One of the challenges inherent in discussing matters of race often, is that either people lose interest or if they know you personally you soon start noticing a pattern where you are no longer on the invite list. Worse yet people question your motives and see such dialogue as divisive. After all can’t we just all get along and see people as people? In an ideal world, where the “isms” aren’t a part of daily life, sure it would be easy enough to just look at the content of one’s character and dismiss seemingly insignificant traits such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.
Down here in the real world on this dusty rock called planet Earth, race, class, gender, sexual orientation and other traits actually form the basis for not only how we see the world but how the world sees us. Few of us have the ability to detach from these traits because on a basic level they are the building blocks that make us who we are. Are those traits the whole of who we are? Not at all, but it is hard to deny that a wealthy, college educated, white woman may have a very different life than a working class, college educated Latina. They are both women, but the demographics of who they are play a huge part in shaping their worlds. The world sees them in very different ways; it is not a judgment but an acknowledgement of one’s individual reality. It’s the reason why my experiences in Maine as a Black woman are often vastly different than my white peers even the ones who have also moved here from away.
I recently had someone pose the idea that non-stop talk of race might be adding to racial disharmony and doing more harm than good. One of the dirty secrets of privilege though, is how easy it is to pick and choose what is relevant and what is not. From where I sit, I feel that our inability and unwillingness to be uncomfortable as a collective whole on matters of race is giving rise to something more insidious. In our quest to look ahead and forget our sordid and tumultuous history on race in this country, we are raising a generation of youngsters who in many ways are driving in reverse when it comes to matters of race.
Looking back at several of the recent stories on the rise of blackface, I am struck by the fact that many of the individuals engaging in this despicable behavior are young…very young. As a member of Generation X, that disturbs me, yet I only have to look around to know that many of my Gen X peers don’t like taking about matters of race. After all, we were the generation that went to school with people of different hues, in high school and college we even kissed that guy or gal of a different race. We may have even had a starter marriage or serious relationship with someone of a different race when we were young adults. But we grew up and for many of us we have settled ourselves comfortably in nice, safe, homogenous surroundings so despite telling our kids that all people are equal, I fear that somehow the messages of equality aren’t reaching the younger generations. We now have younger generations engaging in behavior that is abhorrent and many of us don’t see that we have contributed to this in many cases by our simple refusal to talk openly and honestly about difference. On average, Blacks start talking about race with their kids as early as age 3 whereas whites wait until 13 to discuss race with their kids. This is not acceptable. By the time a child reaches 13, they most likely have consumed thousands of hours of media that will and does play a role in how they view people who are different from them.
Laws have been passed that ban blatant acts of racism but to really move beyond the “ism” of racism, we need honest dialogue and it needs to happen often. That dialogue can be the foundation for dismantling the structural racism that is still very much a part of daily living in the US. It is painful and uncomfortable but pain is often a signal that change is needed.