duck (uchicago.edu). An alternative is for white people to approach the conversation by talking about the shared situation: the event bringing them together. Or the weather.
Recognizing and respecting other peoples’ conversational preferences has two benefits: it helps us get along better. And it decreases the chances of creating unfair racial penalties based on different expectations that have nothing to do with work or academic performance.
3: Share opportunities with Black people we know.
Networks–who we know–matter for how people get jobs. The most important way people find jobs in the United States is through friends and contacts. The more people you know, the more likely you are to find a job. (The Strength of Weak Ties | American Journal of Sociology: Vol 78, No 6 (uchicago.edu)) But networks only work if people you know refer you for jobs.
Sociological research finds that white people refer white but not Black people in their networks for jobs. In contrast, Black people treat everyone in their networks the same way. Race and the Invisible Hand by Deirdre Royster – Paperback – University of California Press (ucpress.edu)
White people can create more equity by being intentional about not only sharing information with the Black people they know, but also nominating them for awards, promotions, jobs and other opportunities.