How Not to Derail the Dialogue on Race

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(The Root) — The question for this week's column comes, loosely, from Slate's William Saletan, who asked me to throw some ideas around with him as he composed a list of tips for "how to talk constructively about racism" in the wake of white-Hispanic George Zimmerman's controversial acquittal in the shooting death of unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin.

I always sigh a little when I hear the calls for a "national conversation on race" that follow when inequality and injustice are brought to our attention in a big way.


Even President Barack Obama acknowledged in his remarks about Zimmerman's acquittal that these conversations haven't been "particularly productive." I get it, though. The idea is that Americans might not totally understand what's happening (in the Trayvon-Zimmerman case, it's the insanely unfair, deeply rooted and, in fact, deadly bias that black men face and how it's perpetuated), that we need the tools and information to do so and that providing those things will involve a lot of talking about it, both privately and publicly.


So, in response to Saletan's request for tips, I rattled off a list of tips — mostly personal pet peeves and some general reminders. Most didn't make the cut. In my view, his advice turned out to be more focused on keeping conversations about race calm and friendly ("put things in perspective," "be gentle and forgiving," "build trust," "don't polarize") than on pushing for what I'd see as "constructive" talks. I worry that some of the tips — especially things like suggesting we "get past the difference" between the types of "bias" Zimmerman and Trayvon had toward each other — are at the expense of encouraging people to deal honestly with the history or contemporary nature of racial dynamics.

Saletan was upfront with his readers, admitting that the advice was "to and from a white perspective." He sent them over to Race Manners for something from a black person.


So, if we're going to have a "conversation on race," I offer this nonexhaustive list of ground rules and reminders. It's based on my hope that we can retire some of the predictable talking points and misleading themes that do nothing but derail the type of dialogue that's been called for once again.

1. Talking about race isn't racist. Don't say that. Vilifying people who discuss race and point out racism — making them the bad guys — is one of the ways racism is maintained. So is acting as if "blacks suffer from racism" and "whites suffer from reverse racism" are equally valid points of view.


2. Yep, sometimes there are different standards for black and white stuff. You are going to get a different reaction for White History Month and Black History Month. A black person making a joke about race is different from a white person making a joke about race. To accept this requires letting go of the idea that this is really simple and thinking a little deeper about context and history. Please give up on the "But what if the races were reversed?" line of thinking. That type of analysis makes conversations simple, but it also makes them totally unhelpful.

3. African Americans are not monolithic. There is not one black experience or black point of view, and — surprise — black people are individuals who don't agree on everything and shouldn't have to answer for one another's actions, any more than white people do. (So saying a black person can't dislike the n-word because rappers use it doesn't make sense. The person who stated an objection and the person who wrote the rap don't actually share a brain.)


4. Remember that while "race" itself isn't real, racism is, and our country's long and well-documented history with racism has very real, lasting effects. Therefore, being "colorblind" is not helpful because it cripples our ability to deal with the tangible effects of racial inequality in just about every area of life.

5. Black people shouldn't have to fit your definition of what's respectable to deserve equality or justice. It's silly and unfounded to blame inequality caused by institutionalized racism on, say, sagging pants or rap music. If you want to celebrate black people who are educated and high-achieving and defy persistent stereotypes, great, but that can't be a requirement for fair treatment. We got into trouble with this type of thinking when evidence that Trayvon Martin was a normal teenager messed up so many people's impression of him as a sympathetic victim.


6. Don't defer to people like Bill Cosby about their theories about black people, any more than you would defer to a miscellaneous white celebrity about how white people are doing. If you need guidance, look for someone whose background offers evidence that he or she had the incentive to spend some time seeking information and thinking critically in a professional capacity about whatever it is the person is discussing.

7. Individual racism and systemic racism are two different things. We should care about all the structures that maintain racial inequality, not just individual actors. (This is why it's not unreasonable to jump from George Zimmerman's impression of Trayvon Martin to racial profiling by police.) That said, individual acts can provide strong reminders about larger attitudes and problems. Ahem, Paula Deen. Ahem.


8. Don't give the word "racism" so much power that you can't speak rationally after you hear it. Remember that the threshold for "racism" is a lot lower than being a member of the KKK and hating every black person you see. It means buying into and perpetuating things that support the idea of white supremacy. You can be a very nice person and still do that, even without meaning to. You can do it even if you have black friends. 

9. Resist the urge to believe and regurgitate myths about black people, even when they're promoted by black people (African Americans are all more homophobic, black-on-black crime is uniquely bad, there are more black men in prison than in college, all black women love being fat, etc.). Take a minute to challenge the things you hear many say over and over. You'll often find they don't have a strong basis in reality.


10. Finally, stop thinking about and discussing racism as something that's the problem of black and other nonwhite people. Remember that there's an ever-growing movement of anti-racist white people concerned with dismantling white privilege. When you're talking about racism, remember that it's not just bad for those whom it oppresses; it's bad for everyone because it creates an unjust society. When people want to fix racism, they do it not because they're being charitable or nice, but because they're being smart and decent.

Need race-related advice? Send your questions to

Previously in Race Manners:  "Black and White Kids: Different Trayvon Talks?"

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