A good friend of mine from undergrad sent me a message a few weeks ago on Facebook asking me a question that she had been pondering and that question dealt with race. I felt honored that my friend trusted me enough to ask this question and respected my opinion enough to seek my thoughts/advice. With her permission, I am sharing our conversation (I'm not sharing her identity), because I believe her questions to be pretty common among whites and, perhaps, our dialogue could prove helpful to others who have pondered something similar.
Friend: OK, deep topic time. I've only recently begun to understand the concept of white privilege. That won't surprise you, given what you know of my background, geography, and general lifestyle. And I ask you these questions *because* you know those things about me, and so you understand my context. So. I read consistently articles like the one you posted yesterday which make suggestions like exposing yourself to other cultures, making new friends, etc. And I read consistently that people want to be understood and appreciated for whatever culture, race, etc with which they identify. But I also consistently understand a theme of "it's none of your business." You know: "I'm a proud, self-identifying fill-in-the-blank person, but your questions about that are micro-aggressions...I want to celebrate my unique and beautiful heritage, but anything you say to insinuate that we're not alike is racist." How is someone like me (or any of my very white children) supposed to make connections within what seems to me to be an environment of contradictions?
Me: Thank you for trusting me with these questions! I have given them all a lot of thought and here are my thoughts: I feel like you're asking about interactions with people from a different racial/ethnic/cultural background and what you feel to be contradictions in their comments/attitude about getting to know them, learning about their heritage, etc. is that correct? The first thing that i would point out is that any time a white person, no matter how good her/his intentions may be, is attempting to "learn something" about a person of color (especially a black person) there is going to be a lack of trust there as well as some skepticism about the white person's motives. For good reason... just look at the history of our country to understand why that lack of trust/skepticism would be there.
Secondly, a mistake that I often see well intentioned white people make is that they ask all of these questions, through the guise of "I just want to know more about you/your background/your heritage," etc. and the expectation is then placed on the person of color to teach YOU about these things. From my experiences, this can be annoying and exasperating for most people of color. They already know pretty much everything there is to know about whiteness, white people, etc. because they HAVE to in order to survive and be successful in this world, and because it's everywhere--on tv, in the movies, in commercials, in textbooks, in magazines, etc.
So--now you want to know something about the cultural background of this person you just met in your neighborhood, at your child's school, at the gym, etc. Well--once you've found out a few details about that person's background, do the initial legwork yourself. Learn some things on your own about the area where that person comes from, the history(ies) of that particular ethnic group of people, etc. Rather than take the easy route and just ask a bunch of questions, show some effort on your part and do the legwork first, THEN, come into a conversation with that person knowing a bit already, and then, the questions that you ask will be based in some type of knowledge, they will show the person that you genuinely want to learn more, and that you have already taken some effort to learn. Then, also be willing to share some things about your ethnicity/heritage/background to establish common ground and gain trust before peppering the other person with questions.
Additionally, in reference to your children... the learning needs to start with them, as well. One way to get involved on that front is to ask the leaders at their schools about the books they are reading... are they being exposed to authors who are non-white? Are they learning histories about non-whites from the perspective of THAT particular group, rather than the history of that group according to an old white guy? This is another way that parents can learn and have great conversations... when your kids come home and say "guess what we learned about Nigeria today..." you then learn some things about Nigeria and can engage in great conversation with your kids about different cultures.
I don't know the context of the conversations you were citing in your message, so i can't speak to why anyone would say the things you quoted, but i can say that one thing to ask yourself is, "what kinds of questions was i asking this person and what type of relationship/trust had I established with this person before asking these questions?" The fact that you're even thinking about these things and asking these questions is wonderful. Keep asking them, keep pushing yourself, and know that you can talk to me about this kind of stuff ANYTIME.
My friend responded and shared the initial blog that "had her spinning" and I read it. She also admitted that after reading my message and then re-reading the initial blog, she didn't have the same reaction to it as she initially had. You can read the blog that sparked our conversation here. I completely agree with everything this blogger said and have witnessed many of these questions asked of friends of mine, firsthand. One reason that I believe some well-intentioned whites may not understand why their seemingly innocent questions are taken offensively, or as micro-aggressions, is because they can't empathize. Most whites don't get questioned about their racial background, or suspected as possibly not being the parents of their white children, so it's tough to empathize.
I hope our conversation and the initial blog my friend read are helpful to you, or at the very least, get you thinking and/or dialoguing with someone else about this topic.