Friday, April 26, 2013

Why Is It Hard To Talk About Racism?

I co-facilitated a workshop today on Why It's Difficult to Talk About Racism.  The participants were divided into groups of five or six and they came up with a lot of reasons.  Probably the main reasons are:

  • Fear/Discomfort
    • of getting hurt
    • of offending someone
    • of saying something stupid
  • Ignorance 
    • not much experience/training in how to talk about it
    • not much knowledge about facts and underlying causes 
  • It's a VERY Sensitive Topic
The groups today presented long lists of reasons, most of which were variations on these themes.    Below are some other responses.   From the  Daily Kos:
  • Afraid of using the wrong terms or otherwise saying something offensive.
  • Afraid of being called a racist or otherwise ‘attacked’
  • Don’t want to have to change how I talk etc. 
  • Afraid that changing things means losing something (while denying white privilege)
  • Conversations feel disrespectful.  People of Color hear the same stories and excuses over and over again from whites when race comes up.  Things like “I don’t see race” or “Prove it to me” or “It takes time.”  These things assert the validity of the white person’s world view and deny the person of color’s experience.
    From:  People of Color Organize "10 Conversations On Racism I'm Sick of Having With White People"
  • Example:  Talking about race is difficult and I generally don’t get into discussions of race unless I am around other people of color. I don’t like talking about race with most white people because many are blissfully unaware of their privilege. When around other people of color, I usually get into good, deep discussions. When I have gotten into discussions with some white people, I have often gotten, “Oh, it’s not really like that. Maybe you’re exaggerating” or “You’re just too sensitive. I’m sure they didn’t mean it like that.” These things all negate my experience and more often than not, I am told by white people that I’m making it up. I can’t get in discussions about race for my sanity’s sake.
    From:  Resist Racism -  16 thoughtful observations on race by commenters
  • It’s exhausting and for some traumatic to talk about race.
  • Forced to be spokesperson for my race.
  • Feel like I have to teach (for free) the people who make my life difficult.  
 One frustration people -all people - have when talking about racism is not knowing what they can do about it.  In a long post about why it's hard to talk about racism in The Stranger  Jen Graves addresses this questions for whites who are skeptical of the stories told by people of color:
“So one answer to the question What can I do? is simple: Listen. Believe."
 It seems pretty obvious to me that most people of color would have a more heightened awareness of racism than most whites. It doesn't mean they can articulate it well or that they don't, on occasion, see racism when it isn't there.  And it doesn't mean that some whites aren't pretty savvy on this topic.   In general though, this advice, "Listen. Believe"  is pretty good.  Don't interrupt.  Don't deny other people's experiences. Ask for more explanation and context if you must, but pay attention to the emotion when they tell you. 


  1. Nice post, Steve. I'm out of town or I would have been there. Barb

  2. Racism exists. Heard it. Seen it. Felt it. Know it.

    Yet, I offer a counterpoint. Living as I do in Britain, I've listened to people note how Americans often see social exclusion rooted in race and colour but don’t see the affects of class-order and inherited privilege.

    I’d politely agree, but I would note how I've heard Brits cite class privilege while only recently looking at exclusion based on race and colour – this while scholars debate if nationality is ‘race’ as construct and politicians conflate ethnicity and race in human rights legislation. It’s a bit confusing.

    In the day-to-day, race is attributed to groups in the UK, that in the USA, would be seen as ethnicities. Irish nationality, for instance, is an official ‘racial’ grouping here every bit as much as black. And one must make note that indigenous are Anglo-Saxons!

    So how our two countries view class and race trace divided histories. A symbol of that division is found in the word ‘landlord’. Americans know it as a person having ownership. In Britain, it’s land owner passed into modern usage via crown-granted privilege in all things political and financial. Land was wealth prior to the industrial revolution. Going back to the Irish race exception, they lost lands after forcible annexation by the British – a bit like American-Indians in the USA, really.

    This all goes to say that race-difference is not so much fixed by colour as Americans see it. It is also not seen independent of class. Class analysis was central to European response to Marxism and its sweeping revolutions. Race became eventually twinned with class as a mark of subjection.

    I’m not arguing a researched paper here. I’m attempting to pull together some thoughts on readings, life and meaningful discussion on this side of the Atlantic. Two people and certainly two nations do not see events from one perspective.

    After seven years and seeing things through two perspectives, I see class underpinning privilege, that it is silly to deny its complicity in race and colour. It’s this revelation that has opened my thinking to other ideas as well.

    What this means to discussion of the United State’s tactical use of slavery and war as economic growth policy, I will have to leave to another day. It’s a bit much for a blog reply, isn’t it?

    God bless America. Let’s leave it at that.

  3. Well, I really hate this topic for the points mentioned above, I may be ignorant because I am not part of any minority (unless possessing smartphone counts) but often I feel this topic brings too much tension to the surface. Fortunately I have managed to avoid such situttions despite I had Gypsy, Chinese etc... classmates in elementary and secondary school and there are people at university who don't look "original" Hungarian (I don't know how to say it PC). However I live in a quite good environment so it may be different in other parts of the country.

    As I wrote this message I realised that it is indeed a difficult topic. Sorry for not following your blog regularly, I am writing my thesis and preparing for the application for a masters course.

  4. Barb, we missed you.
    Jacob, in the early 1900's race in the US also referred to Italian, Jewish, Irish, etc.
    Ropi, you and Jacob are among the earliest What Do I Know? readers and commenters. You are always welcome. And even I have trouble keeping up with this blog. :) Ace your exams.

    As an 'original' Hungarian, you don't have to think about racism if you don't want to. It's what they call here 'white privilege' which means all the things the majority culture gets 'free'. You have the privilege not to think about racism because it doesn't affect you (negatively) every day. Like not having people look at you in the bus and think, "He might try to steal my wallet." Or not getting a job because you "look like" you might not be trustworthy.

    I remember your Chinese friend who moved to California. Do you still keep in touch with him?


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