White People: Here’s How to Understand Your Racism

Without making people of color do the work

Michele Sharpe
8 min readNov 10, 2018


“closeup photo of person wearing sunglasses” by Caleb Stokes on Unsplash

Spoiler: It’s about self-examination.

Why do white people keep asking people of color to explain and define racism? Isn’t that just as bizarre as a bank robber asking a bank teller for tips on how to rob a bank? Racism is part of a system of oppression that white people created. White people should be able to figure it out.

Few of us white people have been in any hurry to understand our own racism. As Ijeoma Oluo wrote in an article for The Establishment, “The dominant culture does not have to see itself to survive because culture will shift to fit its needs.” To understand racism, white people must see ourselves clearly and distinguish between understanding what racism is, and understanding how racism makes its victims feel.

If you’re white, think back to your early observations and understandings of racial, ethnic, religious and language differences. I’ll share a few anecdotes of my own to show you what I mean.

Early childhood

I grew up white, in a white adoptive home in a white neighborhood where the significant ethnic difference was between Jews and Gentiles. My home was the epitome of that difference — one parent an Italian Catholic, the other a Russian Jew. It seemed as simple as meatballs versus matzoh balls at first, as far as my preschool brain could tell.

It seemed as simple as meatballs versus matzoh balls at first, as far as my preschool brain could tell.

Everyone was white, and that made it unnecessary to think about race. Then my adoptive mother opened a 1962 Life Magazine issue to an article about the civil rights movement and plopped it on my knees saying, “These are colored people. They are no different from you.” The magazine was heavy with ink, draping over both sides of my five-year-old lap.

This confused me. I’d already seen and talked to plenty of colored people on family trips to Florida. If the colored people were no different, why did she have to point that out?

Middle School



Michele Sharpe

Words in NYT, WaPo, Oprah Mag, Poets&Writers, et als. Adoptee/high school dropout/hep C survivor/former trial attorney. @MicheleJSharpe & MicheleSharpe.com