Last week, William Saletan asked me to throw some ideas around with him as he composed a list of tips for “how to talk constructively about racism” in the wake of white-Hispanic George Zimmerman’s controversial acquittal in the shooting death of unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin.
I always sigh a little when I hear the calls for a “national conversation on race” that follow when inequality and injustice are brought to our attention in a big way. Even President Barack Obama acknowledged in his remarks about Zimmerman’s acquittal that these conversations haven’t been “particularly productive.”
I get it, though. The idea is that Americans might not totally understand what’s happening (in the Zimmerman case, it’s the insanely unfair, deeply rooted and, in fact, deadly bias that black men face and how it’s perpetuated), that we need the tools and information to do so and that providing those things will involve a lot of talking about it, both privately and publicly.
If we’re going to have a “conversation on race,” I offer this nonexhaustive list of ground rules and reminders. It’s based on my hope that we can retire some of the predictable talking points and misleading themes that do nothing but derail the type of dialogue that’s been called for once again.
• Talking about race isn’t racist.
Don’t say that. Vilifying people who discuss race and point out racism — making them the bad guys — is one of the ways racism is maintained. So is acting as if “blacks suffer from racism” and “whites suffer from reverse racism” are equally valid points of view.
• Yep, sometimes there are different standards for black and white stuff.
You are going to get a different reaction for White History Month and Black History Month. A black person making a joke about race is different from a white person making a joke about race. To accept this requires letting go of the idea that this is really simple and thinking a little deeper about context and history.
Please give up on the “But what if the races were reversed?” line of thinking. That type of analysis makes conversations simple, but it also makes them totally unhelpful.
• African-Americans are not monolithic. There is no one black experience nor black point of view. Black people are individuals who don’t agree on everything and shouldn’t have to answer for one another’s actions, any more than white people do. (So saying a black person can’t dislike the n-word because rappers use it doesn’t make sense.)
• Remember that while “race” itself isn’t real, racism is, and our country’s long and well-documented history with racism has very real, lasting effects. Therefore, being “colorblind” is not helpful because it cripples our ability to deal with the tangible effects of racial inequality in just about every area of life.
• Black people shouldn’t have to fit your definition of what’s respectable to deserve equality or justice.
It’s silly and unfounded to blame inequality caused by institutionalized racism on, say, sagging pants or rap music. If you want to celebrate black people who are educated and high-achieving and defy persistent stereotypes, great, but that can’t be a requirement for fair treatment.
We got into trouble with this type of thinking when evidence that Trayvon was a normal teenager messed up so many people’s impression of him as a sympathetic victim.
• Don’t defer to people like Bill Cosby about their theories about black people, any more than you would defer to a miscellaneous white celebrity about how white people are doing.
If you need guidance, look for someone whose background offers evidence that he or she had the incentive to spend some time seeking information and thinking critically in a professional capacity about whatever it is the person is discussing.
• Individual racism and systemic racism are two different things. We should care about all the structures that maintain racial inequality, not just individual actors. (This is why it’s not unreasonable to jump from Zimmerman’s impression of Trayvon to racial profiling by police.)
That said, individual acts can provide strong reminders about larger attitudes and problems. Ahem, Paula Deen.
• Don’t give the word “racism” so much power that you can’t speak rationally after you hear it.
Remember that the threshold for “racism” is a lot lower than being a member of the KKK and hating every black person you see. It means buying into and perpetuating things that support the idea of white supremacy.
You can be a very nice person and still do that, even without meaning to. You can do it even if you have black friends.
• Resist the urge to believe and regurgitate myths about black people, even when they’re promoted by black people (African-Americans are all more homophobic, black-on-black crime is uniquely bad, there are more black men in prison than in college, all black women love being fat, etc.). Take a minute to challenge the things you hear many say over and over. You’ll often find they don’t have a strong basis in reality.
• Finally, stop thinking about and discussing racism as something that’s the problem of black and other nonwhite people. Remember that there’s an ever-growing movement of anti-racist white people concerned with dismantling white privilege.
When you’re talking about racism, remember that it’s not just bad for those whom it oppresses; it’s bad for everyone because it creates an unjust society. When people want to fix racism, they do it not because they’re being charitable or nice, but because they’re being smart and decent.
Jenée Harris, a graduate of Howard University and Harvard Law School, is White House correspondent for The Root, an online source of commentary from a variety of black perspectives.