What I Learned From Writing Race Manners

Jenée Desmond-Harris
The Root

There’s no question from a reader this time. Just the bittersweet news that this is my last week at The Root and the final installment of Race Manners.

I launched the column in March 2013, promising to “take on your toughest questions about the ethics and etiquette of racial interactions in a changing America.”

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At that time, after a couple of years writing about news, politics and pop culture where they intersected with race, I was frustrated. To put it bluntly: I thought if I had to read or see another cable-news panel debate whether “the celebrity’s statement/the politician’s email/the costume/the mascot/the song was racist” when nobody had even agreed on what “racist” meant or why it mattered, I’d scratch my eyes—and ears—out.

So I planned to teach people a thing or two about how to analyze the ways in which race informs things that happen in our society (and why that matters) by dedicating 1,000 words to questions that too often only get about 10.  

I was a little arrogant. I didn’t realize how challenging this would be or how much I would learn in the process.

The most important and most fascinating lessons were the ones about psychology, history or sociology that I learned when a reader’s question made me first think, “Oh no, I can’t answer this—I have no idea!” and then, “There’s probably something happening here or a way of thinking about this that I don’t understand.”

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I turned to experts to make sense of things like why judgment against those who lighten their skin may be unfair, what we’re really saying when we call a name “ghetto,” what it means when toddlers start self-segregating based on race, and why it can be tough for us to tell people from other ethnic backgrounds apart, and how we started putting people into racial categories in the first place. I developed a real respect for the people who spend their careers investigating issues like these with great care and explaining them with humanity. I learned that there are great answers to many of these hard questions, if we only take the time to ask.

As I predicted, I often found myself pivoting from readers’ “Is it racist if … ?” questions to address what I found myself calling, over and over, “the real issue.” I also learned that to make any sense at all of questions about racial interactions means to get comfortable abandoning the quest for balance (you know, the old, “What if a white person did the same thing?”). After all, the experiences of people of different races aren’t balanced. The more relevant inquiry than, “Does this analysis apply evenly across all groups?” almost always turns out to be, “Does this action perpetuate or reflect racial bias? Does it serve to maintain a society where people’s race means they feel like, or are treated like, crap? Do you want to be part of that?”

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I’ve learned through many questions that diverse, modern families are hot spots for conversations about race. But while close relationships force people who might have otherwise taken a “colorblind” perspective to grapple with the experiences and views of their loved ones, being related to someone of a different ethnicity is no remedy for prejudice or even hate.

Relatedly, I learned that as commonplace as interracial relationships and multiracial people are, the choices of those who live these experiences intrigue, enrage and fascinate readers. Every single time.

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I learned how many people urgently want to do the right thing when it comes to grappling with their race-based privilege and treating other people well. I realized how defensive they can be when they’re condemned, but how deeply appreciative and disarmed they can be when reminded about the larger cultural and historical dynamics that absorb some of the blame for their more troubling interactions and beliefs.

I’ve learned that there are endless resources—books, articles, groups, conferences—for people who want to process their own experiences or do better when it comes to how they interact with people from other backgrounds.

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I realized I don’t have all the answers and I still have a lot to learn. When I filed some columns, like “Why Do Italian Men Love Black Women?” I did so with a sense of anxiety that I may have missed the point. Unanswered in my inbox now is a question from a mom about whether a 4-year-old should get to have the braided hairstyles that she loves on her black friends or whether this would constitute cultural appropriation. Honestly, I don’t know what to tell her.

From that and other questions that went unanswered, and from the many issues raised by the many comments on each column, I learned there’s a lot more where all this came from.

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I’m grateful to the entire community of The Root—from editors and readers to those who wrote in with their dilemmas, to the people who emailed me privately—for allowing me to have this platform, and for reading and participating. Starting Oct. 1, I’ll be writing for Vox, where I’ll have a chance to dig into many of the same types of questions raised by Race Manners and, it goes without saying, to keep learning.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is associate editor of features at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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