Racial Anxiety Limits Racial Progress

This week's commemorations didn't address why talking about racism is as hard now as it was in 1963.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

AMJ: I don’t think it’s fully manufactured. I think when white people and people of color have conversations about race, both of our executive brains shut down for good reasons. When you’re white, it’s like you’re caught in a trap, and you’re worried about being accused of being racist, and if you’re on the other side of that conversation, you’re concerned about being the victim of racism — so you cannot have a conversation when both people are feeling this anxiety.

That’s because when race comes into a conversation, it falls into a binary: Is it racist or not? We don’t use any nuance. We should be able to have conversations about this, and we should be able to talk about how things are racialized.

TR: So, what’s the alternative to talking about topics that trigger racial anxiety? Are you suggesting that we don’t talk about them at all or that we need to do something to supplement these conversations?

AMJ: [In individual conversations] you can name that anxiety. You can say, “I see where you’re going — I’m not in this conversation to call you a racist.” You can disarm.

You can first affirm people’s goodness, because people aspire to egalitarianism. You can allow people’s ambivalence about race, and you can acknowledge the strategies about increasing racial anxiety so people know that, and they know what’s being marketed to them.

Moments like these, racial moments, moments when we take our temperature around race, are an important time to educate people around implicit bias, so that they’re able to acknowledge it.

We also want to educate people, for example, about the problem with the idea of colorblindness as an ideal. There’s a Pew poll that came out just last week on progress toward a colorblindness goal. That reflects one axiom we have to fight on. The myth of colorblindness — along with the idea that racism has to be intentional and explicit.

Most people have the best of intentions, but they also have these biases, so what we’re trying to do is help them see the inconsistencies between conscious values and what’s happening unconsciously.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Roots staff writer and White House correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.