Free Speech: Only for White People?

Last week officials at Tucson Unified School District walked into classrooms and took books away from the students. The reason? Books which promote “resentment toward a race or class of people” are not permitted.

While comparisons are being made to Nazi Germany, I am thinking instead about the books they didn’t take. The ones that evidently do not promote resentment between races. History books with the proper information about slavery, boarding schools, internment camps, borders and war. Who wrote those books?

Free Speech is something we Americans all agree on, right? The free expression of ideas, thoughts, and opinions is a basic human right, as given as oxygen…the necessary air of critical reasoning, dialogue and debate.

Yet Free Speech is also invoked by white people who don’t want to critically examine the content of their own discourse.

For example, if a white writer includes racial stereotypes in her writing or one-dimensional racial characters, whether out of ignorance or laziness or simply because it “feels” right to her, she can invoke Free Speech as a protection against being accountable for the consequences of her work.

No one likes censorship, so those who might object that stereotypes perpetuate racism or limit the conversation to a one-sided monologue in support of white supremacy will probably back off when the Free Speech banner is raised viagra libre.

Yet I have this nagging notion in my belly that free speech is really about privilege and entitlement. White people get more free speech than people of color. So at its heart, the ban in Arizona isn’t about free speech (although that would make it simpler). The ban is about the oppression of brown people by white people, about white control of the words, the culture, the conversation around history and race.

What can I, a white person, learn from Arizona? It is so tempting to feel self-righteously outraged. I can send a petition to the school governing board. (By the way, please DO sign the petition.) But my outraged petition-signing might just reinforce my sense of rightness, the illusion that I am somehow “above” the system.

So instead of being lulled into complacency by outrage, I want to ask myself (and you):

Would the Tucson Unified School District  remove my writing?  If my book was in their classroom, would it count as threatening? Are my words so harmless to the white regime that they would remain?

How does my writing perpetuate racism? What racial stereotypes are embedded within my work that I can’t see? How often do I choose what is easy or seems right rather than what is complex, uncomfortable, unsettling?

I want to call out to white writers everywhere and ask them these questions: Are you, a writer who “happens to be white,” accountable for the ways that racism is unconsciously perpetuated in your work? What and who keeps you accountable?

What are you doing with all the free speech you possess?


  1. Nice blog!

    I liked how white author Rebecca Skloot addressed the issue of racially-charged words when writing about a black woman’s role in the history of genetic science in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The following quote is from a section before the start of the book called “A few words about this book.” She makes a conscious choice about the words she’s going to use, and she makes it clear why she made that choice. I wish she had gone deeper into the language issues, but that wasn’t the purpose of the book.

    “…I’ve done my best to capture the language with which each person spoke and wrote: dialogue appears in native dialects; passages from diaries and other personal writing are quoted exactly as written. As one of Henrietta’s relatives said to me, “If you pretty up how people spoke and change the things they said, that’s dishonest. It’s taking away their lives, their experiences, and their selves.” In many places I’ve adopted the words interviewees used to describe their worlds and experiences. In doing so I’ve used the language of their times and backgrounds, including words such as “colored”. Members of the Lacks family often referred to Johns Hopkins as “John Hopkin,” and I’ve kept their usage when they’re speaking. Anything written in the first person in Deborah Lack’s voice is a quote of her speaking, edited for length and occasionally clarity…”

  2. Yes! You got this just right. I would “hope” that my work as a Native American writer would be banned, that someone would feel threatened by my honest reflections on indigenous life and history. It would mean that I’ve done my job as a writer, I got people thinking. But, what I hope more is that people will stop banning books altogether. I grew up with history classes that were incredibly white-washed: no one existed in the Americas until 1492, indigenous people were extinct and were never more than a primitive people with stone axes, slavery wasn’t “that bad.” This type of white-washed history does everyone a huge disservice, but it also has made me more outspoken about social justice and how we educate. As someone wise said, “The Arizona school district has just created a generation of revolutionaries.”

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