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.