Talking about race

What is so hard about it?  What do you fear?  What has your experience been like?  Have you witnessed breakthrough moments?  What is the one thing you wish you could make others understand?  Why do you do it/not do it?

Feel free to answer any or all of the questions or maybe some that haven’t yet been asked.  I realized recently that I won’t engage at all if I think the people involved are idiots.  But this tends to make them think I share their viewpoints.

About these ads

16 thoughts on “Talking about race

  1. Talking about race is difficult and I generally don’t get into discussions of race unless I am around other people of color. I don’t like talking about race with most white people because many are blissfully unaware of their privilege. When around other people of color, I usually get into good, deep discussions. When I have gotten into discussions with some white people, I have often gotten, “Oh, it’s not really like that. Maybe you’re exaggerating” or “You’re just too sensitive. I’m sure they didn’t mean it like that.” These things all negate my experience and more often than not, I am told by white people that I’m making it up. I can’t get in discussions about race for my sanity’s sake.

  2. I’m very much an introvert. If I could wave my magic wand and dictate how all conversations on earth would be conducted from now on, one person would say, “I believe X,” I would say, “Here are my initial thoughts on that,” and then we would both return to our corners for a long quiet day of contemplating before speaking of it again. Almost no conversations in life go that way, but especially not conversations about something as thorny, complicated, or emotional as race. I get really nervous talking about race in face-to-face interactions (the internet is easier), because if I hear something new or provocative, or if I’m called out for something, I need to withdraw for a long time to think really hard about it. I don’t think quickly on my feet, and I need a long processing time before I feel comfortable speaking. But the other person may need a reaction, explanation, or apology from me right away, and if I spit one out right away, it may be all kinds of stupid and fucked-up because I haven’t had a chance to sort very carefully through my thoughts and feelings, and instead just grabbed the closest thing to the door. Likewise, if somebody says something heinously racist in front of me, I may have a really slow reaction time, trying to piece together all the things I need or want to say, but I know that from the outside, it looks like I either agree or don’t care enough to speak up. That makes things really nerve-wracking for me, and I tend to avoid spaces where race is going to be talked about in-person because of it.

    But, looking at it now, that’s not exactly the question you asked, is it? You asked why *race itself* is a hard topic. As a white person, I sometimes feel like I open my mouth and knives fall out, and I’m just horrified watching it happen. I know there’s a very high probability that I’m going to say something dumb or hurtful or offensive, and all my social inhibitions are screaming at me to *not* do that. On the other hand, I know that if I don’t open my mouth, if I don’t let those knives out, nothing will change, nothing will get better. But then I think, god, is it really fair to assume other people’s feelings and safety is a reasonable sacrifice for *me* to get less racist? But then I think, god, you’re just making excuses because you’re such an uncomfortable white person. And back and forth and back and forth.

    So I guess the issue for me is: I feel like any step towards progress requires me doing something wrong. I want to do things right. I know the only way to do things *right* is to try, but when trying inevitably means doing something *wrong* eventually (or immediately), I get paralyzed. Does that make sense? It’s less of a logical thought process and more like a bundle of visceral, neurotic feelings. “Do not say the wrong thing” bumps up against “saying nothing is the wrong thing” bumps up against “whatever you say will likely be wrong,” and it all goes in a neurotic circle. Sometimes the circle bursts as I think, just say *something* for god’s sake, and boom, knives start pouring out, cutting up the other person, and I’m just terribly ashamed, and I have not yet learned how to overcome my shame quickly enough to keep on conversing honestly and openly.

    I have these intensely strong social inhibitions against being accidentally cruel or sounding actively foolish, and that can’t peaceably co-exist with any moral obligation I try to actively cultivate to make myself and/or the world around me less racist. So, the inhibitions and the obligations fight, and while they fight, I’m usually staying silent.

