let's talk about race, baby


Late last night, I got into a lively conversation on Twitter with some of the brightest minds the medium has to offer -- the indomitable Danielle Henderson, Gayla Trail, Elan Morgan, Suebob Davis, Cecily Walker and Kristen Howerton, just for starters.  The topic was race, and while I won't get into all of the details (Danielle is actually writing her graduate school thesis on the crux of the matter, and I dearly hope she publishes it for everyone to read), one of the themes that emerged was a general fear, both online and off, of talking about the subject of race.  The fear comes from several sources, apparently, with fear of inadvertently offending others as well as a fear of being perceived as a racist topping the list.

Oh, darlings.

I get it, I really do:  race is a tough subject to tackle.  But as long as we live on this great big, blue, multicultural marble spinning through space that we call Earth, at some point, we're all going to have to talk about race.  And so, today, I thought I'd share my top 8 thoughts about race and racism -- understanding, of course, that I have no formal education in the field of race relations (even though i certainly have race-related experiences that I could tell you about).   For those of you who are comfortable having discussions about race, nothing I say here will likely come as a shock; however, if you're someone who tends to avoid the subject of race like the plague, I hope this gives you some peace of mind to wade in to learn and talk more about race and culture.  Because, without exaggeration, I think the fate of the planet rests on our ability to do so.

And so, here they are:

1.  No one has a monopoly on racism.   Related:  there's no such thing as "reverse racism."  It's sort of like saying "reverse hatred" or "reverse meanness."  Racism is racism, no matter what package it comes in.

2.  Understand that talking about race doesn't automatically make you a racist, any more than talking about someone's eye colour automatically makes you an eye-ist, or talking about someone's stature immediately labels you a height-ist.  Race is not a dirty word, nor are the appropriate terms for anyone's ethnicity.  Racism, however, is about bad intent, antagonism and antipathy.  The concept of race is benign.  Racism, however, isn't.

3.  When talking about race, be sure to come from a place of respect, closely followed by kindness.  Get your head in this space before you open your mouth, and 99% of the time, you won't be perceived as a racist, even if you say something that seems a bit naive.

4Beware of language that uses words like "all ____ people" or "no ____ people" -- assuming all members of a single race behave in a certain way or believe in a certain thing is wrong and, frankly, downright dangerous to assume.  Acknowledge that this type of thinking is, ultimately, stereotyping, and needs to fly out the door.  And related...

5. ... if you're speaking to someone about race who is not the same race as you are, do not assume that they are a spokesperson for every member of their race.  So, for example, the question, "Karen, why do all black people vote for Obama?" is not only a flawed question because it's just flat not true (there's that "all" word, again), it exposes a stereotyping bias in the person asking the question, as well as puts me on the spot to answer a question representing all black people everywhere, which obviously, I'm not qualified to do.

In fact, just avoid generalities as a whole.  It's safer (and more accurate) that way. 

6.  If someone sounds racist to you, call them out.  Being silent when someone says something racist or tells a racist joke does nothing except allow the racism to perpetuate.  For what it's worth, I have absolutely no tolerance for racist or sexist jokes (or, frankly, any jokes that make a mockery of any group of people), and when someone tries to tell me one, my go-to reaction is usually to give a half-hearted smile while I say, as meaningfully as possible, "I don't get it."  This reaction usually forces the joke-teller to have to explain herself, and that's a very uncomfortable place for her to be, without sounding more and more racist or sexist in the process.  It makes the point without having to be hostile.

If, however, the person isn't trying to be funny, but is actually just saying or doing something that is flat racist, then I defer to the always-brilliant Jay Smooth as to how to handle it:

7.  If someone tells you that you sound racist or used a racist term, own it.  This is an awfully uncomfortable thing to have to do, because no well-meaning person on the planet wants to sound (or even admit to sounding) racist.  But if you use a particular term that prompts someone to say to you, "Dude, I can't believe you said that, that's totally racist," just apologize -- with feeling -- and never use the term again.  Don't try to argue why it was okay for you to use it, or for heaven's sake, how it offends you that people of that race can use it among their own race, but you're not allowed to.  Just DON'T USE THE WORD AGAIN.  Besides, pointing out the bad behaviour of others is just generally a really weak defense to use to support your own bad behaviour.

8.  Being colourblind is not a virtue.  Every now and then, someone will say that they don't discriminate because "they're colourblind, and don't see differences."  This statement, while clearly well-meaning, has the effect of being a bit dismissive -- I always want to respond:  "But wait -- I'm different, do you not see me?"

Here's the thing:  I've come to believe that racism (or classism, or sexism, or homophobia, or bigotry or any other kind of discrimination) will never go away if we pretend differences don't exist.

I have come to believe that discrimination and bigotry will ONLY go away when we realize there is beauty in difference.

Say it with me, now:

There is beauty in difference.

There is beauty in difference.

There is beauty in difference.