What Makes White People Feel Invisible?

Plus: Where did the idea for a race-advice column come from? The latest Race Manners-inspired Reddit AMA.

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MintyTyrant: How long have you been doing this work?

Jdesmondharris: I've been writing Race Manners since March 2013. For about a year and a half before that I was writing for The Root, doing a lot of work that touched on the intersection of race with politics and culture. And I've been obsessing over race and racial identity probably since I was around 15 (and formally since I started at Howard University in 1999).

Bonkersmonkers: Very cool! How did you start writing race advice? I've never heard of anything similar.

Jdesmondharris: Hi! Thanks for your question. Well, I've always loved advice columns of all kinds (mostly because I'm really nosy about the types of problems other people have in their lives). I used to try to predict the advice the columnists would give before reading their responses.

A few years ago I started reading Dear Prudence, which is written by Emily Yoffe at The Root's sister site, Slate. She got a few really intriguing questions that touched on race issues. For example, there was this guy who, when he found out his (Asian) wife couldn't have biological children, decided he'd really prefer to adopt a white child. Awkward.

A few questions like that gave me the idea that an entire column dedicated to hard questions about race and the way we interact with family, friends and co-workers could be really interesting. I love it because people write in with sincere questions and really want to understand something, help someone or do the right thing.

And it's so rare that we hear race and racism discussed in that context. Usually we don't address it until someone has been attacked or offended, and then the public conversation is adversarial, and no one's in the right state of mind to think critically or compassionately. I try to take the time to talk to experts, read up on history and write understanding responses that encourage empathy, so I hope RM is refreshing in that way.

cyhawk31: How do you personally feel about stereotypes?

Jdesmondharris: I think they exist (obviously), and we're all (really, all of us) affected by them to some extent. Normally the question surrounding a particular stereotype is "Is it based in truth? Is it generally true?" I think a better one is, "How would you feel if someone applied that stereotype to you and treated you differently because of it?"

Normally the answer is somewhere between "annoyed" and "pretty terrible." So I don't think the best idea is to beat up ourselves and others for buying into or mistakenly perpetuating stereotypes. It's probably more productive to just try to be more aware of when we're doing it and to think about whether the intellectual laziness is worth the potential harm to others and to our relationship with others. Most times, that would be a definite "no."

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