    One thing that’s made it better for me: in a group discussion about race, the group leader told us to stop assuming we were all living in different worlds. Any racism roiling around in white people’s heads wasn’t born naturally there — they picked it up from the same cultural landscape that PoC lived in. That helped me stop feeling like some sort of racist alien — like, I think I’m a good person, and then gah! racist thought, where did you come from? Better not talk about it or they’ll all think I’m a crazy racist person. I realized that this had to be something that everybody went through, that I didn’t have some secret special access to vile thoughts, but the things that sometimes flitted across my brain about PoC had probably flitted across the brains of PoC, too. It helped me feel less like a white person floundering around with no skills, no abilities, nothing to bring to the table; if nothing else (and at the time I feared it was nothing else), I could relate to other PoC on the basis of the racist messages we had soaked up, that lived in our heads, that we didn’t want there, and made us feel like shit. Everything else, I felt like I had no authority to speak, no right; I felt like all my experience and feelings were completely worthless in any conversation about race, but the experience of having soaked up rotten racism in my head that I didn’t know how to get rid of was a shared point of reference between me and PoC when talking about race. It was a place to start.

  3. Aubrey said: “As a white person, I sometimes feel like I open my mouth and knives fall out, and I’m just horrified watching it happen. I know there’s a very high probability that I’m going to say something dumb or hurtful or offensive, and all my social inhibitions are screaming at me to *not* do that. On the other hand, I know that if I don’t open my mouth, if I don’t let those knives out, nothing will change, nothing will get better. But then I think, god, is it really fair to assume other people’s feelings and safety is a reasonable sacrifice for *me* to get less racist? But then I think, god, you’re just making excuses because you’re such an uncomfortable white person. And back and forth and back and forth.”

    “I have these intensely strong social inhibitions against being accidentally cruel or sounding actively foolish, and that can’t peaceably co-exist with any moral obligation I try to actively cultivate to make myself and/or the world around me less racist. So, the inhibitions and the obligations fight, and while they fight, I’m usually staying silent.”

    I feel the *exact* same way. My biggest fears are offending people of color or saying something that hurts them. I don’t care what white people think of me. I talk about race rather freely with white people and I have no problem pointing out our privileges and challenging them (with some success in changing perceptions). But once a person of color comes into the picture, I start to trip over my words. I become very afraid that I will add to the daily mess that every person of color goes through. As a gay person, I have at least an idea of what it’s like. Words do stay with you, regardless of the speaker’s intent. My heart’s in the right place, but that says nothing about the outcome of the jumbled words of an introvert like me. I end up feeling it’s better to stay silent than to ruin someone’s day.

  4. Honestly, I’m usually way too fed up with everything to be able to talk about race in any coherent manner with someone. I enjoy doing so on the internet because I can edit my words easily, but IRL I get flustered too easily.
    Also, since I’m living in a very concentrated city environment, I deal with racist stuff on an almost daily basis. That stresses me out enough to not want to even discuss it with my SO because it would mean I will have to relive all those moments all over again.

  5. Speaking is a pretty recent thing for me. I feel like I’ve finally read enough to pick up on the words and language that give me voice to say what I want to say. I’m not silenced by my own ignorance anymore though I can still be a coward sometimes.

    But I finally have at my defense the tone argument and several other things from racism/sexism/oppressisms 101 so people can’t silence me as easily. Other people’s voices speaking of their similar experiences lent me mine. I’ve always had the conviction but never the words- this has made speaking about racism a 100x’s easier.

    My experience also has changed, I can engage more positively without getting tongue-tied, I can argue cohesively and call people out when they’re putting words in my mouth, making assumptions, or changing the subject to silence me. I know not to speak to people who aren’t interested in listening, and I’ll say things like…. “I live in NYC because it’s diverse, and that makes me feel more comfortable.” or “Is it just me or are you dead tired of watching movies about white people?”
    What I’ve seen is that white people and will somehow change the subject.

    My breakthrough moment was when I had read someone’s experience at a train station, in Portland OR where I had lived for some years. (I can’t find the post so I’ll summarize it:) This girl got called some racist slurs by an angry homeless man who had come into the station, harassing people. A lot of other people got called names too but NO ONE said a word. Only she did. She was young…20? but she spoke back calling him out on his foul word choice. She told him that what he said was hurtful and that obviously these people are being made uncomfortable by him and that he needed to leave, or she would. She complained to the ticket counter too (she was a paying customer and she was being harassed…) but no one did ANYTHING. She eventually had to go outside, to remove herself from the man’s foul presence.

