(The Root) — There are moments in which tension surrounding discussion of America's racial history and resistance to acknowledging racism couldn't be clearer. Criticizing Saturday's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Laura Ingraham scoffed at the issues addressed by the speakers, accused participants of attempting "to co-opt the legacy of Martin Luther King into a modern-day liberal agenda" and punctuated a clip of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) speaking with the sound of a gunshot.
But flat-out hostility isn't the only thing we should be concerned about, says Alexis McGill Johnson. She's the executive director of American Values Institute, a consortium of researchers, educators and social justice advocates whose work analyzes the role of bias and racial anxiety in our society. She worries the panic that seizes even the most well-intended among us when we talk about race and racism is what's limiting real racial progress.
The problems, she says, include the way we tend to talk about race in inaccurate "racist or not racist" binaries (versus acknowledging that people can hold unconscious biases), a widespread adherence to the false goal of colorblindness and a hesitancy to acknowledge that Americans are more confused, ambivalent or curious than they feel safe admitting when it comes to questions of race.
We spoke to McGill Johnson about the racial anxiety that she says will stifle conversations around this week's March on Washington anniversary and beyond, where it comes from and how Americans can begin to get past it.
The Root: Through the lens of your focus on racial anxiety, what's missing from the commemorations of the March on Washington?
Alexis McGill Johnson: In some ways, they are actually feeding into the right-wing strategy, which is to increase racial anxiety. Racial anxiety is a deep fear of being seen as racist or fears that one will be the object of racism. It is grounded in research of the mind sciences, which tells us that our experience of race is as much of an emotional construct as it is a historical-structural-cognitive construct.
This is a moment when I think we'll hear a lot of things that trigger that reality — we'll hear about unresolved history and structural disparities, for example. These things will be reinforced over and over again.
And if the right is saying, "If you mention race, then you're a racist," and all of a sudden we're documenting disparities, what we're doing is actually turning people's brains off. That's because implicit-bias research tells us that the more disparity numbers you mention, the more you talk about people being marginalized, the further you move them into dehumanization in the brain.
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 Root's staff writer and White House correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.