Recently, I was a part of a discussion on facebook about race. (You gotta love social networking for juxtaposing people from all walks of life into 140-character-or-less philosophical arguments). This particular discussion took a turn that I often see happen when white people jump into conversations about race. A few folks implied that racism was over. References to society’s Token Assimilated Black Guys were made (Colin Powell, Tiger Woods, etc). Someone suggested that seeing more interracial families would make black people seem more “normal“. Awesome. And then, I made a gaffe myself by posing a question that made it sound like I was trying to get a friend to speak for the entire adult population of African Americans. It’s not what I meant . . . but it sounded like it.
Why are white people so awkward when they talk about race??
Why do we seem to have serious foot-in-mouth disease on this subject? But what may be just as telling about this discussion is the fact that there were a number of people observing this interchange, with some strong feelings about this particular subject, who did not chime in. Obviously the fact that it was on Facebook might have been a hindrance, but I’ve long thought that white people are really, really reluctant to engage in discussions about race, and when they do, they can be really, really offensive. It’s one of those taboo subjects, like religion or politics. People want to keep quiet because they don’t want to ruffle feathers. Silence is the new PC.
A couple months ago, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech to some of his staff at an event celebrating Black History month. In it, he talked about the reticence we as a nation still have when it comes to talking about race. “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been and we — I believe continue to be in too many ways essentially a nation of cowards.” He went on to suggest that Americans are afraid to talk about race because “certain subjects are off-limits and that to explore them risks at best embarrassment and at worst the questioning of one’s character.” And what was America’s reaction to his seemingly too-true observations about race? What happened when he made a big speech and focused in on this aspect of race relations? He set off a firestorm of angry people, appalled that he would suggest that we are all testy about the subject of race. (Um, irony?)
I’m not sure what the outrage was about, because I think it’s a given that he is right and that most white people are scared to death to talk about race. We DEFINITELY don’t talk about it in a racially diverse crowd. But it’s kind of a taboo topic even amongst ourselves. When I talked with my son’s first preschool teacher about how his experience as the only black child in the school might affect him socially, she looked like a deer in headlights for about five minutes, and then changed the subject. When I try to rally people at our church to move towards action in making our church more multicultural, I often feel like eyes are glazing over as I talk. And if I’m in a group of moms pointing out whose kids belong to whom, and I cut to the chase and describe my son as “the black child right there” or “the African-American boy”, people look at me like I’ve just somehow insulted him by describing him in those terms. Even though everyone else is using physical descriptors, evidently we’d all be more comfortable if I beat around the bush with the most obvious one. And I certainly wouldn’t strike up a conversation with another black person about my son’s race
(In fact, writing this, I wonder if I should even push post. Will there be a backlash? Will someone call me out for saying Black instead of African American? Which one is right? The Black people I know say Black. Am I allowed to say it? Surely I’m pissing someone off now by even bringing it up, right?)
Honestly, I think Holder had a pretty accurate take on the “why’s” of our corporate shunning of the subject. Again, he said that talking about it risks at best embarrassment, and at worst the questioning of one’s character. I think this is often true. Kirstie Alley made a recent twitter about liking Black men better and it incited a serious tongue-lashing. On a recent parenting blog a mom talked about her son noticing a co-worker’s race, and she got called out from all corners of the web. Now, in both these cases, there was some warranted criticism about how these women responded. However, in both cases, racism was overtly and covertly implied. And that accusation, I think, is one that most white people fear more than anything. That fear is so strong that we would rather be silent than risk being labeled with that nasty word. I mean, racist? That word is for KKK members, and deep south red-necks, and plantation owners. Right?
Well, yes and no. We can all have racist behaviors and attitudes at times. ALL. OF. US. I think we need to get over our fears of that word. We should be willing to learn when we might be biased by prejudice, or influenced by stereotypes, or insensitive to the experiences of others. Even if that puts us at risk. I think the fear of “getting it wrong” is another impediment in race talk. But again, unless we fumble a little bit, we will never move forward.
I know that another strong motivator for silence is the belief that talking about race perpetuates racism. I would really challenge this line of thinking. Racism has caused intense hurt for many people in this country. Pretending that it has not is insanely hurtful. Not educating our kids is potentially dangerous. Empathy is never an instigator for racism. Avoiding or ignoring the reality of racism perpetuates racism.
For me, I’m establishing a few groundrules for myself:
1. I’m willing to talk about race
2. I’m willing to be wrong
3. I’m willing to listen to the experiences of others
4. I’m okay with people having opinions that differ from mine
5. I’m okay with this being awkward
6. I’m okay with people wishing I would shut up about it already
(Cause I know some of you are thinking “there goes Kristen with her race talk again. . .”)
Anyways, back to that facebook conversation. At the end of the day, this dialogue brought up some tension between myself and a new friend. There was misunderstanding, and some hurt on my part. But we talked about it, and (I think, I hope), came to a better understanding of each other. Because we pushed past some of our own fears, and talked about some things that would have been more comfortable to ignore, we ended up walking away with more respect for each other.
Alight, I’m ready to put myself out there. I am convinced from years of being a marital therapist that the old “stay silent where there is tension” plan is NOT a good one. So, at the risk of being embarrassed, chastised, or judged, I’m gonna try to dialogue about race issues. It’s important, and if we talk about it more, it will be less awkward.
I guess what I’m saying is, when it comes to talking about race, we all need to lighten up.
Oh crap. I didn’t mean “lighten up” like in the Michael Jackson way. I mean it metaphorically. I’m going to get in trouble for this, aren’t I?