    I was horrified by the silence. And horrified to know that had I been there, I would have cowered, been afraid to speak up. It was suddenly unacceptable to me, I couldn’t leave a sister like that.

    Later after the dude had gone, some people told her how ‘brave’ she was and shit, but they totally ignored the fact that she was called those slurs. They were colorblind. Colorblinded-ness has always been a trigger to me. It was the last straw. So, like you Resistance, I realized that if I kept silent, I was corroborating the evil. So I learned the words. Speak truth to power.

  6. I can probably count the number of white people I talk about race with on one hand. My mom is white, but I still pick my race discussions with her.

    They all seem to end up being educational moments, and I’m no expert – I’m just me. I’ve read quite a bit, and talked to different people, but I haven’t taken any classes on critical race theory or anything. Additionally, whenever it seems to turn into an edu-moment, I fear the person I’m talking with will come away thinking I speak for all POC/black/biracial/multiracial people. Even when I say I’m not.

    Because honestly, even people who are normally astute can turn into idiots when it comes to race. I too dismiss idiots – I can’t talk to idiots about race. It’s a waste of time (IMO). If someone listens to Rush Limbaugh, they’re not going to listen to me. But if they’re not idiots, I’ll consider it.

    I only get deep with black people – SOME black people. I work with a black lady who says “all that stuff is in the past – I just want to move on”. Which I view as pie-in-the-sky/head-in-the-sand thinking. Our discussions of race are very general. But then I don’t really get deep at work anyway. I work with a really big racist, and don’t like to bring up anything that might set him off – even though I am his boss now. Maybe especially because of that.

    When I was younger I used to think that I was witnessing “breakthrough moments”. Since then I’ve become much more jaded, and believe that the only ones I’ve truly witnessed were my own. All the others were more likely situations where people feigned an “A-ha” to get out of the discussion, or thought they had an “A-ha” but really didn’t. (Maybe I’m too cynical, but that’s what I think.)

    Funnily enough, I live in small-town America (in the South), and can say the same as e – “I deal with racist stuff on an almost daily basis.”

  7. I am privileged and white. I went to a private high school with a decent-sized collection of minorities. Our United Through Differences group decided to have a teachers’ fishbowl panel on diversity to give kids a model for having discussions about diversity and race. The teachers sat there silently for a long time, with all the students watching. Finally, an outspoken male white teacher spoke up, with all the usual disclaimers of “well, I can’t know, but I imagine as a person of color…” I can’t remember what he said, but I do remember that one of the few African American teachers, a woman, spent about ten minutes castigating him at the top of her lungs. Was he wrong to position himself that way? Yes. Was she wrong to close down a discussion that was meant to be a respectful and useful example to children? Yes. I know it’s a horrible abuse of white power to say that people of color need to express themselves appropriately, but it would have been so much more useful to all of us students if she had critiqued what he said and the way he said in a way that was useful – maybe the minority students and I and other white students would have been able to have useful discussions in environment where white kids recognized bad speech patterns and their own advantages, and minority kids felt that yes, they had a voice and would be heard. Instead, we continued to avoid one another and the United Through Difference group was mostly full of minority kids because white kids were too afraid to go for fear of being yelled at.

  8. discussions with most white people aren’t dicsussions. they quickly turn to defensive arguments. that said, even among people of color it’s hard to have an open discussion, in my experience there is often two way it goes. one is where you agree in which case it’s less of a dicsussion and more of a serious of gripes. or two, you disagree and people get defensive or tune out. worse case is when it becomes a racial who’s-superior argument. it’s difficult to engauge in these types of discussions because it can often get personal and emotional for a lot of people.
    and attempting to engague in a discussion with somone who has just verbally or physically assulted you due to your race is almost impossible. you’d have better luck winning the lotto. i’ve had a few situations where i’ve confronted people about it by explaining to them why what they did was wrong. they bit thier tongue, but i don’t believe that changed anything. i’m sure the next person who looked like me walked by them they’d say or do the same thing. unfortunately we still live in a world where might makes right and the only reason they shut up was probably becasue they precieved me as a threat. had they been among friends or more confident the situation would have played out differently.
    i guess the one thing i wish i could make people understand the most is that i’m not the sole representitive for my race. that while i represent my race and am proud of it i’m still an individual

