So You Want to Talk About Race (4 page)

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Furthermore, ignoring the factor of institutional support of racial bias as a component of racism means that we erase the real harm done by that institutional
support. When we say, “all racial prejudice is equally harmful,” we are denying a large portion of the harm done to people of color and cutting ourselves off from opportunities to repair that harm. But when we acknowledge racism as a part of a system, instead of being limited to our ability to win over racists, we can instead focus on how our actions interact with systemic racism. No, the problem
isn’t just that a white person may think black people are lazy and that hurts people’s feelings, it’s that the belief that black people are lazy reinforces and is reinforced by a general dialogue that believes the same, and uses that belief to justify not hiring black people for jobs, denying black people housing, and discriminating against black people in schools.

We have to remember that racism
was designed to support an economic and social system for those at the very top. This was never motivated by hatred of people of color, and the goal was never in and of itself simply the subjugation of people of color. The ultimate goal of racism was the profit and comfort of the white race, specifically, of rich white men. The oppression of people of color was an easy way to get this wealth
and power, and racism was a good way to justify it. This is not about sentiment beyond the ways in which our sentiment is manipulated to maintain an unjust system of power.

And our emotions, ignorance, fear and hate have been easily manipulated to feed the system of White Supremacy. And we have to address all of this, our emotions, our ignorance, our fear, and our hate—but we cannot ignore the
system that takes all of that, magnifies it, and uses it to crush the lives and liberty of people of color to enrich the most privileged of white society.

W
HILE ALL OF THE ABOVE MAY MAKE SENSE AS YOU ARE
reading it now, I understand that it does little to help in conversations where people are entrenched in their definition of racism that does not consider systems of power. So how do you move
forward in discussion of race when accusations of “reverse racism” and “racism against whites” start flying?

First off, understand that this is almost always a defensive reaction to feelings of fear, guilt, or confusion. This is an attempt either to move conversation to a place where the person you are talking to is more comfortable, or to end the conversation completely.

Consider restating
your intention in engaging in this conversation and ask the person you are talking to to confirm what they are talking about: “I am talking about issues of systemic racism, which is measurably impacting the health, wealth, and safety of millions of people of color. What are you talking about right now?”

Often, if somebody is just trying to use “reverse racism” arguments to shut you down, this
is where they will just repeat themselves or claim that you are a hypocrite if you will not shift the conversation instead to the grievances against them that they just decided to bring up. If this happens, it is pretty obvious that you aren’t actually having a conversation and it is probably best to walk away and maybe try again later if productive conversation is actually your goal.

But if
somebody does want a productive conversation and genuinely believes that being called “cracker” is the same as being called “nigger” and feels angry and invalidated by the insistence that both do not meet your definition of racism, they will say so. This is an educational opportunity. This is a great way to let that person know that you do hear them, and that your experiences do not erase theirs because
even though their experience is valid, it is a different experience.

A response I’ve used is, “What was said to you wasn’t okay, and should be addressed. But we are talking about two different things. Being called “cracker” hurts, may even be humiliating. But after those feelings fade, what measurable impact will it have on your life? On your ability to walk the streets safely? On your ability
to get a job? How often has the word “cracker” been used to deny you services? What measurable impact has this word had on the lives of white Americans in general?”

In all honesty, from my personal experience, you are still not likely to get very far in that conversation, not right away. But it gives people something to think about. These conversations, even if they seem fruitless at first, can
plant a seed to greater understanding.

If you want to further understanding of systemic racism even more among the people you interact with, you can try to link to the systemic effects of racism whenever you talk about racism. Instead of posting on Facebook: “This teacher shouted a racial slur at a Hispanic kid and should be fired!” you can say all that, and then add, “This behavior is linked
to the increased suspension, expulsion, and detention of Hispanic youth in our schools and sets an example of behavior
for the children witnessing this teacher’s racism that will influence the way these children are treated by their peers, and how they are treated as adults.” I do this often when I’m talking about racism, and pretty regularly somebody will comment with something like, “That’s
an aspect of this situation I hadn’t considered, thank you.”

If you hear someone at the water cooler say, “black people are always late,” you can definitely say, “Hey, that’s racist” but you can also add, “and it contributes to false beliefs about black workers that keeps them from even being interviewed for jobs, while white workers can be late or on time, but will always be judged individually
with no risk of damaging job prospects for other white people seeking employment.” That also makes it less likely that someone will brush you off saying “Hey, it’s not that big of a deal, don’t be so sensitive.”

