Thursday, March 20, 2008

Excuse me, America, can we talk about race now?

Dear America,

By now, like everyone else, I'm sure you have heard the speech Barack Obama delivered in Philadelphia (here's a link in case you missed it). It's been about 24+ hours since he ended his much heralded "speech on race," and I've read some of the punditry and reactions from the blogosphere and listened to NPR (because, you know I'm a liberal-progressive, don't you?), and I realized that I really wanted to hear from YOU.

America, what do YOU think about Obama's speech? Or, more particularly, what do you think about the issue of race? There has been all sorts of speculation about who that speech was intended for. To assure/placate African Americans. To sympathize with/pander to working class white Americans. To inspire/mollify intellectual-progressive types. People on the right have accused him of simply using pretty words and empty rhetoric to hide the fact that he sat in a church pew for 20 years listening to anti-American racist hate speech. People on the left feel uplifted by his words, but are also unsure of how this speech will help advance his presidential bid.

But beyond these kind of partisan, presidential nomination politics, what did you think about the content of his speech America? About the sense of a divided America--about the anger by black Americans and white Americans? Although he focused on working class whites, I actually think that there is a fair amount of anger and frustration that white Americans feel. And there is a certain amount of anger and frustration that the rest of the racial pentagram (American Indian, Latinos, and Asian Americans) also feel.

WHY?

Why are we all so angry and frustrated over the same topic, and yet we are angry and frustrated over different aspects of the same topic? I must confess, as non-white American, I don't really understand white anger and frustration. I don't understand why a commenter who wrote in a while back (and I didn't allow the comment to go through) called me a racist for writing about race. And why others have talked about the "racialists" who want to turn everything into a matter of race when they believe race doesn't matter. Or the white pundits who claim that we are living in a post-racial society. Or questions by colleagues of mine who have asked me whether I think Barack Obama transcends race.

Why, America, do people (and it seems like the people who raise this issue are often white Americans, although perhaps non-white Americans also believe this too) believe that talking about race is the same thing as being racist? Do they just not have a basic understanding of racism--the institutional force that existed prior to race? Why don't they see race and racism the way that I do? The way that others do? Why do they act like talking about race is a bad thing--is rude--is unnecessary--that even drawing attention to race is the same as being racist?

I've already written about how we can be oversensitive about race. I know I have been extra- and over- and in- sensitive about race throughout my lifetime. But I also believe that ignoring a problem isn't going to make it go away. And we DO have a problem, America. It is a problem that half of you thinks that race isn't a problem and the other half believes that it is. And I'm not dividing your halves by "race" or along political lines--I think that these two halves, while maybe comprising more of one category than another, are also mixed.

I guess I'm asking, America--how do we really start to talk about race? And by really talking about it--I do mean to talk about it in a respectful manner. To talk about it in a way where people will, inevitably, feel uncomfortable, feel offended, feel angry and hurt and sad, and yet where a real conversation can happen--where we can really challenge each other and make something PRODUCTIVE come out of the conversation? How can we talk about race, respectfully, without name calling--agreeing to disagree, while still hearing each other?

I'm a teacher--I want to be able to hear someone who believes talking about race is the same as racism and have that person explain, to me, how s/he believes that this is true--and then I want him/her to listen to me when I explain my definition of racism and why I think talking about race is a good thing for everyone.

So America, if you have some time--please let me know. I think most people who read this blog are people who are, more or less, on the same "side" as me--but I hope that there will be some people--beyond the choir that I talk about preaching to--who will want to chime in and talk about their own frustration with race from their more conservative perspective.

[11:29am Correction: I just re-read the above sentence and it sounds so condescending--which I didn't mean it to sound like when I originally wrote it--because I am trying to get beyond this binary of a "racial divide" and the sense of there being "sides"--but I did want to try to acknowledge that for people who may have been reading my blog for a few weeks or months, you are probably people who agree with a few basic tenets I have: that racism is bad, that talking about race is good. Anyway, my apologies for the above tone--also, because I'm still a neophyte blogger, I can't quite figure out a way to do that nifty strike-out thing that shows how one is self-consciously editing--hence this odd interruption/correction.]

So to that end, I'm allowing anonymous comments for the next 24 hours in the hopes that I can reach a wider audience of people who can say what they want to say in a respectful manner, but without worrying about revealing their real (or even pseudonymous) identity. I will still reserve the right to moderate, but aside from ad-hominem attacks and really egregious comments, I'll probably let people speak for themselves.

