In her final Reddit Ask Me Anything for 2013, our Race Manners columnist, Jenée Desmond-Harris, took readers' questions about racial etiquette (and a couple on her own experience doling out advice).
Should a white friend tell a black friend he's a little paranoid about racism? And what's the best way to deal with the drain that can come with writing about this stuff? Read the answers in the partial transcript here:
DontKnow_: What was the worst thing to happen to one of your readers, due to your advice?
Jdesmondharris: Well, given the nature of the column [trying to help people by giving advice], I would hope nothing too bad has happened. But in all honestly, I could see my advice occasionally straining people's relationships with friends or family. For example, I told a reader who wanted to know how to deal with friends who made racist comments at a dinner party that while she shouldn't humiliate them, she should let them know why their comments upset her.
I also advised a bride-to-be who had a "racist, Zionist" uncle that she should put him on notice that offending her wedding guests was unacceptable and that he'd be asked to leave if he got out of line. In another column, I told a black woman whose friends insisted that her white boyfriend was fetishizing her that the relationship critics might be the ones with the problem. It's entirely possibly the characters at the center of some readers' questions wouldn't take my advice well and that relationships could be damaged (although, I'd personally question whether those relationships were worth saving).
MrKoolKevin: Am I allowed to tell my friend that I think he is too paranoid about other white people? Whenever a white person does anything even remotely negative or unpleasant to him, he insists that it's racial, even when it involves people who are rude to me, too (I'm white).
JDH: Tough question. Short answer: Yes, you're allowed. But no, it's not a good idea.
Here's the thing—I can't weigh in on the substance of what's happening in these interactions, but I can say for sure that whether he's totally paranoid or totally justified (and seeing patterns that you can't imagine because of your experience), having you tell him he's making too much of it is not going to change his perception of what's happening. And it might cause a divide between you.
To be honest, in a world where people are regularly being stopped, arrested, shot, killed and otherwise profiled because of their race, he has every logical reason to be hyper-aware of the fact that he may be being victimized in this way. If you feel he's casting the net too wide or making himself overly miserable, though, maybe the best way for you to understand where he's coming from is not to "tell him" he's being too paranoid, but to ask him about his experience instead. ("What does it feel like to feel as though you're being treated unfairly because of your race? How can you tell what's happening? What did you pick up on? How do you think this would have been different if you were white? What about the fact that the waiter was rude to me, too? Did it seem to you like I was treated better? How?")
Let him know that you're sincerely curious about this. I have a feeling you might both be surprised by your very different perceptions and your different experiences in the world.
NuKirk: I run a blog full of racial news and information. I won an award for best micro-blog. However, I find it draining at times. How do you deal with this type of topic? I can't say it's a "passion" of mine, but helping people is.
JDH: This is a great question, and probably deserves a longer response than I can give here. But, I totally, completely understand what you're saying. Sometimes the seemingly endless stories about racial disparities, blatant acts of racism and the ways in which bias and stereotypes rear their ugly heads in everything from politics to pop culture can be absolutely sickening.
What helps me to deal with it every day is to try my best to stay connected to a sense of purpose about why I write about this topic. It's not to simply chronicle how terrible the world can be, to sink into snark and cynicism (although that does happen!) or to spread depressing news. Rather, it's to increase awareness about what's happening, to present it in a framework that can enrich people's understanding of it, to try to take dialogue about this stuff to a level beyond infuriatingly simple talking points, to occasionally insert humor and to try to identify situations that call for compassion and hope, when they exist.
It helps a lot to feel as though I've added all I've learned along the way to the conversation, and maybe helped others to make better sense of them. I know how thankful I am when writers and thinkers whom I admire really hit the nail on the head—it actually gives me a huge sense of relief and peace—so I focus on trying to do the same whenever I have the tools to do so.
The Root’s staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: “Yes, Single Women Can Send Photo Holiday Cards”