How do I talk about race?


Senator Barack Obama’s recent speech addressing the issue of race has once more excited a flurry of discussion around the topic. People’s reactions vary, but I’m not asking for responses to his speech specifically. NPR’s Talk of the Nation invited guests to discuss “How Do Americans Talk about Race?” which I found informative and even hopeful. I think their discussion was realistic by acknowledging lingering issues, but also optimistic in looking for opportunities to learn and progress.

So, what I want to know, is how we can continue to improve relations, to encourage understanding, and to promote unity. In my own experience, I grew up in an overwhelmingly white area. Racism seemed to be a problem of far away lands like, the south. However, I was aware of a strange divide with the issue of blacks and the priesthood, but, once again, it seemed to be far removed from my own personal experience. I have also met resistance in talking about these issues within any kind of religious context, including institute classes. “This is not the right venue to have this discussion.” So, in the spirit of seeking a venue…

Robert Jensen, one of NPR’s guests, mentioned the hesitancy of white people to even discuss race because of the fear of being called on ingrained racial attitudes. I closely relate to this sentiment. My own personal approach has been to avoid any conversation that calls out inequalities between myself and someone of a different race. I didn’t want to be seen as ignorant or racist, but I also don’t want to avoid the conversation and dismiss legitimate concerns.

My first personal experience with race issues was with my first college boyfriend, who was black. I had my mother tell me that my grandparents would not accept him. The end of the relationship was also awkward because he wanted to blame its end on outside influences on me. It was really the moment I began to see my own ingrained racial attitudes, and those of the people closest to me.

More recent experiences are small and sometimes I wonder if they are worth marking. I made fajitas for my friends one Sunday, and someone complimented me on my cooking. Without thinking, I told him he should thank his ancestors. He has Mexican heritage, and I did not expect him to react as he did. He seemed to take offense, and I was a little taken aback. I was trying to give credit where it was due, and be grateful to Mexicans for corn tortillas, the same way I thank the Japanese for sushi, the Danes for Havarti cheese, and the French for their use of butter. (I could go on about world cuisine, but that’s another post.) My friend did not stay offended for more than two seconds, and in the grand scheme of things, that moment was not a defining one, but it just reminded me that people I am close to still feel racial tension.

I can only speak of my own experience, and I would say that it is overwhelmingly positive. I truly don’t want to paint my personal experience in a negative light. I suppose I highlight those types of experiences because I don’t know what to do with them. I have many friends with diverse backgrounds, and I love to gain insight from people with different world views from mine.

Another NPR guest noted that the younger generation no longer sees the racial gap in the same way, and I honestly hope that is true. Obama’s attitude also seems to reflect this view. In my own world view, I sincerely try to see people one individual at a time, and hope that I will be more solution than problem.

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  1. Caroline says:

    Good questions. I don’t have a lot of answers, but one thing I am quick to do, as a Mormon, is acknowledge that the priesthood ban was racist, and that I’m ashamed of it. I don’t try to excuse it.

    One thing I’ve realized about myself: I don’t think I have too many problems being a racist (as far as I know), but I think I do have some issues with being classist (is that a word?) For instance I would have absolutely no problem with me or my children marrying black, Asian, Mexican, etc., I just would want them to have high educational goals and interests.

  2. ESO says:

    It has been my experience (being a part of a biracial family) that white Americans seems to have a disability in speaking about race. They don’t. They are scared to. They fear outing themselves and saying something stupid. OR, on the other side, feel that racism does not exist so anyone who talks about race has their own issues.

    Seriously, I have been AMAZED at how many people have told me there is no racism anymore. Even when we had the RS teachings of our times lesson about Pres. Hinckleys race talk, the teacher started it by saying “I don’t know why he would talk about this, I just don’t think race is an issue.” Yeah, prophets LOVE to bring up controversial topics in GC that actually do not affect anyone….

    Sorry, this is a personal bugaboo if you can’t tell. My kids are biracial, but most would consider them black. White people just stare but black and hispanic people talk to us “what’s the father?” or whatever. It is an honest question and I understand the curiosity. I KNOW white people wonder, too, but they would never ask.

    Race is a taboo, but only for white people.

  3. jana says:

    This last quarter I taught 2 different classes with many students of different races. In one class I graded the exams ‘blindly,’ with only an ID number. In the other I graded the exams and papers knowing the names of the student. I found that in the latter case I automatically wanted to compensate or be more lenient for students who came from disadvantaged backgrounds (both race and class). So I think part of my bias is wanting to give some of my students more ‘help’ because I know they’ve had many social barriers.

    I’m still not sure if I think grading blindly was more fair than grading with knowing the students’ backgrounds.

    The numbers of students of color has declined precipitously since Affirmative Action was stopped. That, to me, shows that the disadvantages due to race are still strong in our nation.

