(The Root) — In The Root's first-ever Reddit Ask Me Anything, our Race Manners columnist Jenée Desmond-Harris took all of your burning questions about race etiquette. Need to know how to talk about race with the children in your life? Want to know why it might not just be a preference if someone says, "I'm not attracted to black people"? Check out the transcript below.
Lunaedea7: Hi, Jenée! Thanks for doing this AMA, and I hope you don't end up regretting it. :) So, my question is, how can we get people to understand that the whole "I'm not attracted to black people" thing really is racism at work, and not just sexual preference? People try over and over to simply equate that s—t to something akin to liking redheads over brunettes, and it's just not the same … it could never be the same. How can we get them to understand that we're not saying, "YOU'RE A RACIST!" but instead try to get them to see that their so-called "preferences" are not just something they were born with, or something that randomly sprung up in their minds, like they want us to think.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Well, I love asking people a lot of questions to get them to squirm — I mean, self-reflect — versus just lecturing to them. So, "Hmm, interesting. Do you have any idea how you got that preference? How dark can skin be before it starts being unattractive to you? Or is it hair texture or a particular type of facial feature that turns you off the most? There is a LOT of variety among black people so it's really interesting that you wouldn't be attracted to any of them. Do you think this is completely random or might it reflect how you grew up or what you were taught? Interesting how we see this type of hierarchy of beauty around the world. Think your preference might be influenced by that at all, or did it really just come out of nowhere (because not much that we do or believe comes out of nowhere)?" Hope that helps!
Whiteguyatthepark: So … overheard this on the Metro yesterday, and I'm not sure what my response should have been. But what do you say to the (old, white) Monticello T-shirt-wearing tourist who in talking about his enjoyable vacation to the over-eager stranger says: "As far as slave sites go, that seems like it would have been a pretty nice place to work."
Jenée Desmond-Harris: "As far as people who are ignorant about history and insensitive to human suffering go, you're a pretty nice one to ride the Metro with."
Whiteguyatthepark: Nice, thanks. But at the end of the day is it even worthwhile engaging? I'm not going to educate him, and making him feel small, I think, might only make him cling tighter to his line of thinking.
And, full disclosure, my response was to turn up the music in my headphones and turn away (i.e., to treat him the same way I treated my parents when I was a teenager).
Jenée Desmond-Harris: OK, so a serious response: "Wow, I couldn't help overhearing that, and I just can't imagine slavery being 'nice' anywhere. I don't think the landscaping made much of a different to people who were completely dehumanized, physically abused and torn away from their families."
I think it's always worth engaging if you're bothered by something because if no one ever engaged with people whose thinking about race was problematic, a lot more of us would still be living on "nice" or not-so-nice "slave sites" today.
Keinlife: Hi, Jenée, thanks for doing this!
How would you respond to people who claim that we're past significant racial issues and tensions in the U.S. as evidenced by our electing a black president (also up for discussion)? The more practical the response the better.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Hi! Thanks for your question. I'd probably point out that we have one black president and tens of thousands of other people in the country. Focusing on the tens of thousands of others reveals huge and well-documented racial disparities in everything from education to criminal justice to access to health care. If that's not enough proof, tell them to search for the n-word on Twitter and report back on what they find.
Tracylc: Hey! I have a question. So my nephew is 5 and very, very fair-skinned. At some point in a conversation the issue of my nephew being black came up, and my nephew says, "I'm not black, I'm yellow!" presumably because his dad calls him "lil yellow boy" from time to time.
I thought briefly about trying to explain race and all that to him in a way that he'd understand, but stopped because I didn't know how, firstly, or if it was time for such things.
My question: When do you begin to talk with kids about race, in your opinion? How young is too young?
Jenée Desmond-Harris: That's funny. I definitely used to think I was "pink." And I just heard a friend's story about how she thought her (black, fair-skinned) mom was white until she was 10 years old. The kid just learned what colors were a few years ago, so I can definitely see how this could be confusing. How about a focus on ancestry/history (which is the more meaningful part of race) instead? As in "Our family is African-American. That means our ancestors came from Africa. African-American people come in all different colors, including brown and yellow. We use the word 'black,' but that's silly because no one is actually the color black." I think a 5-year-old could start to get that.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: OK, have to wrap this up. Let's do it again. In the meantime, send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Bye! Stay black! Or yellow — or pink.