Who, when, and where to talk about Race

Race is such a sticky thing to talk about. I almost don’t want to discus it for fear of looking like “that white woman who likes to hear herself talk.” I may put some people on the spot in this post, and if you don’t like that, I apologize. The questions:

—What’s the racial/ethnic composition here at YAR? I don’t know most of you yet, so maybe you’re not all white Anabaptists.
—For those of you who aren’t white, how should white people talk about racial issues? What’s actually helpful? I feel discouraged when I read or listen to a discussion on race and then realize all the participants are white. If white folks decide how to “fix racism” primarily by themselves, I doubt we’ll find anything lasting. It’s not enough just to talk about treating everyone right—we have to make sure everyone’s participating in the conversation.
—For those of you who aren’t white, how much do you see racism in yourselves? How do you overcome that? Is it different than for a white person, perhaps because you’ve been on the receiving end of it? How do you decide what is offensive?
—How do we as Christians decide when and which causes and passions to pursue? I can’t do it all. I don’t want that to be an excuse to do nothing. How can someone who may not currently dedicate the better part of her time to racial equality still make it a priority?
—For those of you who aren’t white, what’s the most effective way to knock down media consumers’ perceptions? For example, if a black doctor opens a practice in a very white community, should the feature story in the newspaper mention s/he is black? Would running a head-and-shoulders photo accomplish the same thing without saying it overtly? Does this give the impression it’s unusual for black people to be highly educated?

Just some of the many questions. Perhaps because I have more questions than answers I like being a reporter. I let other people know stuff. ;-)

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5 Responses to “Who, when, and where to talk about Race”

  1. Amy Says:

    Oh dear. This is a sticky one. As a white person living on a non-white block, sending my children to a mostly-non-white school, here are guidelines I try to live by:

    I try to never refer to someone based on their race. We are all so much more than our color, although I do acknowledge that it sets a background for the way we view the world. )
    But, when the issue comes up (usually with my kids or other kids on the street), I try to be honest about it.
    With my neighbors, who were dubious of me and my family when we first moved to the block, I try to be as real as I can. We all love similar things where I live–gardening, children, baseball. I try to find things that bring us together. And we are united on similar things–keeping the kids out of the empty lots, keeping the sidewalks and streets clean, keeping the cars from driving too fast down the street, and getting rid of the too-many wild cats on the block.
    I try to have fun w/ the race issue. Yes, you read right. My neighbors tease me for not wearing shoes outside in the summer (you white people don’t like to wear shoes do you!?) or for making “white people mac and cheese”. And I joke with them about missing my sister-in-law’s wedding b/c they were on “black people time”. I enjoy that and we get a lot of laughs from our quirky cultural differences.
    I’ve stepped into some sticky issues, no doubt. But, I try to understand their perspective, and they try to understand mine.
    Last year, some cultural issues came to a head between me and my neighbor. I wrote a sermon about it, if you want to read it.

    Here’s the link: http://mysite.verizon.net/resq4xzi/thesharpnackker/id13.html

    Those are my ramblings (maybe on the topic, and maybe not…)

  2. jdaniel Says:

    It looks like you only want folks who “aren’t white” to respond here, but I wanted to mention something that came up in class the other week, even though it might broaden (and possibly dilute) the original post.

    I’m a second-year medical student and before our last exam we had a small group discussion on the drug BiDil that is approved for treating heart failure in “self identified black patients.” The purpose of the session was to raise awareness of how the FDA reached its decision and to get people to think about what it actually means to approve a drug for “self-identified black patients” and whether this sort of thing is appropriate.

    To me it seems backwards that we in the medical community boast unprecedented knowledge of the DNA code underpinning all of our amazing physiology, and at the same time claim that it makes any sense to base treatment on someone’s skin color and racial self-identification. After all, one of the amazing things that was revealed with our expanding knowledge of genetics is that there can be as much (or more) diversity within our so called “race” than there is between “races.”

    There is a lot of interesting commentary on this and other similar topics, and some of it is fairly technical, and unfortunately, much of it is unread by me. However, I do have some articles I could share on this particular topic if anyone’s interested, e-mail me or send me a comment by clicking here if you’re interested.

