The Toxicity of Inflicting Whataboutisms When Discussing Racism
Why using this strategy to deflect from Black trauma says more about you than you know
Standing up against racism is not for the faint of heart.
It requires extremely thick skin. It requires the ability to purge hateful rhetoric from your brain to function normally in your daily life with loved ones. And it requires you to become a master wordsmith to shut down the viciously racist commentary about your work or a master at using the “block” feature to preserve your energy quickly.
I’ve been a Medium member for less than a year, but I’ve penned articles and essays on racism for decades. One common thread between any platform I’ve ever submitted content to promote an equitable society has been those who storm the comment section with their “whataboutisms.”
A whataboutism is defined as the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter accusation or raising a separate issue.
The minute any writer sees this, we immediately have a clear picture and understanding of the perpetrator. If racism is the topic, whataboutism takes the form of a wailing siren — the writer has just encountered a racist. There is no way to sugarcoat this or, as some have suggested, “change my tone” when speaking to white people if I want them to listen to me. If you are consciously deflecting from the deadly effects of racism in America, you do not have concern for the safety and well-being of Black people. It’s just that simple.
There is no topic related to human oppression where whataboutisms would ever be considered appropriate.
Let’s examine the level of respect given to Jewish people around the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism is easily considered one of the most abhorrent behaviors a person could exhibit; it’s immediately punishable with ostracization from any respectable and reputable organization.
It simply isn’t tolerated, and rightfully so. Inflicting pain on those whose ancestors were already subjected to one of the most vicious and savage atrocities in history is cruel, inhumane, and beneath anyone who considers themselves to be a good, compassionate, and empathetic human being.
Whatever your ancestors endured becomes a part of who you are; the passage of time does not diminish the impact of the trauma.
Outside of white supremacists, it would be jaw-dropping to hear anyone engaging in debates about whether or not Jewish people were using the Holocaust as a way to perpetuate victimhood. It would be horrendous for anyone to suggest that it somehow has less meaning and impact today because the Holocaust happened before they were born. It would be downright merciless to claim that the brutality and death suffered by those in concentration camps have no bearing on the psyche of Jewish people navigating their lives today. Whatever your ancestors endured becomes a part of you ; the passage of time does not diminish trauma’s impact.
This simple, human way of viewing the world is completely lost when the discussion turns to racism in America. Whataboutisms fly out in droves with examples from thousands of years ago to the present, all to discredit the pain and trauma Black people have carried in this country.
I recently had an exchange with a man from Sweden in a comment section. Instead of addressing the writer’s sentiment on racism, he chose to compare the dehumanizing treatment of Black people in America to other ethnicities worldwide to prove that our plight is no worse.
Here’s something I want all white people to understand once and for all:
When Black people speak about racism, we are already fully aware that people all over the world are suffering injustices and inhumane treatment as well. The effects of colonization stretch globally; we maintain empathy and compassion for oppressed people because we can directly relate to their plight.
No person on the receiving end of racism has signed up to be an athlete in the Oppression Olympics. Our concentration is fixated on our survival, not the chance to “one-up” another suffering group.
For those of you who feel it’s necessary to bombard Black people with your whataboutisms, “facts,” statistics, and arguments to prove that racism is something to be continually challenged, consider the following situations:
If a woman is beaten by her husband, would it be acceptable to tell her, “I know you’re hurt, but so many other women around the world are abused, too. What about them?”
If a child is bullied in class, would it be proper for school administrators to tell the parents, “I know your child was bullied, but what about all the kids who are also bullied around the world? Why is your kid any more special than the others?”
If someone’s elderly mother is attacked, would it be right for the police to tell the family, “The elderly are targets of violent attacks everywhere. What about the people who were beaten just as badly as your mother?” Now imagine that statement followed up with a list of all the abused older adults to further diminish your mother’s assault.
That is what white people do to Black people when they show up to discussions about racism’s validity with endless whataboutisms.
No one wants to hear whataboutisms when they speak of their pain. For anyone who identifies as a decent human being, why is it so important to challenge the suffering and dehumanization of Black people?
Our trauma gets constantly questioned as if our history was just a fabrication and that what we still endure is only a figment of our imagination.
I understand that acknowledging the barbarity of racism in America is difficult for white people, especially those who have classified themselves as allies. It’s one reason many instinctively become defensive during conversations about racism.
There is also the fear of being called the “R” word that thwarts many intelligent discussions exploring racial inequality. Being labeled a racist is not a moniker most white people want associated with their good name.
But here is something to ponder: If you actively engage in spouting whataboutisms concerning justice and equality for Black folk, you are showing your TRUE self and can no longer hide behind the farce of us all being a part of the “human family.” It negates the severity of treatment endured by Black people and suggests apathy to racism. It’s not unreasonable to believe that people who are apathetic to racism are probably racist.
Most humans understand situations clearly when they can relate them to their experiences. But white people can’t fully understand the pain, trauma, and anguish felt by Black people who live in racism’s line of fire every day. As we have seen repeatedly, white people are prone to rejecting racism simply because they don’t experience it.
It makes whataboutisms a convenient way to dismiss injustice and inequity. Not only does it attempt to discredit the Black experience, but it also deflects attention from the possibility that decent white people may be safeguarding white supremacy to maintain their level of privilege.
There is never an appropriate time to play Devil’s advocate regarding racism unless you desire to dismiss human suffering. I am aware there are many whose goal is to do just that; there are no words likely to change that kind of mentality.
But to those who maintain a shred of decency: The more you can disable your defenses, allow yourself to be uncomfortable, and honestly acknowledge the sentiments expressed by Black people without deflecting, the closer we will be to having fruitful conversations that eventually lead to solutions.