A guide to talking about race

With the Michael Brown shooting leading the news and talk about possible ISIS attacks in the United States, racial and ethnic profiling is in the spotlight once again.  And you hear people saying that we need to have a conversation about race.  We keep talking about having one and somehow it never happens.  This is why I was interested to see Charles Blow’s recent column in the New York Times titled “Constructing a Conversation on Race.”

Let’s start with understanding what a racial conversation shouldn’t look like. It shouldn’t be an insulated, circular, intra-racial dialogue only among people who feel aggrieved.

A true racial dialogue is not intra-racial but interracial. It is not one-directional — from minorities to majorities — but multidirectional. Data must be presented. Experiences must be explored. Histories and systems must be laid bare. Biases, fears, stereotype and mistrust must be examined. Personal — as well as societal and cultural — responsibility must be taken.

And privileges and oppressions must be acknowledged. We must acknowledge how each of us is, in myriad ways, materially and spiritually affected by a society in which bias has been widely documented to exist and in which individuals also acknowledge that it exists

We all carry our own baggage:  an encounter with someone of a different race or background that didn’t go well; a perceived slight; or feeling passed over for someone for what we felt were racial reasons.  We may talk about these things within our own circles which are often made up of people just like us.  I am usually one of the very few Asian Americans in any group and it was only when I moved to Boston that I could be on the street or even in a meeting that was predominantly Asian.  And now I’ve moved to Vermont which is one of the whitest states and where my sister and I have already been confused because we have the same last name.  I have been referred to as “white” which somehow offends me but I think it is meant as a kind of compliment.  Race can be a no win thing.

Blow continues

I often tell people that while I know well that things aren’t fair or equal, we still have to decide how we are going to deal with that reality, today. The clock on life is ticking. If you wait for life to be fair you may be waiting until life is over. I urge people to fight on two fronts: Work to dismantle as much systematic bias as you can, as much for posterity as for the present, and make the best choice you can under the circumstances to counteract the effects of these injustices on your life right now.

He also advises that we should think about what we mean by race.

Next, understand that race is a weaponized social construct used to divide and deny.

According to a policy statement on race by the American Anthropological Association, “human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups” and “there is greater variation within ‘racial’ groups than between them.”

The statement continues:

“How people have been accepted and treated within the context of a given society or culture has a direct impact on how they perform in that society. The ‘racial’ worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth. The tragedy in the United States has been that the policies and practices stemming from this worldview succeeded all too well in constructing unequal populations among Europeans, Native Americans, and peoples of African descent.”

It ends:

“We conclude that present-day inequalities between so-called ‘racial’ groups are not consequences of their biological inheritance but products of historical and contemporary social, economic, educational, and political circumstances.”

We need to think hard about why race and ethnicity are among the first things we recognize about someone and what we see is often not how the person thinks of herself.  One thing seems clear.   We need to talk and think about race a great deal more constructively that most current conversations where the parties can never get past their anger.  Maybe we can start the discussion by talking about Mr Blow’s column,

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