  3. carl Says:

    Skylark, thanks for opening this conversation. Just for reference, I’m a white guy. I’ve been learning a lot about racism over the last few years working for MCC at the Oglala Lakota Nation, and I’ve still got a whole lot to learn. A few thoughts from my experience:

    I’ve found it helpful to address racism from the angle of learning about my own white privilege. We often think of racism primarily in terms of particular acts directed against somebody due to racial prejudice, and that’s an important part of it. The part of racism that’s harder for us to see are the privileges that every one of us who is white get every single day, due to interacting with power structures that were built by and are still predominantly run by white people. It really changes your perspective on racism to start thinking about all your daily interactions with the institutions and people who have some kind of power over you, and realizing that chances are very high that if you were not white, many of those interactions likely would have been made more difficult for you by racism. That’s white privilege in action.

    There’s often a word usage miscommunication that gets in the way, too. Many people (especially white people) use the word “racism” to refer to any act of racial discrimination. On the other hand, most of the folks actively working against racism (at least those I know in the Mennonite church) refer to that as “prejudice” and reserve the word “racism” for “prejudice PLUS structural power”. Anyone can be prejudiced against anyone, but because (in our society) white people hold the structural power, “racism” (in this understanding) is not something that goes both ways. As my bro Eric might put it (more concisely): “We don’t get to ignore hundreds of years of slavery and oppression just because it wasn’t our idea.”

    I do think it’s important for white people to be talking about racism and white privilege, even (especially?) amongst other white folks. One of the characteristics of privilege is the ability to remain blissfully unaware of it, so our lived experience as white people doesn’t usually teach us much about racism. Just as you say, any “solutions” we come up with on our own are not very likely to be solutions.

    At the same time, I think it’s oppressive if we put the burden on people of color to always have to bring racism up (so kudos for bringing it up!), point it out when it happens, and get us talking about it. And I think it can also be problematic to ask people of color to speak “as a person of color” about racism (because the hidden, if unintended, implication is “on behalf of all other people of color”). I wonder if some of your questions above might verge on that (though I think your intent of trying to broaden your limited perspective is great).

    I know those two paragraphs might seem contradictory, but to me it means white people need to do our homework! There are lots of good resources on racism and white privilege out there on the interweb (many written by people of color) that we can draw on for our education without putting an additional burden on anyone. (There are some great articles at AllyWork - I particularly recommend starting with the Peggy McIntosh’s article “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” - and many many more at Colours of Resistance. A really good general article on privilege - originally about male privilege, but broadened - is at The Shrub). And secondly, that we need to take advantage of times when someone is telling us about their experience of racism - listen well, learn well, and don’t get defensive! Nothing blocks learning about your privilege like getting defensive about it, and it is so easy to do.

    Lastly, I think you ask a great question here: “How can someone who may not currently dedicate the better part of her time to racial equality still make it a priority?” I think all white people have the responsibility to work against white privilege, but I think it’s work that can be threaded through everything else that we’re doing. For me, the first step was just taking the scales off my eyes! Do a little reading (some good books from within Menno circles are “Enter The River” by Jody Miller-Shearer and “Set Free” by Iris de-Leon Hartshorn, Tobin Miller-Shearer, and Regina Shands Stoltzfus. A couple others I highly recommend are “A Race is a Nice Thing To Have” by Janet Helms, and “Becoming an Ally”, by Anne Bishop). Try a “white privilege journal” - just note in your journal times in your day when you might have benefitted from white privilege. My experience has been the more I try to be aware of seeing racism and white privilege where I might not have noticed it before, the more I start seeing little ways that I can work against it, right from where I stand.

    Anyway, them’s my (overly verbose) thoughts on the matter, from a racist white guy (all white people are racist - the more we recognize it, the better off we are). Feel free to take it or leave it!

    cheers,

    Carl

  4. eric Says:

    Carl mentioned and linked to Shrub, but here is a direct link to today’s post there: On being an ally. Good stuff.

  5. jdaniel Says:

    I just saw this clip from CNN about the “N-word” on South Park. Click here to watch.

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