Talking about Racism

I came across this interesting post by PortlyDyke:

Trying to Get White People to Talk About Racism is Like . . . .

. . . . . well, like trying to get white people to talk about Racism.

I mention this because I read a wide variety of blogs, and I notice that while a number of my favorite bloggers do write posts on race and racism, there is this interesting thing that happens in comment threads to these posts — if the blog is not frequented mostly by people of color, the comment threads very often stray from anything remotely touching on race or racism, and quickly become about “oppression in general”, or a particular commenter’s “Me Too!” pointing toward their own particular oppression.

I like to talk about racism. I teach classes on the subject, run training sessions for teachers, write about it, and everything. Portly gives a few reasons that people, especially white people, seem to not like to talk about this subject.

First: Many (if not most) white people, have very little awareness of their privilege as white people.

I think this is true. Everyone has a spectrum of perceived privilege and pain (economic pain, comforts of life, etc.) and while people are quite capable of understanding what is beyond their own experience to some degree, it is hard to really understand … and maintain that level of understanding on a day to day basis … experiences that you have not had.

Second: I think white people are often afraid to talk about race.

This is one reason that, when talking about racism in a training or classroom setting, I like to spend some time delving into the more uncomfortable side of the discussion. This brings people to a place where they can be comfortable in the conversation. But it is hard to get to that place.

Third: I think that there is a subliminal message (in our country, at least) that racism is no longer a problem

Hey, no kidding. I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say “Hey, it’s been decades since Martin Luther King. Why are we talking about racism?” I’d have at least enough for a Vende Grande Latte and some coffee shop.

Anyway, go have a look at this post, it is … worth talking about.


  1. #1 Left_Wing_Fox
    December 3, 2007

    I’ve said a few times elsewhere that one of the big cultural movements of the 80’s and 90’s was to get people to understand racism is a bad thing. The problem is that somewhere along the line, people tied racism with active bigots, like Klansmen and Nazis. It’s to the point where people conflate racist acts (which may be unconscious) with being a bigot, which is something they see as a personal attack, rather than a narrow critique.

    For instance, I never realize the term “What a Gyp” which I used frequently as a kid was referring to Gypsies. It really struck home when I heard someone else use the phrase “He sure Jewed him down on that deal” in the same unthinking manner. While I try not to use the term “gyp” anymore, 20+ years of ingrained speech pattern doesn’t disappear overnight.

    As an addendum I’ve found one of the fastest ways to get into an angry argument with someone is to tell a white person who grew up poor that they had any sort of “privilege”. It’s something that stabs into the heart of their self-image, and snags into every bad memory of their experience along the way. I can imagine telling a person of color who grew up poor that they were given preferential treatment is even worse, since they’d probably have a lot more memories and painful counterexamples to deal with.

  2. #2 Erin
    December 3, 2007

    I’ve been in classes that have dealt with the issue of racism. Sometimes white people don’t avoid talking about racism, they just skirt dealing with the realities of it by claiming they have some special understanding of what the experience of racism is like. For example, I took this class where one of the participants who was a white female was dating a black male. All she could talk about is how she was special because she had a black boyfriend. I heard very little evidence of understanding racism, but rather constant chatter about how special she was because she “wasn’t racist” since she “has a boyfriend who is black.”

  3. #3 the real Napoleon Champagne
    December 4, 2007

    Left Wing Fox: you can’t be serious? It is just this sort of ‘white people speak’ that feeds into the ignorance–I mean, what a gross generalization, and objectification–speculation– of a ‘black view point’.
    In the construct, ‘blacks’ would have worse memories of racism and poverty….”since they’d probably have a lot more memories and painful counterexamples to deal with.”
    The entire realm of “Probably” is a pretty big statistical chance, would’nt you agree?

  4. #4 the real Napoleon Champagne
    December 4, 2007

    Erin: ROFLMFAO…I think I took that class a time or two…or threee….we need more white girls like them to educate all of us’n bout race.Better yet, when they become CSCL professors, it is so nice to hear their sermons about the “white male gaze on black athletic flesh” and two breaths later hear them say ” and isn’t Kanye West so sexi! ( no shit:actual lived experience)

  5. #5 Thomas
    December 4, 2007

    I hate talking about race. It’s just something most people just don’t understand. There is the avoidance of the latent racism that is very strong in our culture that I can’t stand. It’s even made worse by the fact that it is shared near universally by everyone, so it is hard to make some people aware of just how racist something they have done or said is.

    Well, since this is my de-lurking post, I guess I better say hello. I’ll also state that I’m tickled that there is a Linux geek on SB.

  6. #6 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    December 4, 2007

    Well, race is something that is a constant issue for me; and it has to do with the deep dark question that we hate to ask:

    Am I treating this person differently than I would if they were of another race?

    I can’t always answer it because I just don’t know. Racism has been such a deep part of our culture for so long that no one can honestly know. Fighting internal stereotyping is a tough thing because it is what we are taught to do subliminally from the time we are children.