  4. Christopher says:

    I think posts like this are an appropriate and helpful venue for discussing racial issues. The biggest problem is the hesitancy to discuss race, either because (as ESO notes) whites are afraid, or because they envision a colorblind society and think discussing race at all might perpetuate racism.

    I recommend reading books and articles on racial discourse, including the ever-growing (but still under developed) body of work treating racial identity and Mormonism.

  5. JohnR says:

    Just the fact that you’re raising this topic in reaction to Senator Obama’s speech is a hopeful sign, I think. (I also wrote about race on my blog yesterday).

    My experience of racism is different from the stereotypes we’re exposed to when we do talk about race in the U.S. I’m the son of an Asian woman and a white man from Kansas. I was raised partly by my Japanese grandparents. As a white-appearing child in Japan, I was the target of teasing and slurs.

    I also spent a good chunk of my childhood in an inner city neighborhood in which whites and Asians were a tiny minority. My parents regularly disparaged blacks and Koreans, and praised the Japanese. At recess, I was recruited into playing futbol with the Latinos instead of basketball with the black kids. I suspect that appearance had something to do with this. (When we played neighborhood baseball, all races participated.)

    My personal experience tells me, and Senator Obama’s speech confirms that issues of race are too complex to be left to Fox News and to divisive politicians and talk show hosts who are all too willing to fill the silence with self-serving sound bites. Bravo to you, Zenaida, for broaching the subject here. I think that the paucity of comments shows that there’s still a lot of work to do among Church members.

  6. Christopher says:

    A good example of how not to discuss race by a white American Mormon can be found here (in comments 10, 12, 13, and 17).

  7. Jessawhy says:

    Zenaida,
    Wonderful post. I watched his speech on YouTube and felt the Spirit. He gave a magnificent address and used his passion about the issue to really get his point across to the audience.
    I agree with Caroline. I’m more judgmental toward classes than I am toward races. That may be true for many Americans, and because Obama is so well educated and articulate, we don’t see the racial divide at all.
    Here’s another topic (like adultery) that is important for me evaluate my true feelings and attitudes. Otherwise, I slide into the “what most people” think or do, and don’t look as introspectively as I should.
    I’m afraid I’ll have to do a lot more of that before I can answer any of your many good questions.
    Thanks.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I wish I had more answers, too. I think, for me, this discussion is difficult to have because there has been such an economic divide created by past and present racism. That economic divide taints the discussion, for me at least.

    It’s is disingenuous to ignore either aspect, but the economic divide is so largely created by the undercurrent of racism that’s still lurking just beneath the surface. We’ve all created generations of children that either feel lost and helpless to change, or feel ambiguous and uninterested in change.

    Strangely, I wasn’t ever afraid to talk about race with my close friends of varying races, but to the larger public, it seems somehow scarier. I wish we could just get over it. We have different skin color! Big deal! Our world is turning into a veritable rainbow of skin colors. Isn’t it wonderful and beautiful? And why are we still hung up and afraid to say anything. I wish I could understand and articulate it better.

  9. Zenaida says:

    eso, I alluded to the fear you describe in my post, and I still feel it to some degree. I think it’s difficult to avoid as a white American. My first indirect experience with racial issues was learning about slavery and the civil rights movement in school, and I had such an intense desire to prove that I had nothing to do with the terrible discrimination that occurred in our history, and still occurs in some places. I suppose I often don’t even think to ask someone about their race and if they’ve ever encountered difficulty because I can’t say I’ve ever had experiences like the ones johnr describes.

    BTW, thanks for sharing johnr. I also think it’s important to share those stories. There’s no way white people can be begin to understand without those stories being shared.

    christopher, do you have any specific reading suggestions?

    anonymous, I think it’s one thing to have close friends that you are already comfortable with, but quite another in the general public, when there are group grievances to be addressed. I guess I’ve never asked direct questions about my friends’ race or if they’ve ever encountered discrimination because I don’t see their race as their sole defining characteristic. I appreciate its influence on their personality, but don’t see it as an alienating factor, so it doesn’t occur to me to ask. I love that our world is a “rainbow of skin colors.” If we weren’t hung up, what would you have us say?

  10. Anonymous says:

    I would say, of course things are hard! They’re hard for all of us. Of course racism is still around, we just don’t talk about it anymore. How can we, when all of us are bombarded with statistics about the percentage of black men in prison, the percentage of single black mothers, the arrogance of white people who blithely say, “Oh, I’m not a racist, it’s just a socio-economic issue.” Really? Coulda’ fooled me…

    The economic situation faced by African Americans is one that was forced upon them by decades of oppression. It’s more difficult than people understand to climb out of that cycle. At the same time, African Americans need to stop being so mad at white people. Jeremiah White might be shocking to white people, but the tenor of his language is not entirely unusual in the black vernacular.

    Both races need to get over themselves. I loved Obama’s speech for that reason. He laid blame all around. We’ve all got to change our language with each other, and stop blaming each other.

