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Talking About Race

"I wheeled my two-year-old daughter in a shopping cart through a supermarket in Eastchester in 1967, and a little white girl riding past in her mother's cart calls out excitedly, 'Oh look, Mommy, a baby maid!' And your mother shushes you, but does not correct you, and so 15 years later, at a conference on racism, you can still find that story humorous. But I hear your laughter is full of terror and disease."

Those words were spoken in 1982 by the late poet Audre Lorde. Bothered by the child, saddened by the child's mother, and disappointed by liberal colleagues, Lorde's frustration was understandable -- indeed, to be expected. What Black woman wants to hear her child -- her baby, maybe the person she loves most in this world -- referred to as a "baby maid?" And Audre Lorde was not a typical Black woman, or typical woman, or typical American. She was a poet -- her first poem written in the eighth grade -- a civil rights activist, anti-war activist, and one of the leading feminist voices in the United States. She had a master's degree in Library Science from Columbia University and worked as a librarian at Mount Vernon Public Library in New York. Lorde was an intelligent, deeply-reflective scholar, and the words of the white child hurt her terribly.

I hope the white child was young, too young to understand race and class. Sometimes children, especially very young ones, make comments that seem racial or racist, but are simply, uncritical observations. Children notice differences. Children are curious. "Mommy, that woman has black skin." The child is not offering a value judgment, and deeper meanings, racial or otherwise, come into play only when the adults intervene. This is the case, almost always, even when the language is a bit cruder: "Mommy, that woman has dirty skin," or "Mommy, that woman's skin is ugly," or "Oh look, Mommy, a baby maid." I understand these things; nevertheless, had the black child been my daughter I would have been hurt and angry. I would have wondered if -- no, I would have assumed that -- the mother had avoided the subject of race with her child. Lorde, her feelings hurt, mentions that the white mother "shushes you, but does not correct you." Yeah, that would have bothered me. Shushing the child made the white mother's life easier, at that moment, but quieting the child really yelled: "Race is not something we talk about." When we ignore discussions of race we also ignore discussions of discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping. You should not talk about race without talking about racism. I wish I knew the age of the child. Was she four? Seven? Twelve? It matters. When it comes to race relations we all, meaning all, stand in need of correction; and we can start with the white woman whose child implied that black skin is a synonym for servitude-or ourselves.

Many whites believe that talking openly and honestly about race and racism will lead to embarrassment and accusations of racial insensitivity, maybe even charges of racism. With these a priori assumptions, the conversations, if they occur, become defensive struggles, emotionally draining, sad attempts to avoid blame. They are fearful of being labeled ignorant, insensitive, or racist. Yes, there is the real risk of social disapproval -- and the less tangible, but potentially more painful difficulty of grappling with "privilege." I am reminded of Robin Hasslen's poem, "I'm Tired of Talking about Racism."

Rest in peace, you blue-eyed students
of white privilege.
Dream of the institutions which empower you.
Racism isn't your problem.
Privilege is.

I am straight. I say this neither bragging nor complaining, but to make an analogy. As a straight male I am privileged. Some privileges are small, and on-the-surface easy to take for granted -- for instance, small, public displays of affection with my wife go unpunished -- others speak to a legal relationship -- say, the rights of survivorship -- but there is another privilege that is sometimes overlooked: the privilege of not having to think about being straight, that is, the presumed normalcy of straightness and the reputed deviance of those who are not heterosexual. I am straight in a society where straights make the laws. The supposed normalcy of straightness is reinforced on television, at the cinema, in music, in church, temple, and synagogue. I am straight and I don't have to think about it -- until someone who is not straight complains about mistreatment -- or acts in a way that violates the script that straights have given them. I benefit from being straight whether I know it or not, whether I accept it or not. Now substitute white for straight.

Many minorities of color are weary of talking candidly about race and racism because they do not want to expose themselves and the anger they harbor. And do not be fooled: many are angry -- yes, there is much disappointment, but there is also much anger. They do not want to revisit painful experiences. They complain of being tired, ad nauseum, of trying to explain with passion, not anger, of living in a society where the privileges of the white group are so ingrained they are taken-for-granted.

