How Not to Derail the Dialogue on Race

(The Root) — The question for this week’s column comes, loosely, from Slate’s William Saletan, who asked me to throw some ideas around with him as he composed a list of tips for “how to talk constructively about racism” in the wake of white-Hispanic George Zimmerman’s controversial acquittal in the shooting death of unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin.

I always sigh a little when I hear the calls for a “national conversation on race” that follow when inequality and injustice are brought to our attention in a big way.

Even President Barack Obama acknowledged in his remarks about Zimmerman’s acquittal that these conversations haven’t been “particularly productive.” I get it, though. The idea is that Americans might not totally understand what’s happening (in the Trayvon-Zimmerman case, it’s the insanely unfair, deeply rooted and, in fact, deadly bias that black men face and how it’s perpetuated), that we need the tools and information to do so and that providing those things will involve a lot of talking about it, both privately and publicly.

So, in response to Saletan’s request for tips, I rattled off a list of tips — mostly personal pet peeves and some general reminders. Most didn’t make the cut. In my view, his advice turned out to be more focused on keeping conversations about race calm and friendly (“put things in perspective,” “be gentle and forgiving,” “build trust,” “don’t polarize”) than on pushing for what I’d see as “constructive” talks. I worry that some of the tips — especially things like suggesting we “get past the difference” between the types of “bias” Zimmerman and Trayvon had toward each other — are at the expense of encouraging people to deal honestly with the history or contemporary nature of racial dynamics.

Saletan was upfront with his readers, admitting that the advice was “to and from a white perspective.” He sent them over to Race Manners for something from a black person.

So, if we’re going to have a “conversation on race,” I offer this nonexhaustive list of ground rules and reminders. It’s based on my hope that we can retire some of the predictable talking points and misleading themes that do nothing but derail the type of dialogue that’s been called for once again.

1. Talking about race isn’t racist. Don’t say that. Vilifying people who discuss race and point out racism — making them the bad guys — is one of the ways racism is maintained. So is acting as if “blacks suffer from racism” and “whites suffer from reverse racism” are equally valid points of view.

2. Yep, sometimes there are different standards for black and white stuff. You are going to get a different reaction for White History Month and Black History Month. A black person making a joke about race is different from a white person making a joke about race. To accept this requires letting go of the idea that this is really simple and thinking a little deeper about context and history. Please give up on the “But what if the races were reversed?” line of thinking. That type of analysis makes conversations simple, but it also makes them totally unhelpful.

3. African Americans are not monolithic. There is not one black experience or black point of view, and — surprise — black people are individuals who don’t agree on everything and shouldn’t have to answer for one another’s actions, any more than white people do. (So saying a black person can’t dislike the n-word because rappers use it doesn’t make sense. The person who stated an objection and the person who wrote the rap don’t actually share a brain.)


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