    Pretty high-minded and seemingly impossible. And without some precipitous event to propel us as a nation to address and accept change, it feels pretty unlikely.

    Sorry so long…

  11. Janna says:

    A few interesting reads on race are:

    – I’m Not Racist, But…, Lawrence Blum
    – Race Matters, Cornel West
    – Race-ing Moral Formation, Vanessa Siddle-Walker

  12. Ana says:

    I’m a white mom of black, biracial and latino kids, and it’s been a fascinating several years trying to educate myself enough to provide my kids with connections to their birth heritages.

    One book I have really appreciated has been “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum. It’s a pretty good primer on privilege and unidentified racial prejudice among whites. It’s also really helpful in understanding racial identity development. If you are an educator I would particularly recommend it.

    A funny from today: my second son (biracial black and white, but looks racially ambiguous or possibly Latino, especially here in the heavily Latino Central Valley of CA):

    We were going up to see some friends. My son said, “you and [your friend] kind of look alike.” I said, “Oh, why do you say that?” He said, “Well, you’re both white.”

    I guess we all look alike to him! I thought it was really funny!

    Also, you might check out the blogs Anti-Racist Parent and Racialicious. Lots of interesting discussions.

  13. The Faithful Dissident says:

    I think the biggest problem, particularly in the question of race, is the lack of discussion. It is indeed a sensitive subject, but I think people are way too afraid of talking about it. Maybe we’re getting better, but in past times I think that an open discussion could have cleared up all the myths, which have led to false doctrine and race relation problems. Mormons don’t like to be critical, so they’re afraid to ask questions. I’ve raised the question of criticism, especially when it comes to race, in my blog. You can see it by clicking on my name. I’m interested in hearing different opinions and points of view.

  14. Janna says:

    Ana – You might enjoy “The Skin We are In” by Janie Ward.

  15. Christopher says:

    In addition to Janna’s suggestions, other insightful texts include Eduardo Bonilla Silva’s Racism without Racists: Colorblind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States and George Frederickson’s Racism: A Short History.

  16. Anonymous says:

    For me as a white mormon I am afraid to talk about race. I was raised that we are all Gods children. I was raised to respect all. But as I have grown you see all sorts of racism. White against black and black against white. black against other blacks and other races it goes on and on.

    Yet as a white person I have been treated like I am so privilaged and the cause of all that is wrong with all the other races if I have ever tried to be open with someone about this topic I am shut down because I dont understand.

    Well let us see. I have been blessed in my life yet I have doors shut to me in because I am white and privledged (What ever, like being white means you are rich and everything is handed to you) Which is not true my family was poor. I have had to struggle to get everything. I dont regret this it has made me strong. Yet why is it my sons now have doors shut for them because they are white while other minorities around them have them open freely when many saddly dont do anything to deserve what they get because they know it will be handed to them no matter what or even the fact my husband and a brother in law both very qualified were told they didnt get a particular job because they had to give it to a women or other minority. It is getting tougher to be a white male in your 30s.

    I know I am rambling on. I am sure I sound racist. No one will talk openly about it on any level. I think we should all stand on our own merrits. I know it doesnt happen in this imperfect world because there is racism that is very real on every side. I would just like it to be acknowledged on all its levels and not be blamed for someones misfortunes because I am White and in there minds the root of the problem.

  17. Ana says:

    Privilege doesn’t mean you have everything handed to you. It means your great-great grandmother was never raped by her slaveowner. It means your parents were never deported. It means your grandparents were never beaten for speaking their native language in school. It means you were not called a n****r on the school bus in first grade. It means you can find some role models who look like you who are not musicians or athletes (maybe they are even General Authorities). It means people don’t automatically lock their car doors when they pull up next to you at a stop light.

    Sometimes it’s hard to see our own privilege when it consists largely of experiences we haven’t had. And sometimes it’s hard to admit that our successes might not all be due to our own merits – we are benefiting from a racist system. Anonymous, please have a little humility and acknowledge how lucky you are.

    I also want to say that I was also raised on the “children of God, same on the inside” model. And while those principles are both true, they are not enough for children of color. They see the differences and need to know it’s ok to talk about them. When we are silent we indicate that race and racial difference are shameful. That’s really bad for kids. So keep talking!

  18. coolcrys says:

    Here is my suggestion. Don’t just talk to “people of color” who live like you to UNDERSTAND. You gotta talk to folks COMPLETELY out of your comfort zone and realm of understanding. You have to look at the situation objectively AND historically.

    Racism IS not from a far off land. Its REAL and PRESENT EVERY DAY!

    You don’t think you’re priveleged? Ask yourself: Knowing what you know…would you rather have been born black in America? Don’t answer for me…answer HONESTLY for you. And then examine why or why not.

  19. coolcrys says:

    And as for texts:

    Howard Zinn “People’s History of the United States”
    Bell Hooks “Killing Rage”
    Grier and Cobbs “Black rage”
    anything by Dr. Cornell West

    Good luck.

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