  9. @startledoctopus: Sorry, man, but I’m going to put the blame for that debacle on your administration and not the black teacher. I mean, it sounds like that group was hoping that the adults in the room would provide good role modeling on discussions about race, but what happened? They all sat around in dead silence until one white guy decided to start being offensively provocative, and all the other white people just kept their mouths shut about it. I bet you a million racism bucks that you were seeing exactly what happened every day with those teachers whenever race came up, or remained conspicuously absent. I doubt very much that black teacher was reacting to *just that instance* of offensive hogwash (how often do you have an angry fit in public for *just one event*? But I bet you’d have one if somebody bullied you every day), and I’m willing to bet she finally burst because now it was finally happening in front of children, as an *example* of how they should talk about race.

    You might also consider that she had already tried talking all nice and sweet to the other white teachers about things they said and gotten nowhere, and was more interested now in letting the other kids of color in the audience see that they didn’t have to put up with this shit like it didn’t make them angry or hurt. She was *defending them*, not *helping you*, and I don’t think she was on the wrong side of the fight there.

    It would have been nice if you all could have sat down and had a reasonable, well-informed, nuanced, and very mature discussion about race, and for young white kids who are modeling themselves on adult behavior, and who have probably lived pretty segregated lives with few opportunities to see how to talk about race with non-white people, it must have been confusing to see all that shit go down. (I doubt it was confusing to the kids of color, because, again, a million racism bucks, that wasn’t the first time they’d experienced a bunch of white people saying heinous, insulting shit, or seen a white person act like *they* were the hurt party afterwards. I mean, imagine how annoyed you’d be if every day, somebody told you you were ugly, and then one day you yelled at them to quit, and *they* started crying, and everybody looked at you like *you* were a monster.) But as an adult now, consider that perhaps that discussion didn’t start and end there, that your black teacher didn’t just have a screaming fit out of absolutely nowhere. And consider that she maybe wasn’t having that fit for *your* benefit, to make you feel good or safe about race. Obviously, she didn’t feel good or safe, and if she — an adult — felt that way, maybe you can imagine that the kids of color in the school didn’t feel good or safe either, and maybe it meant a lot to them that, in one more instance of a white person spouting off deeply hurtful sentiments, another adult stood up for them (since nobody else in the room was doing it). Also, consider it this way: the lesson you could have taken from that interaction is that racism *hurts other people terribly,* hurts them so much that they get justifiably angry, that they break down in public (which is never fun), that they potentially endanger their jobs because they just can’t take this for one more second. You could learn a lot about the power of your words and assumptions, and how worthwhile it is to understand that this isn’t about quiet discussions until you have a “The More You Know” moment, but real human lives and real human feelings are at stake. That’s not an easy or fun thing to deal with, but this is fucking racism — nothing is easy or fun about it, and if white people aren’t willing to hear about and apologize for the damage they’ve done, then nothing is going to change. Your white teacher had a perfect opportunity to show what a grown-up apology looks like, but instead he acted like he’d been the one wounded, like she was just overwhelmingly and unjustifiably angry *out of nowhere*, and like there was no way discussion could move forward as long as people of color got all *emotional*. He did a terrible disservice to the white kids in your school by teaching you to fear and revile the legitimate anger of people of color, and treat it as an insurmountable obstacle, and he did a terrible disservice to the kids of color in your school, by teaching them that the only way to discuss race with white people is to let white people discuss smugly amongst themselves while they keep their hurt feelings to themselves.

