The Root’s Confab and Random Thoughts About Talking About Race

by Latoya Peterson

After I hit up the AAA conference on race, I had to dash over to the Root’s offices to make a 4 PM podcast.  Natalie Hopkinson had kindly invited me to join them on The Confab, The Root’s Podcast.  Here’s the description:

This week on The Confab: Why is Haiti so unlucky? How has new media impacted earthquake relief efforts? And, will someone tell Pat Robertson to please shut up? Plus, the ever-evolving state of race? How possible is it to have a productive discussion. Join The Root‘s media and culture critic Natalie Hopkinson as she talks with managing editor Joel Dreyfuss, Jesse Washington of the Associated Press, Natalie Y. Moore from Chicago Public Radio and Racialicious’ Latoya Peterson.

You can listen to the Confab here.  Regular readers and listeners to ATR will notice that I start to get a bit frustrated midway through.  While I enjoy Natalie Hopkinson’s work, and found Jesse Washington a nice and funny guy, it can be challenging – particularly in a radio/television format – to break down complex ideas about race in a few seconds without getting cut off.

Sometimes, this is just the medium.  I was asked by Jesse Washington who are white professional anti-racists outside of Tim Wise, and I couldn’t think of any off the top of my head. I referred to Nezua, the Unapologetic Mexican as someone who had more experience dealing with white anti-racists, but it came out wrong.  It sounded like I was saying “Nez knows all the white people” when really, I was thinking about this video that he made for News with Nezua (transcript here):

News With Nezua | The White Professional Anti-Racist from nezua on Vimeo.

(Also, see what happens on Nez’s site when he posts this video, and the reaction from a “White Professional Anti-Racist”.)

So there’s that.  But Washington also asked me if I was an “anti racist activist” which actually gave me some pause.This was combined with some of the comments on the Confab – that being born black automatically means you know everything you need to know about race, or how since white people are not the ones knowledgeable about racism, they need to be leading conversations on it, or the lack of thought that minority groups have toward each other’s struggles.  There were just so many things that there wasn’t enough time to deconstruct – any one of those questions/statements could have been a whole podcast.

Natalie had brought up an example of what she thought a transformative racial conversation was – she talked about discussing race with a white man, and he went home in tears.  But to me, making white people feel guilty or confused isn’t the point of racial conversation.  Unless we are going to float our way to equality on rivers of white tears, I am not interesting in making people feel bad or guilty for no apparent reason or goal.  (Besides, simmering guilt can lead to resentment, but that’s another post entirely.) But then again, that ties up into other ideas.  My activism generally focuses on people of color and cross cultural activism.  Before that, I was brought up black nationalism (in a cultural and economic sense) and black separatism.  My experiences lead me to believe that the best way to impact racial change is through organizing with other people of color. We are at our strongest when we stand in unity, and history is full of references to how our movements informed each other and built upon each other. Those who are the most impacted by a social ill are the ones who will fight the longest and the strongest to change it.  While shifting the majority opinion is a part of that, reaching some form of consensus between a marginalized group and a dominant group almost never happens. But, as time has passed, we’ve (collectively, as POC) forgotten what kind of power there is in standing together, preferring to silo in our own spaces.  We have internalized the racism taught to us and allowed the dominant culture to pit us against each other.  So, my focus is always going to be on uniting the pieces of communities that want this cross cultural connection.

What about white people (as Washington asked)?  In my opinion, white people will be fine.  As I mentioned in the podcast, the system is designed to benefit whites to the detriment of other groups.  So, just as  heterosexuals can go through their entire lifetimes and never have to think about the equality and struggle of homosexuals, white people do not need to think about or engage critically with race to be fine.  Are there white people invested in anti-racism? Yes, for various reasons.  However, I strongly believe people cannot receive messages until they are ready for them.  Racialicious – and our particular type of racial discussion – is not for everyone.  It’s not for people who still question white privilege, it’s not for people who believe that stating they are a white ally means they can then police POC on their tone and tactics for organizing, it is not a space for people who demand to be “taught” anti-racism in their way to their liking.  (It is also not for people of color who do not care to organize with other groups, or POC would would seek to deny those of us with a different sexual orientation or gender identification.) And I’m fine with that.  To solve the issues of race in this country, a lot of things have to happen in tandem. Someone needs to have the 101 conversations, some one needs to have the 303 conversations.  Someone needs to try to work out the interpersonal aspects of racism, and someone needs to tackle structural racism.  There is a lot of work to be done, so there is no one right answer.

But, in a radio format, it’s hard to say something like this without being cut off or interrupted.  So it doesn’t get said, and I’m back to working on soundbytes.