One Question White People Should Stop Asking – What About Me?

Seagulls saying “MINE! MINE! MINE!”

By Erin Okuno

Earlier this week Jondou posed the question “What is one question we wished people would stop asking?” Some of the answers were hilarious others poignant. Many involved stories of people asking for more information then they were entitled to — a trusting relationship wasn’t in place. I shared, I wish white people and pocs with privilege would stop asking “What about me?”

The ‘what about me?’ questions don’t come out as blunt as these three words, it is more insidious, coded, and underhanded:

  • I’ve looked at the research and have questions about this [insert very particular situation]?
  • If you do [this], my child won’t receive [this] – what will you do for them then?
  • How do we get on the list? I really want to make sure we’re on the list.
  • We don’t want to do [fill in the blank] since it will be a hardship for our family. It will force us to change our daily routines or disrupt what we know.
  • What about my house value/safety/cleanliness if the tent encampment/tiny house village moves in a few blocks away?
  • The process didn’t include talking about how this impacts current participants, do we need to change sites/programs/etc.?

I work in the education sector and see and hear these conversations often. Every time there is a major shift in any educational policy people will turn out and advocate for their sides. The voices of privilege (including POCs with privilege) who want to protect their status, programs, place, etc. will show up and start using their voices to proclaim injustices. We also see it in the gun control debate — NRA and other gun rights advocates hunker down and say “What about my right to own a gun?,” “What about my ability to make a living as a legal gun dealer?,” and so on.

On a fundamental level, I get it – there is fear in the unknown, a loss or perceived loss, we’ve all experienced the pain of losing something. I remember when my kid was a toddler, I took a cookie from him that had dropped on the ground — he cried like I had taken away every cookie from him forever. The toddler-trauma of losing that cookie stayed with him for a while. With adults though I’m less patient and want to roll my eyes and say “Do you hear yourself? Stop.”

As humans, we are designed to want what is best. There was probably some evolutionary coding that makes us want the shiniest and best fruits and the fattiest pieces of meat. Those that found the best probably lived longer and received more. Our current racial and societal hierarchy continues to uphold this perception of wanting the best for ourselves and those in our immediate circles of care and influence. Elected offices are predicated on this – vote in the best interest of your constituents versus sometimes voting what is best for others. When we hoard for ourselves, we are taking from others and the me-ness, the my-s, and the hierarchies are upheld.

Instead of asking questions such as those listed above, we acknowledge we are ok and will continue to be ok. There are many others who are struggling more than us, sometimes these struggles are known, sometimes they are hidden, sometimes they aren’t even for us to know (we don’t deserve to know everyone’s stories). Our job is to practice empathy and use our privilege to support others who are furthest from justice.

Recently, I’ve read two books that shape a new path away from me-ness. The first is Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book Talking to Strangers and the second, Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villeanueva (skimmed this one, will read it in depth soon). Between these two books I’m struck by how much of our misunderstandings and beliefs of entitlements are rooted in being isolated from others. When we’re not in proximity to people who are different and not in just relations with others our world views are small. If all you see are your kid’s friends getting into gifted classes, then of course you want your kid to have that too, but if you see others – especially POC kids who can’t get into the system then the world becomes a little less myopic.

Saying we are ok, and we don’t always need the best is hard. There is always someone with more and we believe we are entitled to the same. But do we really need more? Do our kids really need every advantage they can take, and what are the trade-offs when we do this? Acting in the interest of others sometimes feels hard but the benefits will find you in other ways.

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