    That’s a lot to expect kids to understand, especially when you were all being taught by a bunch of white teachers who either stonily refused to talk about race or arrogantly assumed they had all the answers and did not deserve to be corrected, recriminated, or called out. I don’t blame you for taking away exactly the message your white teachers wanted you to take, which is that discussing race with non-white people is frightening, unpredictable, and fruitless, or that race discussions need to go slow and easy and make you feel better (as opposed to get anything done), and that white people need to be treated as if they are tremendously fragile (although people of color are sturdy enough, apparently, to listen to offensive hurtful things with no emotional reaction whatsoever). But, I ask you to consider now that 1) teaching children that when somebody says or does something hurtful, *it hurts*, and the person who did the hurtful thing should be called to task and asked to correct themselves is a very good lesson, and 2) keeping stonily silent when children of color have asked you to be a role model for how to discuss race teaches children of color that you don’t care about their discussion, and teaches white children that they don’t have to care either, and 3) the fact that grown adults who interact with a diverse group of children every day could not bring themselves to say anything other than offensive claptrap, and then reel back wounded and snotty when called out on it, indicates that the kids of color and the black teacher were enduring that “race conversation” every day, instead of just the one awkward day you had to put up with it. I mean, you got to walk away from that discussion and never have it again, if you wanted — they didn’t. Imagine if you had to have that same discussion every day, and maybe you can understand how you could get so pissed off that you would start yelling in public. If your administration had put any effort into having a healthy attitude on race, that conversation would have gone a lot differently. People might have *talked*, for one, instead of letting the windbag with the loudest and most self-assured opinions dominate the room. The black teacher may not have finally burst, and if she had, your white teachers could have illustrated for you that anger is a legitimate reaction to being hurt (and not something to be treated contemptuously), and they could have shown you what an apology looked like, and how to make amends and continue a discussion like civil human beings who cared for one another’s feelings. The fact that that couldn’t happen, not even a little, shows pretty clearly what your black teacher was bursting about.

  10. Oh, one more thing (not a novel this time). You might want to check out:

    http://microaggressions.tumblr.com/

    It’s a collection of all the tiny paper cuts people endure every day when they’re not white enough, or straight enough, or male enough, or skinny enough, or able enough, or gendered enough, etc. If one of these things happened to you every day, and if they especially happened every day in a place *you could not escape* or *choose to easily walk away from* (like a job or school), and if they continued to happen even after you’d tried playing nice and explaining pleasantly why it really fucking stung or was offensive as hell, you might have a bursting public fit, too.

  11. @Aubrey

    Thank you so much for breaking that situation down. ‘Frustrating’ is an understatement for how often those macro and micro aggressions add up in daily life.

  12. “You don’t count.” “You’re not really (blank).” “But you don’t look (blank)!”

    I rarely talk about it at all simply because of how people see me. It’s painful enough to be viewed as something I don’t view myself as, to be thrown into these boxes everywhere despite how I feel about my heritage, little boxes everywhere where my identity doesn’t even seem to exist. The only times I really talk about race are when I’m with other nonwhite people, and even then only with people that understand the complexity of my situation. Which brings me to a grand total of… one.

    I do what I can to defend myself and call out racism in other situations, but I rarely have the option to point out how it affects me as an individual because of how the world sees me as someone else. My identity is dismissed because I don’t meet their standards of how I “should” be. Even by my own parents, who don’t share the same identity as me.

  13. @Aubrey: love the microaggressions website, so cathartic, as a nonheterosexual fat feminist female expat in a non-white country!

    You did make me think, pointing out that this was not an isolated incident for the female teacher…honestly, I have no idea. I wasn’t particularly blinders-off when it came to prejudice at the time.

    I won’t try to defend the male teacher’s comment, both because I don’t remember exactly enough, and because it probably isn’t worth defending, but I take issue with this:
    “Your white teacher had a perfect opportunity to show what a grown-up apology looks like, but instead he acted like he’d been the one wounded, like she was just overwhelmingly and unjustifiably angry *out of nowhere*, and like there was no way discussion could move forward as long as people of color got all *emotional*. He did a terrible disservice to the white kids in your school by teaching you to fear and revile the legitimate anger of people of color, and treat it as an insurmountable obstacle, and he did a terrible disservice to the kids of color in your school, by teaching them that the only way to discuss race with white people is to let white people discuss smugly amongst themselves while they keep their hurt feelings to themselves.”

