How to discuss race, my take on itRecently at many blogs there have been a spate of threads concerning race in the blogosphere, for this I am grateful. The downward spiral of the discussions is disappointing but not entirely unexpected. As Pam noted:
What I have blogged about here many times before is that race is a third rail topic for white folks and POC, particularly in the progressive sphere. Whites are paranoid about discussing it for fear of getting their heads bitten off, POC are defensive because it can get tiring having to point out the obvious -- and then they shut down. The end result is the groups go into their corners and fail to communicate effectively.
I do agree that it is a third rail topic, but I think Pam is too generous in her characterization about what motivates each side. A substantial subset of the white liberal audience simply does not want to listen to or deal with POC. And most POC are fed up and exasperated with getting the same old run around every single time, and have come to expect it. What this means is that we (POC) may not be coming to the discussion with an open mind, which is inexcusable if you get caught in that cross-fire, but hopefully you will have a better understanding of where that anger is coming from. Understanding and context are important in discussions of racism, as well as many other discussions.
For example, you arrive at your friend's home and the first thing he does is bite your head off for no apparent reason. What's your response? What if your friend just got home from the hospital, is wearing a cast on his broken leg, and is medicated to the gills but still in alot of pain, do you have a different response? Your response is probably different even though in both cases you did nothing wrong and did not deserve his anger.
Let's see if we can find some understanding and context.
My advice for white people who wish to engage in conversations with POC is that you must understand that you absolutely do have white privilege, and probably express that in racist ways on occasion. You are blind to it because it is built in to American society, this is what we mean by institutional racism. When many white people are told this, their first and sometimes last reaction is to scream, "I AM NOT RACIST! I AM NOT RACIST! I AM NOT RACIST!" They assume we are speaking about individual acts based on hate, but what we really mean is that while they understand that POC are disadvantaged in our society; they do not acknowledge that they have advantages that they take forgranted. I believe that some are willfully blind to white privilege, because the way to fight institutional racism means that whites must give up some of their advantages, affirmative action is one of these, hiring more minorities means there are less openings for whites. They do not want to give up their advantage, and so they deny the problem or derail the conversation. It's not enough to sadly exclaim that racism is bad, you must be willing to take action, lip service doesn't cut it.
One example is when discussing racially divisive issues a white person will pipe up that we should leave behind identity politics and concentrate our efforts on the greater good. But the greater good generally means that white people determine what issues are important and in our collective best interests, and this may be of very little service to POC. We think that the collective good should be working towards ALL of our interests, not just yours. You can not find out what we believe is in our interest if you aren't even willing to listen to us, and instead dismiss us. This does not mean that we expect to only work on our issues, we expect to discuss and compromise; it is the white person who expects to only work on what they choose as important while we are expected to be quiet and go along to get along.
One other thing, when white people do recognize institutional racism many times they do not speak out. They think it's not their problem and look the other way. This is why there was so much anger expressed over the Clinton blogger lunch by POC. Our allies abandon us when we need them. The bloggers there did not make it a priority to find out why diverse voices weren't included and explain to their readers. And the blogosphere in general either did not see a problem, or were afraid of the reaction of their peers if they sided with POC, for instance by delinking or banning them.
The one thing I have to say to POC is to beware of assuming that a white person who questions you isn't serious about understanding your stance. Because we are dismissed, demeaned, ignored, maligned, lied to, and lied about on a fairly regular basis it is easy to jump to that conclusion; but so much better to give clear and honest answers with as little sarcasm and animosity until you are certain what the other person's motives are. First because we need as many allies as we can find, if someone has an open mind give him/her a chance. Second because it will appear to be like the person in my example who snarls at his friend for no apparent reason, without people knowing about the broken leg. In other words, if you are dealing with a racist idiot, lead him into the discussion to reveal that before you kick his ass; or you will look like you are unreasonable, hysterical, and lashing out unprovoked to others who were willing to listen and learn...we need as many allies as we can find.