I know what it is like to be angry, to want to scream: "I am sick of this crap!" Is there a sane person of color in this country who has not experienced the anger that accompanies being treated as an outsider, an inferior, a member of them? I have said before and I will say again, anger is a necessary leg on this racial journey, but it cannot become the destination. My anger was replaced by reflective sadness -- then a commitment to activism. Here is a quandary: anger makes dialogue difficult, yet it must be expressed before meaningful dialogue is possible.

I accept as an article of faith that productive dialogues about race, race relations, and racism are possible -- not easy -- but possible. If done correctly, discussions of race and racism will sometimes be uncomfortable. How could it be otherwise? There are few if any American adults who do not carry baggage -- ideas about "us" and "them." This baggage is weighed down by a few validating personal experiences ("See, I knew they really were like that"), stereotypical imagery in popular and material culture, and good old-fashioned fear and self-interest. So, here comes the silence, the unwillingness to talk to them. We must move from fearful, angst-driven silence to no-holds-barred discussions -- move from feel-good, shallow conversations about multiculturalism, pluralism, and diversity (talk that trivializes race and racism and offers false solutions) to honest, even painful, discussions about racism. Address racism honestly and frequently. It is a shame that our nation ignores racism until there is a media event: an O.J. Simpson trial, Rodney King riots, painful footage of Hurricane Katrina victims, or Duke University Lacrosse scandals. Move from feelings ("I am uncomfortable around them") to a meaningful analysis of racism as a permeating, entrenched system. Racism is more than "racial incidents," it is so ingrained in this society that it functions as an "institutional us."

From the troubled, I hear this plea: "Can't we please stop talking about race?" And when I ask why they answer, "If we stop talking about race, racism will go away." Really? But that presupposes that we don't already talk about race -- at the dinner table, in restrooms, at the office, at ballgames, everywhere except at places where our ideas can be challenged. "Let's not talk about race," often means "I'm not interested in what you have to say about race. I want to talk about you, but not with you." Productive discourse about race is possible, no, it is necessary, but it must be honest and inclusive. Most importantly, talking about race must include listening about race, even when the ideas disappoint us.

"Can't we stop talking about race?" implies that race is a question already answered, that race matters little, if at all, that racism is a relic of the distant past, and that a person's life is inconvenienced by the discussion. That is a lot to give up. Race is not easy for some people to talk about, and some of that discomfort is hidden behind faulty assumptions: "If we stop talking about race, racism will go away." No, it won't go away; we may, in the short run, experience less stress by not discussing race; however, when the inevitable "racial incident" arises we will not be prepared. We must talk to one another -- and talk honestly and frequently.

Talking about racism does not make you racist; acknowledging that racism exists does not make you racist.

I keep saying must talk about race as if I could force the discussion of race on my fellow citizens. There is a part of me that wishes that people could be forced to talk about race -- no, that is not what I mean; I wish people wanted to talk about race, wished they understood the many and varied ways that ideas of race hurt and hinder. You rarely get good results by forcing people to do anything, especially in a country that values individualism and personal liberty above all cultural ideals. Yet, we must talk, beseech, argue -- and listen.

There is no template to guide us, not through every situation. We start by acknowledging that we are learning only as we muddle forward. There is no shame in recognizing we must learn how to talk about race and racism. This is not a confession of failure; rather, it is a description of where we must begin. There are theorists and researchers who offer insight, but they too often talk about race and racism in abstract terms. We must move from the intellectual to the personal -- otherwise, we are just talking to hear ourselves talk. Racism is an issue of the head and the heart. Trial and error teaches what works and what does not work. Mistakes and the correction of mistakes will help us find a language of dialogue, a commonly understood vocabulary. We must start at the start because what will work for us is shaped by us and our circumstances.

I am not afraid to talk about racism; I am afraid not to talk about racism.

David Pilgrim, Curator
Jim Crow Museum
Date posted: May 2, 2006