    He sat down the instant she stood up, waited until she was finished, apologized profusely, offered to listen to her talk whenever and if ever she should want to talk to him, and shut up. The moderator (her daughter) then offered her the opportunity to speak more about her thoughts and experiences, but she was obviously still very upset, and understandably didn’t take it, so the discussion disbanded. I took 1 valuable lesson from this: when you trigger legitimate anger from people of color by being an idiot, apologize and then shut the fuck up. I knew enough to know I was ignorant, and avoided people of color for years because I was afraid a lack of knowledge and communication skills would lead me to say something that would peg me a racist for the rest of my high school career.

    I really appreciate your comments about the black teacher, because I admit I had thought insufficiently about her situation, but I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t assume that, because a black person and a white person were involved, you know exactly how the situation went down. There was no snotty after-petting of white egos. No one told us not to worry, the black teacher was just feeling a little emotional that day. One teacher (also white) told us “This is why you should care deeply about racism – that emotion needs to be taken seriously because it doesn’t come out of nowhere.”

    My point is: neither of them contributed much to the deconstruction of white privilege and a critical attitude towards race. I don’t believe that race discussions should go slowly to coddle white people, that they should be more sensitive to our feelings than the legitimate anger of people of color, that people of color should not express their anger and their hurt. But I do strongly believe that unuseful discussions of race reinforce harmful stereotypes, social segregation, and uncritical attitudes – which makes everything worse.

    Practically speaking, white kids need white role models who show them, as you said, ways to make adult apologies, but also ways to communicate appropriately – and they also need to see examples of white people being called out on their privilege and appropriate ways for those white people to respond to such calling out (i.e. apology-acknowledgment-listening). And kids of color absolutely do need role models who speak up and show them they don’t need to take that bullshit – but they also need to see that advocacy being effective. Because there is no shortage, in our culture, of examples and situations where we see white assholes reacting as you described, and no shortage of (racist) depictions of scary-unreasonable-anger of people of color. People fit life events into the cognitive frames that they have, and race education needs to add useful frames to the horrible ones we get from our racist culture and pop culture.

    And you could easily replace racism with sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination. As a feminist, I do go off on people occasionally – usually male friends, but as a teacher, if I were on a gender panel, I might not play nice, but I would play *useful* at the very least.

    And I guess, as a teacher, I believe that teachers should do a better job than other people, even when we’re passionate about something (I’m an expat English teacher and I deal with prejudice of all kinds daily – prejudices which I can’t get too emotional about or my coteacher will stop translating and just tell the kids to be quiet because teacher is angry. My students think white people are funny. They think black people are funny. They think gays, trans people, feminists, Chinese people, Muslims, you name it – they’re hilarious).

    Anyway, I’m still practicing my communication skills – if you still think I’m being ignorant and offensive, I’ll shut up and practice my listening. Thanks for taking the time to respond at all and to read this.

  14. Thank you for this website. My mother-in-law, who is is white and British, has been visiting and came up with “I’m not trying to be nasty, but it’s all the Indian dentists that have messed up the health care system in England.” We’ve never talked about race before, and not long ago, I would have been at a loss about what to say. This time, I responded fairly quickly with, “Well, that is a nasty thing to say whether you mean it to be or not. I’m Indian and I find it offensive to hear such things being said. There are some shit Indian dentists and there are some shit White dentists. You don’t make these kinds of statements about White dentists. Do you really want me to lump you in with big statement about White people?” She apologized and also said, “I don’t think of you as Indian. You don’t look Indian.” To which I said, “Regardless of how you think about me or how you think I look, I am Indian. And I don’t like those kinds of statement.” Anyway, it ended as well as it could have and I will not be hearing that kind of garbage from her again. Thank you for all the posting. It really helps.

  15. I’m amazed at how constructive this topic on race has been. I know I’m a little late…it’s 2013 and the discussion was set in 2011 but it has definitely left a mark on me presently. Everyone responded to eachother respectfully even though some of the comments can be considered “provacative” to some. I am Latina and I really appreciate this kind of healthy discussion and it also gives me hope that talking about race can change the discourse of overall human relations. Maybe it’s an ideal way of thinking at this present time but it can happen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s