Why is it so important to have productive conversations on race?

by Latoya Peterson

All conversations on race are not created equal.  Many of them, quite frankly, suck.  Whether it is the endless “nigga vs. nigger” conversation which for some reason is still kicked around by bored people, to the oppression olympics, to derailing and stonewalling in real life, we have all been a part of “discussions” on race where you have to stifle the urge to run screaming from the room.

Carmen wrote about this in post called “When Dialogue About Race Isn’t Just Isn’t Enough:”

There’s nothing particularly useful about rehashing the same tired arguments over and over again: “Why can black people use the n-word but white people can’t? Are Asian women selling out Asian men when they date interracially? Aren’t people who identify as multiracial just running from their blackness?”

Snore…

What many people don’t seem to realize is that the type of “dialogue” sparked by ignorant behavior is almost always exactly of this non-productive nature.

It’s time we raised the bar and realized that we need to aim for quality dialogue about race — not its mere existence.

Predictably, there were people who objected to this on Carmen’s site, with the idea that “well, some people are interested in having these discussions.”  And those folks are welcome to keep arguing in circles all they want.  However, this does not come without cost.  Sparky, writing for Womanist Musings, aptly summarizes why so many of us aren’t up for endless rounds of enagement:

I knew where this conversation was going within the first 10 minutes – gods, the first 5 minutes. The opening lines, even. I knew that I was heading into a long, unpleasant and awkward conversation that was likely going to throw a lot of straight privilege at me, push a lot of painful buttons and generally leave me frustrated, tired and feeling like shit. In short, within 5 minutes of the conversation starting I wanted it to end.

How do I know this? Because I’ve had exactly the same conversation and variations of this about a squillion times before. All completely unoriginal, all tiring, all painful and all immensely frustrating. And I’m quite sure over half have been utterly, completely pointless wastes of my energy and mental health.

My point?

My point is sometimes I can’t do it. And that’s a shame because, even if most failed, I know some of these conversations HAVE worked. I know some ignorant people who bought a clue, listened and did their best not to do it again. Yes, it can be productive. Yes it has worked. Yes calmly and reasonably answering all the ignorant questions you’ve answered a thousand times or politely objecting and explaining why something was offensive can and does work. It’s half the reason I ramble so much about sexuality on this LJ.

And sometimes I can’t do it. Sometimes I’m tired, I’m in a bad mood or I’m just sick to the back teeth of the whole damn hetero-normative world, it’s ignorance, it’s insensitivity and it’s endless reminders that I don’t belong.  Sometimes I’m annoyed because it should be damned OBVIOUS why I don’t find that joke funny, or why I get angry at being called “fag.”

These conversations are painful and tiring and frustrating. They’re very personal (they can’t help but be), they force me to confront homophobia and homophobic ignorance head on. They force me to endure it and slog through it. They force me to be vulnerable. They force me to expose that vulnerability to someone who, at best, may clumsily trample all over me and at worst may deliberately do some stomping.

Conversations about race are not amusing at all when the people who you are discussing the issue with make it clear that (1) they have not thought about the issue much, (2) they don’t care to think about the issue much, but (3) they are determined to talk about the issue anyway.  And, as some of you may know, I was recently confronted with this situation over at Jezebel.Now, I totally could have let this one slide.  After all, it isn’t as if I started writing for Jezebel ignorant of the mainstream audience and many of the dynamics at play.  And I’ve written many posts on race for them that had disappointing comments – it was starting to become kind of par for the course.  But that particular day, I had enough of it – Racialicious was built to discuss race and pop culture, in an intelligent way, and it is geared toward people who already accept that racism is an issue, and pop culture plays a role in perpetuating racist ideas.  And if I already have this space, why the hell do I need to subject myself anywhere else?  I started writing for Jezebel because I am fond of many of the writers there, the editor is cool, I like a lot of the whip smart members of their community, and I have a desire to not be pigeonholed as someone who solely writes about race issues.  So why put myself through extra agony?  With that, I commented, to interesting result.  I should mention here that many, many people wrote into voice their support.  Senior editor Dodai felt compelled to write a formal post after reading my pissy past-midnight comment, dozens of Jezebels commented in support, and I received many emails also affirming the value of continued engagement.  (All of those things were much appreciated).   However, a lot of it was still crap, but sifting through it all and responding to bits and pieces brought to mind a number of things that those of us who are building coalitions struggle with.  There are two major issues when trying to have a conversation as complicated as one centering race.

The Role of Empathy (Bonding vs. Silencing)

A commenter asked me why I did not acknowledge that people, in trying to share their experience, are actually trying to understand, even if they miss the mark a little?  The commenter argued that sharing experiences is  a way to relate someone else’s experience to one’s own which may help to bring about greater understanding.  Now this is true.  But often, what people think is empathy is really one-upmanship.  I wrote back to the commenter:

This kind of dynamic happens often on my blog. A person who is may not be of a the race/ethnicity being discussed shares a story about their experience. It is not the same as others stories. However, there are two very different ways people go about it.

