Monday, July 9, 2007

Talking about race

Why is it so hard to talk about race? This may seem a naive/obvious/pointless question to ask, but I come back to it, again and again, when I find myself in situations where race is either the main issue or subtext or pretext of the issue at hand. And all of a sudden it's like there's the proverbial elephant in the room and no one wants to offend and everyone is well intentioned and no one wants to utter the "R" word (racist/racism) and so things get swept under the rug, or not, and people get tense and everyone wants to avoid the confrontation. And more likely than not, this discussion occurs among mixed groups of whites and non-whites, of people of color and non-people of color, and even among people of color and whites, points-of-view don't always adhere the way you think they will.

I'm thinking of a particular case-in-point, but professional courtesy as well as issues of confidentiality prevent me from giving particulars. Suffice it to say, the group in question are all highly educated, liberal minded, people, trained in critical thinking and dedicated in their respective activist causes. And yet, even in such a group of people there is a tendency to hide behind politeness and an unwillingness to probe further the real role of race and white privilege, in order not to offend or because people are well intentioned.

And I admit, I hold my tongue sometimes. Because tension is hard to deal with and everyone wants to be liked and respected and it's hard to be the sole person speaking truth to power, especially when there are things like pre-tenure review and politics of academia. But I also think that at heart, I sometimes hold my tongue, not only because I don't think it's an educational moment or because it's not politically expedient but because I don't want to offend--I am caught up in my gender role of compliant female, of quiet Asian American woman. And perhaps it's not gender or race, perhaps it really just is the desire not to be mired in conflict, not to create tension, to let sleeping dogs lie.

But in my classroom, I espouse and encourage my students to speak honestly about race, and I have made this my top pedagogical priority, because I think there are far too few places to speak honestly and openly about race, particularly in mixed-race settings.

I just feel discouraged over this particular professional incident, because it seems that if the best and brightest and most liberal in our midst can't come to the table to talk about race--if we continue to feel hemmed in by a need not to place blame or not to make people feel uncomfortable, how are we going to address the real issues of inequality, oppression, and racism?

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