Thanks America--I'm eager to hear what you have to say.

Sincerely,
The Blogger of Mixed Race America

PS. Getting back to the Obama speech--I do think that one of the most positive things to emerge from his speech is that people are talking about race--and that various groups (beyond the pundits and talking-blogging heads) are demonstrating a real desire to have honest and productive conversations about race--here's a New York Times article that shows the various groups who are initiating dialogues about race inspired by the content of Obama's speech.

11 comments:

seansmommy said...

I don't think talking about race is the same as racism but as a white person I think I can shed some light on why it makes white people uncomfortable. At least in my experience white people are taught that the only way for a person to not be racist is to not notice someones race. Because of this anything relating to race can make us uncomfortable. For instance, when I was in college, there was an African-American boy who was hitting on me and would not stop. When I told my boyfriend about it I did not mention that the guy was African-American because saying that made me feel like a racist. So, I think that maybe white people feel if we comment on race we are somehow becoming racist and we want to avoid that. I think it is often a genuine attempt to be better people. We want to be good people (all of us of every race) but those of us who are white feel that being good is equal to not noticing.
I am white there is no denying it and I am not trying to. However, in my older years I have come to resent the term "white people" or "caucasian" I identify myself as Irish. Some people find that a silly distinction. But for me it is about claiming something more than just a white existence that allows no culture or identity. I don't know how that really fits in with this discussion but I felt compelled to write it. Anyway, that is my take. :)

atlasien said...

I'll have to plug my own blog post here -- White Guilt, White Resentment -- because this is a topic I've been thinking about a lot, and I have some theories about it. In short, I think it's a guilt/resentment complex tied to the symbolism of suffering.

The Constructivist said...

I agree a belief that professing color-blindness is equivalent to not only being anti-racist but ending racism is a huge stumbling block for many white people. I try to help them past it here (a reposting of an essay I wrote over a decade ago while a grad student). What I find most troubling about color-blindness now is the Pavlovian assumption that to notice race is to automatically be taken over by racist stereotypes; the problem with this assumption is that pretending not to notice it doesn't make it any easier to recognize and confront the stereotypes. Or rather, pretending that one's perceptions and emotions have not been shaped (in part) through ideologies and fantasies of race is precisely what blocks people from confronting those ideologies and fantasies directly.

Still, in my ten years of teaching in a rural, rust belt, predominantly white ethnic, public university, having taught dozens of courses that deal with race and thousands of students, I'm still asking the questions you're asking, Jennifer. But I have some suspicions and guesses.

One is the privilege the color-blind position grants you: "I've transcended race, why can't/won't you?"

Another is the fact that many of my students retreated to this position specifically as a rebellion against racist family members and friends. So when someone else seems to assume their complicity with the people they've often painfully rejected or become estranged from--particularly when that someone else is visibly non-white--they feel mischaracterized/stereotyped and use that same defense they honed against their own loved ones against the perceived accuser.

Others simply don't want to air their family's dirty laundry and are deeply ashamed of how long it took them to realize some of their relatives were racist and would rather just not talk about the topic at all, so retreat into a self-willed blindness and try to enforce it on others.

Others are racist and use color-blindness as a smokescreen to hide their racism, or as a veil to hide behind while they wrestle with it on their own or with their closest friends.

In any case, what I've been trying to get my students to do is reflect and write honestly and thoughtfully about their own experiences and relate them to the theories and writings I've assigned to them. You can see how some of them have responded at American Identities.

I'm working up a more specific response to Obama's speech over at CitizenSE. One of many spring break projects....

Jennifer said...

Thanks Seansmommy, Atlasien, and The Constructivist--I wanted to acknowledge my appreciation for all of you sending in such thoughtful comments--and to also say that I'm going to hold off on writing anything more than my gratefulness in the hopes that others will be chiming in with more to say.

dance said...

What I liked most about Obama's speech was not so much what he said, but how he structured it. To talk about race, we have to think about history. We have to understand where people are coming from and what drives their emotions. We have to recognize that a woman can love her black grandson *and* see all young black men as thugs at the same time. I thought it set a nice model for talking about race.

(Atlasien, I liked your White Resentment post)

The Constructivist said...

It's hard to tell where Griffin is going at first in this post, but it's an interesting way of looking at the costs of color-blindness in American politics any way you cut it.

dance said...

