I really have a hard time discussing race and racism. I start to stumble over my words more than I usually do. I am afraid that my intentions are misunderstood. I tend to keep my thoughts to myself during these discussions, in order to prevent myself from saying something inappropriate or insensitive.
Interestingly, I work for a minority-run organization, I write for a Black-owned newspaper, and my partner is African-American as well: I can imagine that other white people, especially those that do not have the fortune of knowing many non-whites, struggle with this.
As you might have noticed, in the previous sentence I used minority, Black, African American, and non-white to refer to one and the same constituency. I did that on purpose so I could bring up one of the struggles regarding discussing race.
I think that some people do not like the referenced term "Black" and prefer "African-American". But what if someone is Caribbean American or African or Pacific Islander or Hispanic? It would not be appropriate if I referred to her or him as African American or is it?
The word minority also seems completely off. Minority is less than majority. Less of what? Less in quantity? Not where I work or live. I don't feel at all that I am working for or with minorities. Leaves us with non-white, but that is also unfair. As if we are dumping everyone that is not white into one other category? Nah, doesn't feel right either.
This is just an example, but it hits the nail on the head with what is in the way of having truthful open discussions on race. White people and racial minorities often cannot relate when talking race and racism. It's not just a matter of using the right words and expressions, but it is also how we experience and perceive the whole concept of race.
When white people think about racism, they often think about obvious and intentional racism such as racial slurs or blatantly discriminating someone based of the color of their skin. And although this is reality and of concern, the actual threat nowadays comes from more subtle and complex forms of racism.
The rookie cop that shot Mr. Gurley, did not wake up in the morning with the thought "I am going to kill a black person today", but perhaps there is a level of institutional conditioning at play — to be more afraid of black people than of white people — that might have contributed to the police officer pulling the trigger leading to Mr. Gurley's demise.
Same for the officer that choked Mr. Garner. I don't believe that the officer took Mr. Garner in a chokehold because he was black per se. However, in my opinion the officers actions might have been racially biased. If the officer was racially biased towards thinking that black people are more dangerous than white people, it could have unconsciously led to him use more force than would have been the case otherwise. We probably will never know for sure. But here's something new for you: racial bias is not something reserved for police officers — it looms in all of us.
During a particular study to asses someone's level of racism (see Project Implicit), participants are asked to categorize photos of individuals as either African American or European American while at the same time categorizing words as either good or bad words. Sometimes the participant is asked to sort African American faces and good words to one side of the screen. Other times, black faces are to be sorted with bad words.
The participant, in an attempt to not come off as racist, will try to assign bad and good words to African and European American photos alike. However what the participant does not realize is that she or he is actually being tested on the time it takes to assign either negative or positive words to African or European Americans.
It appears that the vast majority of participants, both black and white, is much faster at pairing negative words with photos of African Americans. This implies that most of us are racially biased whether we want it or not. See also the following article: The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men. By the way this is not the only study. There is tons of research that shows that people in general are racially biased.
To me this is shocking, but it is also helpful. Because now that we know this, the first step to having meaningful conversations on racism is to acknowledge that we are racially biased. Phrases such as "I am color blind", "I have many black friends", and "I am not a racist" do not add anything, because by saying that, you ignore the fact that you are racially biased regardless.
What does help is acknowledge, learn, listen, act, and in case of making a mistake, apologize. I would like for you to see Franchesca Ramsey's video blog that was posted in the Huffington Post. She describes in a succinct way what it takes to meaningfully contribute to conversations on race and racism.
The first thing she says is, that in order to make a contribution, you have to understand your privilege. Don't think of privilege as having more money and never having to experience hardship or struggle. Privilege simply means that there are some things in life that you will never have to experience or think about simply because of who you are. That makes sense to me.
A couple of other things to take into account when opening up the discussion on race and racism. Reject the "he was a good kid" narrative: it supports the notion that as a norm black people are not good and have a tendency towards crime.
Another one: "All lives matter" versus "Black lives matter". Some are arguing for changing "Black lives matter" into "All lives matter". This will ignore the issue altogether. It's like walking into a convention about cancer and shouting to all the participants present, that there are also other diseases out there that require attention.
Being mindful on language seems to be a recurring theme. That's the scary part, because a lot of time white people say stuff without realizing that it offends someone. So when discussing race it might be good to start with saying something like:
"Ok, I would like to talk to you about race, but I'm not an expert and I might make mistakes. I have no intention to do that but I want to learn. If I offend you in any way, will you let me know immediately so we can make it part of this conversation?"
By the way, being open to discussing race does not mean that from now on you have to bring up race and racism every time you encounter someone of another racial makeup. People of color are not necessarily busy with race all the time. And because someone is black, does not mean that he or she is or wants to be considered an expert on racism either. Most importantly, race is not the only thing that defines people of color.
I know, it seems like there are so many rules, but no-one said it would be easy. I think it really is all about mindfulness and a willingness to learn.
I would like to end with a quote from Chris Rock from a recent interview with Frank Rich in New York Magazine:
"So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he's the first black person that is qualified to be president. That's not black progress. That's white progress. [ ] There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let's hope America keeps producing nicer white people."