A lot of people are quick to say that they have “candid discussions about race,” as one article put it, on a regular basis. Based on my experience with people who are quick to say that, however, most of the people in this article are probably quick to assert that racism is at an all-time low, that the continued problems of disadvantaged people of color are now their own faults since they have more opportunity now, and then laundry-list ways they think demonstrate their open-mindedness, such as that they have black friends, they personally “don’t discriminate,” played with dolls or action figures of different races without consciously considering those differences relevant, and so on.
Even the assumption itself that race is irrelevant or doesn’t matter at all can do more harm than good, because negating people’s heritage and specific needs with dismissals such as “we’re all human, so individual race shouldn’t matter” is disempowering to people who are still struggling to have their voices heard independently of the negative stereotypes that our white-centric culture has judged them by for so long.
Getting past the filters, misconceptions, and lacks of self-awareness that keep people from honestly acknowledging that racism does in fact still exist, and that they may actually be unwittingly part of the problem, starts with doing two things.
The first is, admitting to ourselves that we are still capable of, and may still actively maintain, prejudices. It doesn’t seem humanly possible to have no prejudice whatsoever. If we are so quick to insist that we have no prejudices of any kind, and quickly shut down any conversation about the subject of prejudice, then we are probably not being honest with ourselves, let alone with anyone else. I admit I still have some: While they aren’t based on race, there are certain categories of people that, after all these years, even after encountering plenty of stereotype-breakers, I still have a really hard time respecting or not wanting to openly repudiate at least 50% of what they say and believe.
When we acknowledge who or what kind(s) of people we are still hard-hearted about, we are taking the first step to keeping those prejudices in check (meaning, not acting on them in any way, including in conversation), and weakening them over time.
The second thing is, not treating ourselves or each other as ambassadors of a whole group. While we each represent a group to some extent, we can only truly represent ourselves when expressing our beliefs and personal experience. When we drop the assumption that all of “our people”—whoever those people are—feel as we do, or have been affected the same way we have by various social-justice challenges, it’s a lot easier to be honest about our experience and to listen to other people expressing their experiences as members from the same or a different group.
To truly get a good understanding of the experience of a particular racial, cultural, or religious group, it’s essential that we talk with multiple people, not just expect our one friend or coworker from that group to represent the whole. For example, if I’m talking to a friend who’s black about what Detroit is like for him now, I start my question with something like “In your experience…” rather than “As a black person…”
So, thus ends my blogging for 2017. Thank you so much for reading, and I look forward to sharing with you about my intercultural and interfaith adventures next year. We’re even going to kick off January with some planned, structured discussions about race and intercultural relations, including the topic “What is whiteness?” at a gathering in Romeo next Friday. If another Snowmaggedon or work doesn’t prevent me from attending, I’ll give you a full report.
Until then, Namaste, and Happy New Year :)