The Chronicle has produced an appropriate First Person for this occasion.

Jennifer said...

To everyone who left comments for this post and who included links to articles/posts on this subject, I really appreciate you engaging so thoughtfully and actively with this topic. I especially appreciated people who disclosed their own ideas/reflections/memories about race and America and why it's so difficult to have an open dialogue about race. I think it'd often hard in this space--doing it face to face can become even more of a challenge (although sometimes easier depending on the format/time period that you have--like doing it in a classroom, for example).

I sometimes despair about this--I want SO MUCH TO CHANGE AND TO CHANGE NOW. But I have to believe in small steps--of trying to meet people where they are, but to also not back down and speak my own truth.

Case in point: I recently had dinner with some older white people who were born and raised in "The South." They are a fairly liberal couple, but they also are products of their region and class. And one person mentioned reparations for slavery. And in an effort to try to show me (as I find many liberal white Southerners trying to do with me) that she was not bigoted and recognized racial issues--she equated the problem of race as being someone that ALL people have to go through--whites as well as blacks have prejudice--but then she said that she really didn't understand the need for slavery reparations because SHE was not responsible for such a thing of the past.

I took a deep, internal, breath, and said that while I obviously couldn't speak for African Americans, I believed that what most African Americans wanted wasn't necessarily a monetary remuneration, it was recognition of the historic trauma and tragedy of slavery--the horror of this condition which took hold institutionally and socially and culturally--so that even NOW we are feeling the after-effects of it as a nation--and that African Americans, in particular, feel the sting all too well. They wanted not an apology or money per se, but a real understanding and recognition of this HISTORY. To have people KNOW what happened--not just in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the ramifications of the slave trade and the system of slavery throughout the 20th century--and that the Civil Rights movement didn't make everything OK. That there is still work to be done. I gave a few concrete examples and I didn't raise my voice or seem agitated--I went into "teacher" mode. And the couple I spoke to really seemed to listen and agreed with me and said that they hadn't thought of it that way before.

Did I "convert" them? No. And that wasn't what I was trying to do. I was trying to give them a different perspective and understanding about this--to give them the nuance and the longer and larger history of race and why racism is so difficult to talk about. I'm not telling this story to pat myself on the back--but to say that I have to believe that this dialogue is possible. It does require effort--it is tiring to do this kind of work--and you do have to know the history and not get upset--and this can be hard depending on the subject. But I want to BELIEVE that it's possible.

Which is why I'm so grateful to anyone who leaves a comment on my blog with a very insightful observation--it gives me hope that people really do wnat to talk about these things.

CVT said...

Wow - I missed out on some good blogs (I just got back from a week spent in Hawaii . . . a week finally "blending in" with a crowd - felt damn good, but that's not the point here).

Anyway - I just wanted to chime in.

I am currently teaching a "Tolerance" class (basically, Race and Ethnicity and Civil Rights) at my middle school. On the second day of class, I had the students simply introduce themselves in terms of their personal racial/ethnic identification, and then their family background.

Of course, this instantly made everyone a little bit uncomfortable, but kids volunteered, and the ball got rolling . . . to the point where the only kids who struggled with it were the white students - there were many questions of "what do you mean?" and "I identify as (enter their name here)" to the question of "how do you identify yourself, racially or ethnically?" After some gentle coaxing and explaining, they were able to come up with (usually), "white, I guess." But it was really interesting because NOT ONE of the students of color (those who identified as such) had any problem with the question and answer.

This may seem obvious to some, but here's my explanation: because the kids of color (and later, adults) have to contend with their racial identity from Day One. It's something they have no choice but to think about, and confront, and talk about. Therefore, the concept of talking about one's race - although still a little awkward for them (especially in a school context, where a traditionally conservative "don't talk about race" culture prevails) - wasn't too difficult (and even became exciting for them when they realized that I really was open to REAL discussions about it).

The white students (those who identified as such), on the other hand, clearly felt uncomfortable having to identify (this often happens with adults, as well). It is something that they are not regularly confronted with and therefore don't have to think about. So, simply out of less time spent talking/thinking about their own race, they were less comfortable talking about it in general. I think there is also a lot to be said about the "guilt" related to it - hard for them to get around the feeling that "being white" could be used as a label of blame in a situation like that. (I would like to add, however, that once class got going, and they realized that I was open to all sides of the discussion, these students have since gotten more comfortable with it - at least in the context of my class).