Tying racism to its systemic causes and effects will help others see the important difference between systemic racism, and anti-white bigotry. In addition, the more practice you have
at tying individual racism to the system that gives it power, the more you will be able to see all the ways in which you can make a difference. Yes, you can demand that the teacher shouting racial slurs at Hispanic kids should be fired, but you can also ask what that school’s suspension rate for Hispanic kids is, ask how many teachers of color they have on staff, and ask that their policies be reviewed
and reformed. Yes, you can definitely report your racist coworker to HR, but you can also ask your company management what processes they have in place to minimize racial bias in their hiring process, you can ask for more diversity in management and cultural sensitivity training for staff, and you can ask what procedures they have in place to handle allegations of racial discrimination.

When
we look at racism as a system, it becomes much larger and more complicated than it seemed before—but there is also more opportunity to address the various parts of it. And that is what the rest of this book attempts to at least begin to do, chapter by chapter. So now that we know what racism is, let’s get to work.

| three |
What if I talk about race wrong?

W
HEN MY WHITE MOTHER GAVE BIRTH TO ME, AND
later my brother, in Denton, Texas, she became the subject of a lot of racial commentary in her conservative southern community. But surprisingly, my mother and I had our first really substantive conversation about race late in my life, when I was thirty-four years old. I was well into my career in writing
about culture and social justice and my opinions and identity around race were pretty well documented by then. But the truth is, like many families, our conversations growing up mostly revolved around homework, TV shows, and chores.

While I was growing up, my mother had given the obligatory speeches that all parents of black children must give: don’t challenge cops, don’t be surprised if you
are followed at stores, some people will be mean to you because of your beautiful brown skin, no you can’t have the same hairstyle as your friends because your hair doesn’t do that. But those conversations were one-offs that ceased to be necessary once we were old enough to see the reality of race for ourselves.

Having a white mother, my siblings and I likely had even fewer conversations about
race than black children raised by black parents, because there was a lot about our lives that our mother’s whiteness made it hard for her to see. My mother loved our blackness as much as was possible for any nonblack person to do, she loved our brown skin, our kinky hair, our full lips, our culture, and our history. She thought we were beauty incarnate.

Our mom never thought that our blackness
would hold us back in life—she thought we could rule the world. But that optimism and starry-eyed love was, in fact, born from her whiteness. It was almost impossible for her to see all of the everyday hurdles we had to jump, the tiny cuts of racism that we endured throughout our lives. For our mom, we were black and beautiful and smart and talented and kind—and that’s all that mattered. And in
the confines of our home, it
was
all that mattered. But as we left home, and our mom began to see us interact as adults with the real world, she began to suspect that there was more to being black in this world than she had previously thought. I could tell that this made my mom uncomfortable, to know that the babies that she had birthed from her own body had entire universes she couldn’t see,
so the more that my world and my career became focused on race, the less my mom acknowledged it. She just really didn’t know what to say.

It was in this context that I received a voicemail from her one evening in 2015. It had the same unnecessary enthusiasm that all my mom’s voicemails seem to have, but the topic was definitely new.

“Ijeoma, call me. I’ve had an epiphany. About race. It’s important.”

I talk about race for a living, which means I have had a
lot
of uncomfortable conversations on the topic. Quite often, well-meaning white people will attempt to show me how much they “get it” by launching into racial dialogues filled with assumptions, stereotypes, and microaggressions that they are completely unaware of. I have cringed my way through so many of these discussions that you’d think
they would have less effect on me. And while that is in some ways true—these conversations have become a bit easier with time—I was in no way ready to have this conversation with my mom. This is not because my mom means any harm or is in any way a worse offender than those who approach me after speaking engagements or readings (she’s not), it’s just—she’s my
mom
and nobody likes to discuss race
with their mom.

Here’s the thing about my mom, my mom is the kindest, most generous person I’ve ever known. And she is a wonderful mother and grandmother, beloved by just about all who meet her. But she’s also exhausting. My mother does not think before she speaks, nor does she at least take the time to collate her subjects before shouting ten different conversations at you (she refused to get
hearing aids for a very long time, so when I say “shouting” I mean shouting). My mom is at times a nonsensical tornado of emotion, enthusiasm, and whimsy. A conversation with her about grocery shopping (which will inevitably wander to a conversation on organic gardening, which will remind her of a joke about potatoes she heard but cannot remember the punchline for) can utilize all of my patience
and conversational skills. I love my mom dearly, but I have been rolling my eyes at her for thirty-six years—I am forever a bratty teenager in her presence.

I was trying to think of anything I’d like to do less than call my white mother to hear her epiphany about race, when she did what all mothers do—she immediately called back, and kept calling, until I picked up the phone.

“Did you get my
message?” she asked.

“Yes,” I sighed, “You had an epiphany?”

“OK,” she dove in before I could run away, “So I was telling a joke at work, and it had a black punchline—not like, a punchline
about
black people, but a punchline
for
black people…”

This is the part of the conversation where I start cringing. I need you to hear my mom’s chipper Kansas accent as she says this.



and this coworker
of mine, he’s black, says, ‘What do you know about being black?’”