One is when someone is trying to *affirm* an experience by relating it to their own lives. They talk about marginalization based on their sexuality, or based on their race gender combination. For example, many Asian American males and African American females find common ground in being portrayed as undesirable partners in the media. The experiences of an Asian American male and an African American female are not the same – however, there are enough notes of similarity where when we write a post, someone (of either group) wants to reach out and say, “hey, I feel you on this – you are not alone.”

The second is when someone is trying to *deny* your experience based on their limited reality. This is what I object to, because they are building what is a false parallel. So, comments like “As a white woman with kinky hair, I think it’s ridiculous that black women wouldn’t want to straighten their hair! I straighten my hair to look presentable and so should you!” (We actually received that comment on Racialicious, but it went on for paragraphs). It is frustrating when you are talking about a large, systemic issue and people try to make it about the individual. Saying “well, my barbie didn’t look like me either” or “women in ads don’t look like me” as a way of dismissing the systemic in favor of the personal actually stalls conversation.

And to be frank, its one of the reasons that Racialicious focuses our comment mod policy the way we do – our readers hear that shit all day long. They want a space in which the participants are already aware of the differences between systemic and individual acts of racism and can discuss them intelligently. (And, for some reason, our white readership on the site manages to participate in these convos just fine.)

Is this a large issue in feminism? Oh yes. But the frustration comes not because people just *aren’t aware* of these differences – it is because when you present the facts, that are too busy navel gazing to listen.

This happens often and it is a fine line between trying to establish a connection and playing the oppression olympics.  A long time ago, when I first started writing for this site, I wrote a piece called “4th Generation Racist,”about how I had been raised to mistrust white people and to reject white ideals, and how getting more involved with anti-racism forced me to challenge those ideas.  The comment thread for that one was interesting, but I remember being enraged at a comment I received well after the post was published. The commenter provided a laundry list of slights she received at the hands of people of color, concluding with:

There is an issue growing in this country. There are many issues, but one that affects me greatly, and has affected me all of my nearly 20 years of life, and that is “anti-white-bias”. That is how I found this blog. To my surprise, it did not anger me, but I felt that I could add my piece. It is a separate idea, looking in from the other side of the glass. Instead being the victim of social majority racism, I come from a background of experiencing anti-white attitude. It hurts just as bad. Especially to be associated with things that you have not been responsible for. Such as racism. We came on over from Europe, and here we were practically being accused of being slave owners. It’s all very hard to deal with, and it’s a touchy topic. I’d like to discuss racial issues, but there are many that are not discussed simply for not being a popular idea. I am trying to become more comfortable discussing things. Although not everyone will entirely agree with me, I hope that you do not mind my response. I only wanted to contribute a view from a different stand point. Thank you. =)

Her comment was not empathy.  It took a while for me to be able to articulate why the article angered me so, far more than those who called me a racist after publishing it (who obviously missed the conclusion).  Then, I realized why.  Many of the learned behaviors I described were in response to systemic issues in society.  While this commenter also experienced pain, she experienced it on a personal level.  And it is not the same.

I don’t think any anti-racist activist will say that being rejected by a group for who you are should not hurt.  Over the years, we’ve explored ostracization at the hands of a white majority as well as at the hands of others within our race/ethnicity.  We talk about the pain of rejection and non acknowledgment.  No one would deny that this pain is real.  However, it’s quite different from the kind of pain that occurs when you realize it might be a good idea to change your name on your résumé.  It’s one thing to have someone openly attack you based on your race.  It’s another thing when society condones and encourages this type of behavior in ways that impact education, personal wealth, well being, and social mobility.  These things are as different as a first degree burn and a third degree burn.  And thus, when people consistently try to conflate the two, it tends to take conversations about race down frustrating paths – even if they had the best intentions.

The Limitations of Patience

Another commenter wrote in, saying that eventually, these missteps and such will lead to greater understanding.  Even if it is painful going now, it’s part of a process that will eventually lead to a better end.  Sadly, I disagreed with that idea as well. I wrote;

Real understanding can only happen if people empathize, not overwrite the experiences of others. Those of us who are privileged (and we all are, in various ways, just as we all have our own battles to fight) have the ability to make light of someone else’s pain.

On an individual to individual level, this is painful. On a societal level, it is catastrophic.

