Race: An unspeakable subject?

Moderated by Rick Badie

It’s often hard for us to have a frank and honest conversation about race in America, even in a city like Atlanta that’s thought to be the cradle of the civil rights movement. Today’s guest writers — one a white female, the other a self-described black conservative — issue a challenge to us all.

Challenge white silence

By Christine Ristaino

I was grading essays and writing a summary for work, but also distracted by email and Facebook. I read a few lines of an article — “Why Black People Are Cowards” — and posted it. It was now on my timeline for all the world to see.

The piece was satirical, meant to stir people into being more courageous in the face of racism. But I quickly had second thoughts. How would it play out coming from me, a white woman? I quickly posted two other articles critical of white people to counterbalance. Finally, I just deleted all three.

Too often, this is what it feels like for white people to talk about race: Tentative, tiptoeing, halting fits and starts, and finally, fleeing for dear life. It’s a counterproductive dance that after our long history we should be getting better at.

Yet when it comes to talking about race, many people would prefer to do just about anything else. I teach Italian language and culture at Emory University and regularly lead diversity initiatives on campus. But even for me, somebody who is used to talking about race, I am cautious when having these discussions, and the cowardice argument from the “Black People Are Cowards” blog post hit me hard.

Can I be bold, honest and courageous while also respectful and compassionate? Or does being part of a privileged group force me into a cheerleader position in conversations about race? Can I be critical of other nationalities, ethnicities and races in a constructive, unbiased way? Do I, as a member of a privileged group, even have a right to be critical? A black friend of mine recently said no. He could, but because I am white, he said, I would run into problems.

However, in “Understanding and Dismantling Privilege,” education scholar Robin DiAngelo states that people of privilege need to become involved in discussions on race. “White silence,” she says, “functions to maintain white power and privilege and must be challenged.”

In a 2012 study, Kellogg School of Management Professor Lauren A. Riviera concludes that members of upper management, composed of predominantly educated upper-middle and upper-class white men and women, often hire those who prefer activities associated with people of their own backgrounds. And part of the reason management doesn’t move beyond this practice is because managers are unaware they do this.

The first step in making people aware of privilege is to talk about race in a robust way.

There are things we can do to make online conversations easier. The next time I come across a controversial article, I will post it but also put it into context. Asking my readers their opinion about the article would have opened up the conversation, not shut it down. I could have included my own anecdote to further discussion. And admitting my discomfort while expressing a desire to create change can empower everyone to come up with a positive way forward.

Christine Ristaino is a professor of Italian language and culture at Emory University.

Discuss race without fear

By Demetrius Minor

Because of the hyper-sensitivity our world has succumbed to, the issue of race is a subject of taboo or insecurity to many. The truth is, we should all talk about it.

It’s really hard to label anyone an expert of race. Many of us have been exposed to various cultural practices and living conditions, but there is a world out there that transcends our experiences or academic knowledge.

We should discuss race for the simple matter of being educated. All of us are unlearned in some area of life. It would do us good to step outside our comfort level and become aware of issues surrounding us.

When discussing race, it is important to realize the emotions and experiences that accompany the topic. A white person, even with good intentions, will never be black and, therefore, cannot speak as a black person. A black person will never be white and, therefore, cannot possess the feelings of a white person. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s just the different components of genetics and behavior.

The purpose of discussing race is to garner a better understanding and appreciation for others’ lives. Just because one may say, “My best friend is black,” doesn’t necessarily mean they have taken the time to understand the diverse areas of black culture. The racial makeup of our circle of friends will give a great indication of how we perceive race. If our friends look just like we do, that signals we are afraid of stepping outside of normalcy and comfort. It doesn’t make us evil people. Just unlearned.

When we seek to educate ourselves, we may find our perceptions in error. When discussing race, it’s beneficial to keep an open mind and a respectful dialogue.

One of the biggest barriers to bridging the racial divide is assumption. We cannot assume that all black people and all white people think alike. I vividly remember some whites in 2008 assuming I was going to vote for Obama solely based on the fact I have brown skin. I know some blacks who are cautious and weary of engaging with whites because they assume they are out to manipulate them. Assumptions are not healthy. They only cause us to be apprehensive and regressive when it comes to communication.

We must be willing to find what we have in common, instead of what separates us. Black and whites alike cherish family, friends, cultural activities, education, sports and such. When we become more focused on the individual, we will find ourselves embracing not only diversity, but humanity.

Nobody should have to fear repercussions due to voicing their opinions on race. But for their views to be valid, they must listen, engage and educate themselves. If we do not discuss race, we limit ourselves and become citizens of an isolated world.

Race is a beautiful thing. It’s a human thing. It should be embraced, not feared.

Demetrius Minor serves on the national advisory council of the Project 21 Black Leadership Network.



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