This is the part of the conversation where I’m inhaling sharply. I really don’t want to know what happens next because I cannot imagine any way that it is good.

“Like, he was challenging me, you know? Probably thinking, ‘this white bitch.’”

At this point I’m regretting the invention of the telephone.

“And I was so mad, I was
like, this man doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know what I went through, he doesn’t know that I have two black kids.”

I’m at this point holding the phone a good six inches away from my ear in the hopes that it will make this conversation
less painful. Please tell me she didn’t actually say these things to this man.

“But then I realized…”

Oh no.



that he’s probably gone through so much racism
in his life, he doesn’t know who the good white people are.”

What is she saying? WHAT IS SHE SAYING? HAS SHE NOT READ ANY OF MY WORK? Please let the earth open up and swallow me so I can get out of this conversation.

“And if I were black, I’d probably be really angry all the time, too.”

Aaannnd we’ve now officially entered the worst conversation in the world. I’m talking with my white mom about
race. Why can’t we be talking about, I don’t know—her sex life, or
my
sex life, or my period, or why I’m an atheist—
anything
but this.

“So now I’m not angry at him anymore. I’m just going to go to him tomorrow and explain that I have two black kids and I understand where he’s coming from.”

And here is where I shouted “NOOOOOO!” like in those movie scenes where your buddy is about to open a car
door that will so obviously set off a bomb that will kill him.

As uncomfortable as this conversation was, it needed to happen. The initial discussion led to a very long talk about race and identity and the differences between being a white mother who has loved and lived with black people, and
being
an actual black person who experiences the full force of a white supremacist society firsthand.
She asked if she at least got black credit for doing my hair for all of those years. I said no. She asked why I didn’t identify as “part white” when my
mother, her, was white. I explained that while I had definitely inherited light-skin privilege due to my mixed heritage I did not feel that whiteness was something that any person with brown skin and kinky hair could inherit, because race doesn’t
care what your parents look like—just look at all the light-skinned slaves sold away from their black mothers by their white fathers. We talked about how to discuss race without placing undue burden on people of color to educate you. We talked about when to not discuss race (say, in the middle of the workday when your black coworker is just trying to get through a day surrounded by white people).
We ended the conversation exhausted and emotional, but with a greater understanding of each other.

After this conversation, the way in which my mom interacted with me changed in ways that I was not expecting. She still calls me to talk about work drama, but also this funny movie she saw, and also perhaps her dream of us all building a cabin in the woods together one day. I still roll my eyes
like the thirty-something teenager that I am throughout most of our conversations. But my mom has become more fearless in her support of my work, now that she better understands the role she can play. My blackness is no longer a barrier between us, a symbol of my world that she does not have access to and therefore must avoid fully acknowledging. My mom has shifted her focus on race from proving to
black people that she is “down” to pressuring fellow white people to do better.

My mom is now an outspoken advocate for racial equality in her union. And now that the awkwardness has passed, and now that my mom and I have a better understanding of
each other, I can talk with her more freely about my life and my work. And while one conversation did not do all of that on its own, it opened up a
new way of seeing each other and how we can truly come together as a black daughter and her white mother. So for all its awkwardness, the outcome of that conversation makes me so glad we talked. I’m also glad we talked because I’m pretty sure our conversation stopped my mom from leaving her next conversation with her coworker in tears or being dragged into HR.

N
OT ALL OF US ARE LUCKY ENOUGH TO
HAVE CONVERSATIONS
on race with white people willing to take the emotional risk of investigating the role they play in upholding racism. Not all of us are lucky enough to leave an office discussion on race with no worse than a snide comment and a slightly bruised ego. These conversations, when done wrong, can do real damage. Friendships can be lost, holidays ruined, jobs placed in jeopardy. For
this reason, many people avoid the topic of race altogether and recoil when it’s brought into conversation.

But you are reading this book because you realize that we
have
to talk about race. Race is everywhere and racial tension and animosity and pain is in almost everything we see and touch. Ignoring it does not make it go away. There is no shoving the four hundred years’ racial oppression and
violence toothpaste back in the toothpaste tube.

In fact, it’s our desire to ignore race that increases the necessity of its discussion. Because our desire to not talk about race also causes us to ignore race in areas where lack of racial consideration can have real detrimental effects on the lives
of others—say, in school boards, community programs, and local government. And while it may seem
that people of color always need to “put race in everything,” it’s the neglect of the specific needs of people of color, which exist whether you acknowledge them or not, that necessitate it in the first place.