Some people have endless fountains of patience to continue to challenge the same prejudiced ideas over and over again. But many of us do not. This is not the first time I’ve encountered any of the lines of argument above. And while, on an individual level, it seems fine to try to engage someone with conversation, over time, those of us who are in a historically marginalized group find ourselves arguing the same points over and over again in an endless loop. Sure, it’s cool the first three times you explain something like this. But the 300th? 3000th? There is a reason why many people blogging about issues of social justice maintain that members of marginalized groups have no obligation to teach anyone. Why? There are millions of blog posts, thousands of books, discussion notes, podcasts etc, dedicated to explaining any thing you want to know. Asking people to continually perform on demand is demoralizing.

It is as Mai’a writes here:

in my experience, folks can learn all the theory, all the right words, all of it and yet act fundamentally the same, live out the same patterns of thoughts, still hold the same fucked-up priorities. and yet spout all of the anti-racist rhetoric.

because that is all it is to them. rhetoric.

people only learn as much as they are willing to learn.

and anti-oppression is not complicated. you dont need to read a book or a take a training or read a blog to learn humility, respect, and love. [...]

i guess what i am saying is that in my experience if white folks want to be respectful of poc or understand where they are coming from–they dont need a workshop. there are centuries of writing from poc that they can dive into. there are plenty of poc in their neighborhoods and community organizations. when white folks are ready to be anti-racist, when they are ready to turn from facing the center, to facing the margins, and stand with us. we will be here

Sharing of ideas, conversation, open-discourse do not work if people reject the reality of others in favor of maintaining their ideas about the world. No one is saying that this isn’t difficult or complicated. We all have moments when we fail. We all have moments when we stubbornly refuse others the empathy we crave for ourselves.

However, we are also operating within a system that rewards this micro acts of prejudice. And I don’t see the point of engaging, endlessly, particularly if people don’t really have any need to change. I can call myself a gay ally until I am blue in the face, point to all the posts I’ve written or deeds I’ve done, but it would not change the fact that I, as a heterosexual, will never be the target of that specific brand of prejudice. And as such, maybe I should be careful of trying to insert my hetero-narrative into a context where it doesn’t fit.

At the end of the day, I can walk away from the conversation and go about my life. Others live it. So, in general, it is a good rule of thumb to tread lightly. For some people it is a thought exercise, for others, this is their lives. And while I value my opinions and perspective, it is important to remember that everything is not necessarily about how I see things.

Jezebel has very different norms from Racialicious, and I voiced my anger precisely because that is the way you all do things here. Over on Racialicious, we do it very differently. There aren’t really conclusions to be drawn from that, but I do find it interesting that on black barbie posts or black hair posts or various other posts, the same arguments manifest time and time again.

Some people have mentioned this exchange has been helpful to them, and I am glad for it – however, I should clarify, so people do not continue to worry.

I do not wish to write about race for Jezebel. Where I am, and where I focus my activism, I prefer to work with other people who recognize the issues with systemic vs. individual racism, and are interested and willing to compare the ways in which oppression impacts us in order to raise a stronger fight against it. I’ve written about race daily for a solid three years now – I know what I want to accomplish. I just spent three or four hours I could have been doing other things responding to people’s concerns, and while that is fine sometimes, it isn’t a sustainable practice.

Since I, like everyone else, do not have the luxury of single issue. I will still write here for the other things I am passionate about. But I don’t feel the need to engage all the time. My writing, the writing and speeches and talks of others, all of that are around if people want it. But I firmly believe that you will not change anyone’s mind about anything unless they are willing to hear it.

You are correct in that we cannot judge the intent of others – this is why we say that the *effect* also needs to come under consideration. If you don’t intend to kill someone but do it anyway, the end result is a person is still dead. If you perpetuate racism unintentionally, the end result is still upholding a racist system.

But I am not overly concerned about this. I am one person, working at something that millions of others did before me and millions of others will do after I am gone. I do what I can.

And if people find my ideas intriguing and want to subscribe to my newsletter, they know how to find me.

Writing about race in mainstream spaces can often be frustrating and it can often be rewarding, just as many of you know from doing the same thing in your daily personal interactions.  And while we are all encouraged when we have a breakthrough by talking to others and expanding upon or ideas, it is also important to remember that this must be done in a sustainable way. I have seen too many people with amazing ideas and wonderful perspectives become burnt out and disengaged because they felt they could reach everyone, every time, at every occasion.  But as these structures were not built in a day, and not upheld by one person, the process to dismantling them will also be a long, hard road.

Do people need time to grow and change at a basic level? Of course, and there will never be any shortage of people stepping up to the plate.

But it is also important for those of us who can to press for better conversations about race.  I think one of my favorite moments on television was when Carmen was on CNN and decided she wanted to change the conversation.  It didn’t go over well.  She was cut from most of the remaining segment.  But she was able to get up on national television and say that our focus (at that time, on Jesse Jackson’s use of the word nigger to describe Obama) was misdirected.  She was able to beam that idea into millions of households across America – and even though she didn’t get to say much else, the core idea was there – we can have a different kind of conversation.

And some of us need to conserve some strength to step up in those moments.