    One of the most common stories people told when I was up in Hallock for my mother’s funeral was:

    “Jeanette (my mother) always went out of her way to make minorities feel welcome in Hallock. When Johnnie Smith (a black woman) moved to town, Jeanette made sure to introduce her to all of her friends. But one time she slipped and said ‘I’d like you to meet Mrs. Black.'”

    I remember that happening, and Johnnie Smith just burst out laughing because she knew exactly what my mother was going through. Racism is a dark subtext in our entire global society, not just the U.S. and it isn’t going away just because of the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965.

  7. #7 scienceteacherinexile
    December 4, 2007

    One of the biggest hurdles to overcoming racism is that skin color is so obvious. There are other things that will cause people to treat others differently, obviously, but skin color you will notice right away.
    Personally I don’t really beat myself up asking whether I am subconsciously discriminating. I try not to, but I think everyone must do it on some level. I was raised in a home (and community for that matter) that was extremely racist. Actually it was quite acceptable to talk about the niggers. Hell there were no black people in the whole town, so it was like talking about someone out of a story anyway. At my cousin’s house, we weren’t allowed to watch TV shows if there were black people on them.
    My father was and is quite a bigot. No, he is a MAJOR bigot. I think I have come a long way from the attitudes I learned as a child, and that gives me hope. I don’t worry so much about ending racism completely, as that seems a bit utopian, but we should keep trying to move in the right direction.
    Living in South Africa, you get a much different take on racism than in the US as well. I met another American here (we used to bike together) who is black. We probably have very different perspectives on racism in general, but we both agreed that the issue is very different here to the US.
    It is definitely a more complex issue than most people think… so let’s talk about it.

  8. #8 scienceteacherinexile
    December 4, 2007

    When talking about how obvious skin color is, I was thinking: What do you think it would be like if atheism were more obvious. If people could tell atheists by sight, racism would be taking a back seat in discrimination. People of all races hate the heathens.

  9. #9 HP
    December 4, 2007

    I think one of the reasons people avoid talking about race is that inevitably, during such conversations, at least one person you’ve known and cared about for years is suddenly revealed to be an unrepentant asshole.

  10. #10 Left_Wing_Fox
    December 4, 2007

    Left Wing Fox: you can’t be serious? It is just this sort of ‘white people speak’ that feeds into the ignorance–I mean, what a gross generalization, and objectification–speculation– of a ‘black view point’.

    Serious point, but it obviously didn’t come out right.

    My intention was the intersection of two general ideas: First, that when talking about systemic issues like race, sex, and class, most of the discussions are based on statistics, which break down at the individual level. Just like statistics tell you the odds of the lottery, but cannot predict the winning ticket, discussions of systemic problems have to deal primarily with generalizations, which may not affect the individual you’re talking with.

    Second, that the majority of people, in my experience, get most defensive when you criticize things they’ve built their self-image on. Some various flame wars that come to mind: Mac versus PC, Environmentalism versus the Space Program, discussing politics with nationalists. Class, race and sex are three major areas people use to define themselves, and thus the difficulty of discussing a broad area on individual terms is a conversational minefield.

    What I was trying to say was building off an observation I’ve had of people who get particularly defensive about race in conversation. Unfortunately, it looks like that veered into racist generalizations. =/

  11. #11 the real Whitey Bogger
    December 4, 2007

    I think the real problem with the whole deal is like Fromm said in Escape From Freedom of proto fascism: ‘the child is taught to have feelings that are not at all his own….to like people….to be uncritically friendly to them and smile[…]from the very start of education, original thinking is discouraged,” and twice when you add the timebombs of race constructs into their psyche.

    I think this pertains to the wider issue of white guilt responses to black oppression; rather than flexible, personal narratives of individual inter-racial experience, we put in its place and dogmatically accept only the PC versions of history,and commoditize even the way, and the who and how of what we see when we look across the race construct.

    In that light, whites are left with only negative imagery that describes ‘their’ experience, and political forces that capitalize on the ability to manipulate the public voice for further oppression–pitting one race as always bad, and one as always oppressed.

    Worse, Fromm is right when he states that the official voice of authority–those who define the ‘normative’, in his case the psychiatrists, and via the trends, social scientists of all shades and fields, have made themselves “instruments of general trends in manipulation of personality,” and so in going overboard to overcome racism, they created new isms that are proving every bit as destructive as the last one. So “thus freedom from [racism] leads to new bondage”.
    That’s the reality of revercism, and that is why whites often reject the ‘authority’ of revisionist hostory that discounts individual experience with race.

  12. #12 the real Evel Whiteman Knevel
    December 4, 2007

    yeah, it was a nice post, but she is a piece of work indeedie.

  13. #13 the real cmf
    December 4, 2007

    There is this great film called “How Tasty was My Little Frenchman,” that, despite its Euro-Brazilo-centric flaws and fallacies (much like the racial discourse from both sides), is a useful metaphor for wading in to this subject with people who need your strength in, or submission to their arguments: “in the end, you will be eaten.”
    See it, if you haven’t already.