If not a nation of cowards, then certainly a nation in denial

by Carmen Van Kerckhove, originally published at CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 blog

In a speech at the Department of Justice yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder declared that when it comes to dealing with the issue of race, we are “essentially a nation of cowards.”

While his choice of words was harsh, he was absolutely right in pointing out the fact that honest, authentic, and productive conversations about race rarely happen in this country.

Following his historic speech on race last spring, Barack Obama was castigated by some cable channel talking heads for “throwing his white grandmother under the bus” because he had the audacity to point out that his own flesh and blood — the grandmother who had helped to rear him and loved him like a son — had herself been guilty of internalizing and reflecting racist stereotypes.

Should Obama’s revelation have come as a surprise? Not really.

We’ve been conditioned from an early age by advertising, pop culture, and the news media. We’re surrounded 24/7 by images steeped in racial stereotypes. There’s simply no way for us not to be influenced by them.

So why the denial? For the reason Holder explained: Once we open this particular Pandora’s box to the light, we’re going to expose notions and prejudices most people fervently wish we could put behind us.

Unfortunately, trying to relegate racism to the past is premature. We’re just not there yet.

Just look at the reaction to Holder’s comment. Instead of acknowledging his (somewhat obvious, really) remark about race with a silent, knowing nod, many are rushing to call Holder a troublemaker for stating an inconvenient truth.

People are far too eager to proclaim how colorblind and post-racial they are. Last summer, a Washington Post-ABC News poll posed the question “If you honestly assessed yourself, would you say that you have at least some feelings of racial prejudice?” Only three in ten of the respondents answered yes.

Apparently, many Americans of all backgrounds have convinced themselves that they are not any part of the problem, even though racism continues to deny people of color a level playing field in just about every aspect of our society.

We’ve fallen victim to denial because in the past twenty years, there has been far too much emphasis on “celebrating diversity” at the expense of taking a hard look at race and racism.

As Latoya Peterson recently wrote on our blog Racialicious, “The history that we currently teach is hopelessly sanitized to the point where people are still unsure exactly what happened at a lynching, and are unaware of the historical meaning of behind leaving nooses as ‘a prank.’”

School textbooks gloss over the unsavory realities of genocide, slavery, and other systematic forms of institutionalized racism. Every February, black history is boiled down to little more than a series of Trivial Pursuit™-like facts about who invented peanut butter.

What Holder said hit many as hard as it did because, down deep, we know he’s right. We don’t dare face our own deepest, darkest prejudices and bring them into the light where we might re-examine and eventually obliterate them.

Professing to be “colorblind” is not an answer; it’s a dodge. We need to stop pussyfooting around the issue and face it head-on.

It’s time for us to have a real conversation about race.