A Candid Conversation About Race: A Beginning

Last week I issued an invitation to join me and two of my colleagues, Jaimie and Porsha, in a candid conversation on a difficult topic—race in America. You listened and responded to the call. Thanks to your questions, insights, and anecdotes, there is much to talk about today. Actually, there are so many things to talk about that this post is the first in three-part series, to be published Monday, Wednesday, and Friday this week. 

 Without further ado, let’s get started. One reader took issue with the language we use to talk about race. She thoughtfully commented,

“…I have been thinking too about the language we use around many of the current issues…specifically ‘racism’. This word is completely misleading and doesn’t make any sense. To be racist is to be against yourself. There is only one race; the human race. What ‘we’ are against (afraid of) is the color of someone’s skin, their religion or their way of life. Thoughts?”

I think this reader makes an important point; race IS a social construct, not a biological one. That is to say, we’re all the same, genetically speaking. Even so, as a society we’ve put people into categories based on the color of their skin, their religion, or their way of life and then made value judgements on those categories. In other words, white Americans aren’t born thinking that they are superior or more entitled to dignity and basic human rights than black Americans. We learn it.

You don’t have to look far to see the ills of social inequality in our history, or how it persists in our present. Hear how my friend Mesha’s story is affected by this disease we call racism. She writes,

“I’ve been called nigger more times than I can count. I’ve been told I was going to hell because I’m biracial. I’ve had friendships end because ‘You’d be a bad influence on my daughter.’ I’ve not been allowed in churches because ‘What would the people think?’ My family has been pushed out of churches because of my dad’s race.

I’ve been told I couldn’t ‘make it’ because I was raised poor and half black. I’ve been told not to reach for the stars because my place is in the kitchen and never been allowed in the kitchen because my parents knew I could do more. I’ve watched as white women cower at the sight of my dad’s brilliant black skin. I have seen the KKK march in my hometown.

I’ve watched as my grandmother pulled her own teeth because we couldn’t afford insurance. I’ve listened to people tell me ‘my type of family’ does not deserve insurance. I’ve seen my parents return to work after burns, cuts, and other injuries because they couldn’t afford to take off. I’ve watched my parents pretend ‘everything was okay’ so that we didn’t have to stress out. I knew it wasn’t…”

That’s hard to read. If you’re like me, you want to hug Mesha close, and distance yourself from the ugly truth of racism and its far reaching implications. Still, most white people I know resist the label “racist” because they don’t want to be associated with any of the things that caused Mesha pain. Their logic is, “I abhor racism. I don’t participate in it. I do not condone it; therefore I am not racist.”

But here’s another ugly truth, if you are white like me and live in the United States, you’ve benefited from a socially constructed system that has denied others with a different shade of skin the same opportunities. Even if it wasn’t your intention. Even if you meant no harm. Even if you feel terrible about it. Racism is a disease and no white American is immune.

Thankfully, there is a cure. After diagnosing the disease and accepting that we’re afflicted by it, we must to teach ourselves and others not to be “against (or afraid of) the color of someone’s skin, their religion, or their way of life,” as the first commentator suggested. But how? It seems a difficult and gargantuan task.

One way white Americans have tried to combat racism is by eliminating the category of race altogether. Instead of recognizing one as black or white, people claim to be “color-blind.” If everyone is really the same biologically, why not just remove problematic color descriptors? Consider the following perspective that challenges the color-blindness strategy (edited to protect identity).

“…My [white] sister in law does not see her children as black, this unnerves me because her children love being black and when she says I don’t see race, I go crazy…I grew up in a predominantly white grammar/high school and was the only black at [university] in a class of 300. It was an experience that shaped my love of being black. I worked at Puerto Rican Cultural Center and pledged [a black sorority] because I not only avoided getting close to white women, but also because I drew from my prior experience instead of educating the white women that tried so hard to be my friend. It took years to trust or share with white women and I pray that my [black] sisters recognize that educating begins and end with us to defy the assumptions white women make when they say they don’t see color.”

What I hear in this comment is that while we are all the same race biologically speaking, culturally we are distinct and it is ok—indeed necessary—to recognize and preserve culture and history that distinguish us. Color blindness, even with the best of intentions, denies the experience of black Americans. It assumes, as the commentator suggests, that the experience of being black in America isn’t worthy of recognition. It’s absolutely imperative to recognize and respect black experience if the discussion is to move forward.

By weaving these three comments together, some uncomfortable truths were exposed. Racism exists and all Americans are affected by it, either as the perpetrator (me) or the victim (my black friends). But these comments have also pointed to a hopeful truth. We can’t change the past, but the future is ours to shape—one conversation at a time. So let’s keep the conversation going…until the next post, keep talking and keep the questions coming!

“If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”

From Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

One thought on “A Candid Conversation About Race: A Beginning

  1. Kulia Petzoldt

    Michelle Alexander’s work “The New Jim Crow” expands very well on the damage caused by the wishful and well intentioned uptake of “I don’t see race” or colorblindness. I strongly suggest reading it to those who find the idea of being post-racial or colorblind attractive, because many who do are hoping to work toward healing without realizing that this misstep is instead damaging.

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