I need to start talking about race

I’m a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, university graduated, middle class American man. Granted, I am gay, but other than that, I’m pretty representative of the dominant culture in the United States. And somewhere in the process of growing up, I learned the message that I shouldn’t be racist but also that it isn’t really my place to talk about race. After all, that’s something that African-Americans or Latinx or Asian-American people are better placed to talk about. After all, what do I know about racism? It would be racist of me to talk about race, wouldn’t it? I’ve come to realize that, quite the opposite, it is necessary for me to start talking about race.

The realization began with a question. After reading the news of the brutal, senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and then George Floyd, I asked myself, “What is it going to take for things to change?” And somewhere in the silence that followed that question, instead of just shrugging my shoulders and moving my attention to the next story, the first strains of an answer started to enter my mind.

These first strains started to unlock something in my mind. They started to stir my heart. And they started to dissolve the scales on my eyes. Because I realized that nothing will change, so long as people like me have the passing thought, “Oh, that’s a shame” in reaction to stories of racist brutality and then move on to the next story. Nothing will change, until people like me start to give a damn. Nothing will change until people like me really act like, if all lives matter then black and brown lives matter, too, instead of just saying it.

And by “people like me”, let me be clear that I mean white people.

So this is the start of my journey. In talking about race, I am going to make a lot of mistakes, to unintentionally insult people and to demonstrate my ignorance many times over. But that’s okay, because we don’t learn by staying in the comfort zone. I can already see that this journey will require a lot of courage, because it quickly becomes clear: I am part of the problem. We (white people) are part of the problem – a big part! And thankfully, we can also be part of the solution. In fact, we have no choice.

After I asked that question, “What is it going to take for things to change?” and started to realize I needed to look for some answers instead of letting the question be rhetorical, I found my first resource: Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a sociologist who for many years has worked in the fields of multicultural education and whiteness studies. Her 2018 book, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” was revelatory and challenging.

You can watch an 80-minute talk she gave in Seattle where she outlines the book or you can watch this five-minute video that hits the key message. There is a lot to unpack in the book and I’ll start sharing my thoughts on that in my next post.

In the meantime, I’ve started with two steps: educate myself and start talking about race. I’m reading and watching and listening to new and different sources of information. And I’m speaking about race, asking questions and listening to the answers in conversations with friends, family members and others around me.

And I look forward to sharing my journey with you.

13 thoughts on “I need to start talking about race

  1. I am a lot like you…I never have considered myself a racist ( shoot I dated a black college classmate back in the 70’s and just about gave my parents heart failure) and I STILL DON’T….but that doesn’t seem to be enough for a lot of folks. I think my main stumbling block is that it seems like our freedom to have our own place on the “spectrum” or our own thoughts is being denied by a lot of people. There was a post on a local TV Stations’ FB page yesterday about a Back the Blue support march in Tampa…I simply commented that “I will be there marching with you in spirit” and I received some really VILE comments not only on the post thread but also into my Private Messages. Why can’t I support our LEO’s AND our Black Brothers and Sisters?? My oldest daughter said that I shouldn’t be upset about the riots and destruction all over our country…that I should concentrate on the “message” of the peaceful protesters. I told her that I can walk and chew gum at the same time….I agree with the message of the peaceful protesters, but I also hate the violence and destruction because I truly believe that there are people …with a lot of money ….behind those rioters who’s goal is the destruction of the country that I love. What we need is for someone….a modern day MLK to come forward and help both sides of this truly LISTEN….and for the HEARTS of people to be changed…on both sides. Equal rights means EQUAL….and I feel like equal rights isn’t going to satisfy a lot of folks who are on the extreme fringes of the protesters..they want MORE than equal…and that is where I dig in my heels. I will follow your journey…I will listen to the podcast ….and I will keep my mind and my heart open….I hope that others will keep their minds and hearts open too.

    • Thanks for sharing Ruth. That last part – keeping our mind and heart open – is the best way to counter the extreme hostility and division in our world. As my now-deceased paternal grandmother was fond of saying, “Only a fool and a dead man never change their minds.”

  2. Always a treat to see your thoughts on the screen! Racism is definitely a topic most people seem uncomfortable with even with the circumstances so thank you for opening the door! It’s a topic that deserves attention! There are so many layers of racism in society… It may start with “white people”, but it goes deeper than that. It is everywhere! Every “black” person I know has been turned down on a date, house or job because of “race” or mistreated by the police at some point… I have heard many business owners say they are less likely to hire someone of color because it might bring in less money/ business in stores! I am always shocked by their stories. It’s the dominant culture and also the general society that perpetuates it. It is refreshing to see that white people are verbally acknowledging it now and not pretending it isn’t there because it is deeply ingrained. Thank you for your honesty.

    • You are welcome and thanks for your comment. I am committed to continuing to read and write about this topic in the hope that it provokes myself and others to change things.

  3. You always make me think and I recently realized just how critical it is for me to honestly look at how I have contributed to the current culture here in America. Its uncomfortable, but let’s face it I am the product of the white middle class and I’ve spent very little time understanding what that means. I don’t have a huge sphere of influence, I’m semi-retired and have a rather small circle of friends and family. But then I realized that’s exactly why we are where we are today! I have small grandchildren and that inspired me to not just have conversations about race, but truly focus on solutions for future generations. I have no idea where that will lead me and I’m sure I’ll be wrong more often than not. But it’s time to listen and learn and more importantly, make the sacrifices necessary to secure real change. Thank you for the post and conversation.

  4. I’ve been educating myself as well. It is extremely difficult to have a conversation about race when many of my friends just. don’t. want. to. talk! I’m not sure where they stand. I find that now that I’ve retired I have very little contact with POC. When I was working I worked with a very diverse group of Post Docs, Grad Students and under grads as well as professors. During a diversity training course we were broken into sm. groups and asked to discuss instances where we felt discriminated against. Being only 1 of 2 caucasians in the group I heard a variety of stories that went from physical violence to one POC refusing to acknowledge that he had ever experienced anything discrimatory (he seemed convinced that speaking negatively would open him to some unknown retribution). I believe it will take some very concerted effort on both sides to have honest and healing discussions. My goal is to be educated and willing to participate when the opportunity arises.

    • Thanks for sharing. I’ve found a similar range of responses when talking with people in my circle. Some have a lot to say but others are really hesitant to speak.

  5. You are very right. For something about racism to change, the dominant majority has to talk about. Until now, they partially didn’t care (since it doesn’t affect them) or were told by the minorities it’s not their place to talk about it.
    But it’s similar with feminism or LGBTQ (I hope I didn’t miss out any letter) … as long as they were minority movements, they weren’t taken too seriously. Mainstream improved the situation (I say improved, I am not suggesting we fixed it).
    Of course, with mainstream comes some “white washing” and some of the core believes might get lost. I suppose to overcome any form of discrimination, a compromise position/solution has to be found.

    • The example from the book that really caught my attention was around suffrage, the right of women to vote. Dr. DiAngelo explained that because only men could vote, there was no way for women to change the system. They could protest, they could agitate, etc. but ultimately it was men who had to vote to give women that right. Same way with any system of oppression, the majority has to be the one to change things.

  6. Wonderful entry… thanks for doing this. Even I as a visible minority will also have blind spots and will have to unlearn some behaviour / thinking. We’re not immune to this. How is this being portrayed in Thailand?

  7. Pingback: Talking about race, part 2 | christao408

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