I could write a whole book about the interesting things that have come from this class and other situations I've been in, professionally.

One last note, though - in a staff diversity training I did a couple years back with the staff of an arts camp I work with in the summer (working with a similar population of "at-risk" kids as in my middle school), I recall many (I won't say "all," but it was most) of the white staff being blown away by my claim that open acknowledgement of my racial identity is all I want, sometimes. That if somebody wonders what my background is, they should ask me with honest curiosity and respect - because I know they think it, anyway, and if they ignore it, then it's like they are dismissing it.

When other staff of color agreed with me on that one, those white staffers were shocked. They had a VERY difficult time wrapping their heads around the idea that it was OKAY to ask a person of color questions about their racial experience. So much so that to NOT do so could be taken as dismissive.

Many white people grow up being told that it is racist to think anything other than "race doesn't matter," and so it is hard to understand the tendency for people of color to claim that race really DOES matter - and A LOT. It's totally counter-intuitive to what people are raised to believe, and I think that causes a lot of these "color-blind" claims and issues. It's hard for people raised that way to understand the inherent difference in "race SHOULDN'T matter" (in employment, education, etc.) and the acknowledgement that race TOTALLY CHANGES a person's experience and how they are treated in the world. Two different things, but if you're taught to believe that only racists think race makes people different, it's hard to get that one.

Another long one, and I still have so much to say about this one. Makes me feel like starting a new blog just to get all this transcribed . . .

Jennifer said...

CVT,
Welcome back from Hawaii--I am very envious that you got to go--and I totally hear you about feeling like you were finally in a place where you could blend in and feel comfortable. That was my experience, also, when I visited there a few years ago.

As usual, I really appreciate the depth and thoughtfulness of your observations on race--and especially enjoying hearing the stories you tell about your students and their own understandings and challenges with thinking and articulating their ideas about race.

And I think you are absolutely on point with the difficulty of getting people to understand that talking about race is not the same as being racist--that ignoring race is not the desired goal for people of color--it is to not let race be a barrier in equality, but certainly we also recognize that since race is so often understand and equated with the non-white, then rather than pretend like it's not there, we really need more not less dialogue.

Eastern Reflections said...

I like a lot of what seansmommy AND CVT said.


I want to add to....but I don't know quite how to phrase it without sounding confusing and long-winded, but I always do anyways, so here goes...when you mentioned that you didn't understand "white anger" (paraphrasing here) it reminded me of an article I read about. It featured a mid-western rural white farmer who you would think would be red, republican, conservative, which he was none. He was Democrat and supported Obama in the beginning UNTIL he made the statement that caused such an uproar about small town people clinging to their guns and religion when faced with the unfamiliar.

The man in the interview switched to voting for McCain. In the beginning he had supported Obama whole-heartedly, especially in regards to his health care ideas, pulling out of Iraq immediately, etc. But he felt accosted by Obama's statement. He owns guns and has owned and used them since he was a child. And now he was wondering how the new administration in the White House (that connects so deeply with urban people) would connect with people from the more rural areas.

I agreed with Obama on that statement, but only to a certain extent. Things such as guns and church-going really are a part of Southern and mid-western culture, whether you are black or white.....not far down the road from my childhood home there was a hunt club (mostly made up of white guys) but I remember at nights when I was in bed I often heard gunshots in the woods that came from the local neighbors (mostly black men) hunting rabbits and raccoons in the woods at night. I often heard conversations about the proper way to "dress" a deer or using vinegar to get the "gamey wild taste" out. These people having grown up on farmland, and having guns for hunting and protection and learning at an early age how to use and handle them.

...or attending a black congregational Church or an Evangelical one with mixed congregation and seeing just how DEEP and profound their belief and faith runs.

It really is just one aspect of their identity.

I am not talking about the crazies in the NRA and such and people demanding we own anything from RPG's to machine guns b/c it's their "god-given right" or what not or Churches and congregations that harbor very disturbing ideas....can you say the Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church?....but average people :-p.

Any segment of society, no matter if they are a minority or not can feel disenfranchised and left out if an aspect that they identify with is criticized/mocked. How easy is it to crack jokes about "white trash" and their "trailer park antics" but everyone feeling uncomfortable when a joke about a Jewish person or a black person is mentioned?