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Do We Really Know How to Talk About Racism?

I often hear that as a society we need to learn to confront racism and talk about both race and racism head-on, but sometimes I wonder if any of us really know how to talk about racism. And I don’t mean in the academic way that delineates the effects of racism in its many different forms, but I mean talking about race in a way that promotes real and meaningful exchange. For instance, how do you challenge (let’s say) a relatively well-meaning white person to think about their privilege and assess some of their own biases without allowing the ugly head of “offense” to tamper with the conversation? Now many of course, would say, that this is not the point. Quite valiantly, I have many friends who are tired of having to explain themselves—their identities, opinions, values—to people whom they feel might never understand anyway. And I can completely understand this viewpoint.

But at the same time I realize that much of our racial turbulence occurs in very tepid ways in everyday interactions. In my case, they can occur when I’m interacting with some of my peers at school and we’re talking about a particularly touchy subject. In other cases they can occur at work. Some of the most persistent forms of “racism” (And I’m using the term sloppily) that get under our skin occurs in very banal ways—in what we consider trivial questions like “how/why do you wear a weave?” or silly assumptions like “oh black people can dance so well!,” these encounters, in my opinion, are moments of possible exchange and mutual enlightenment, because usually they come from ignorance—not particularly from animosity. And I usually take on these challenges to talk about race, because frustrating as it may become, I think the micro-level racial discourse is about trying to get people to understand where you are coming from. And frankly, I don’t want to just talk about racism with people who will agree with me—that stifles progress by keeping us ensnared within our own poles of opinion.

Now of course, things are a lot harder than this. Just because I might want to turn every awkward racial moment into a moment of true and honest exchange doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. A lot of people are resistant, and as this one interesting TED talk pointed out, it’s hard to talk about racism—especially with white people—without the implication that some is being called a racist. But what I am really talking about here is the effort. A lot of friends and family I know become acclimated to the racial misunderstandings that occur in their daily lives, and it festers within them because they feel that there is no point in talking about it because it won’t help anything. In many cases, we might have to face facts that we cannot change everyone’s mind or try to turn every interaction into a place for honest dialogue. But I do think that we should continue our effort to promote cross-cultural racial understanding, to not become too deterred by the minor inconveniences we face everyday, because in our pessimism we really won’t anywhere.

I would hope, that by continuing to discuss race with people in these most hot-button moments we develop a practice of talking about race. And through multiple interactions and multiple conversations, we can begin to create a language of exchange. The more I engage with these frustrating conversations, the more I understand how to talk about race in a way that keeps people form being offended, that learns to listen to other’s views, while still managing to assert mine. It’s not perfect, and at time does feel futile—but it’s a practice, to which I am willing to fully commit.