As a black woman, I’d love to not have to talk about race ever again. I do not enjoy it. It is not fun. I dream of writing mystery novels one day. But I have to talk about race, because
it is made an issue in the ways in which race is addressed or, more accurately, not addressed. When my employer enforces hairstyles in their dress code that ignore the very specific hairstyle needs of black women (see military restrictions against small braids, for example), then my employer is making race an issue in their attempts to ignore it. When my son’s school only has parent-teacher conferences
during school hours, they are making race an issue by ignoring the fact that black and Latinx parents are more likely to work the type of hourly jobs that would cause them to lose much-needed pay, or even risk losing their employment altogether, in order to stay involved in their child’s education. When I take my kids to movies and none of the characters they see look like them, it’s the studio
that is making it about race when they decide to make up entire universes in which no brown or black people exist. I just want to go to work, educate my kids, and enjoy a movie.

The truth is, we live in a society where the color of your skin still says a lot about your prognosis for success in life. This is the reality right now, and ignoring race will not change that. We have a real problem
of racial inequity and injustice in our society, and we cannot wish it away. We have to tackle this problem with real action, and we will not know what needs to be done if we are not willing to talk about it.

So let’s all get a little uncomfortable. If my mom and I can do it, so can you.

Y
OU’RE GOING TO SCREW THIS UP.

You’re going to screw this up royally. More than once.

I’m sorry, I wish
I could say that reading this book would guarantee that you’d never leave a conversation about race feeling like you’ve gotten it all wrong and made everything worse. But I can’t. It’s going to happen.

It’s going to happen, and you should have these conversations anyway.

So now that I’ve thoroughly bummed you out, let’s work on what we can do to lessen the number of times you screw this conversation
up, minimize the amount of damage you do, and maximize the benefit to all involved. Here are some basic tips that will increase your chance of conversation success, or at least decrease your chance of conversation disaster:

1)
State your intentions.
Do you know why you are having this particular conversation? Do you know why this matters to you? Is there something in particular you are trying
to communicate or understand? Figure it out before moving forward and then state what your intentions are, so that the people you are talking with can determine whether this is a conversation they are willing to join. Very often, these
attempts at conversation fail because two people are entering with two very incompatible agendas and proceed to have two very different conversations, and that
doesn’t become clear until it blows up in anger and frustration.

2)
Remember what your top priority in the conversation is, and don’t let your emotions override that.
If your top priority is understanding racism better, or addressing an incident involving race, or righting a wrong caused by racism, don’t let the top priority suddenly become avenging your wounded pride if the conversation has
you feeling defensive.

3)
Do your research.
If you are going to be talking about an issue you are not familiar with, a quick Google search will save everyone involved a lot of time and frustration. If terms or subjects come up that you are not familiar with, you can ask for some clarification if you are in person, but know that if you are a white person talking to a person of color—it is never
their job to become your personal Google. If you are online and these topics or terms come up, you can Google faster than it takes to hold up the entire conversation begging people to explain things to you. Even if you are a person of color, making sure you understand more about the topic you are trying to address, beyond your immediate experience with it, will give you more confidence in your conversation
and will help you get your point across.

4)
Don’t make your anti-racism argument oppressive against other groups.
When stressed, when angry,
when tired, or when threatened, our worst selves can come out. It is fine to be angry, there is a lot about racism to be angry about. And it is fine to express that anger. But it is never okay to battle racism with sexism, transphobia, ableism, or other
oppressive language and actions. Don’t stoop to that level, and don’t allow others to. We must be willing to fight oppression in all of its forms.

5)
When you start to feel defensive, stop and ask yourself why.
If you are talking about race and you suddenly feel the need to defend yourself vigorously, stop and ask yourself, “What is being threatened here? What am I thinking that this conversation
says about me?” and “Has my top priority shifted to preserving my ego?” If you are too heated to ask yourself these questions, at least try to take a few minutes away to catch your breath and lower your heart rate so that you can. This is something that happens to people of all races, and not only can it stop us from hearing things that need to be said, it can stop us from saying what we really
mean to say.

6)
Do not tone police.
Do not require that people make their discussions on the racial oppression they face comfortable for you. See
chapter 15
for more details.

7)
If you are white, watch how many times you say “I” and “me.”
Remember, systemic racism is about more than individuals, and it is not about your personal feelings. If you find yourself frequently referring to your feelings
and your viewpoint, chances are, you are making this all about you.

8)
Ask yourself: Am I trying to be right, or am I trying to do better?
Conversations on racism should never be about winning. This battle is too important to be so simplified. You are in this to share, and to learn. You are in this to do better and be better. You are not trying to score points, and victory will rarely look like
your opponent conceding defeat and vowing to never argue with you again. Because your opponent isn’t a person, it’s the system of racism that often shows up in the words and actions of other people.

9)
Do not force people of color into discussions of race.
People of color live with racism each and every day with no say over when and how it impacts their lives. It is painful and exhausting. When
people of color have the rare luxury to choose to not engage in additional dialogue about race, do not deny them that. Even if this discussion is really important to you, you never have a right to demand it. There will be other opportunities.

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