Americans are socialized not to speak about race. We are taught that discussions that involve race are taboo. White people do not talk about race because they are afraid they will say the wrong thing and prove themselves to be racist. Or, they are afraid that surfacing the fact that they notice race is in and of itself racist.
People of color often find that if they try to raise the topic of race, they will be labeled negatively as a result. They will be seen as “over sensitive” as “making a mountain out of a mole hill” or worst of all: “playing the race card.” (For a wonderful article about why the term “playing the race card” is an absurdity because rather than serving as a valuable trump card, it’s more like the two of diamonds, see Tim Wise’s article, “What Kind of Card is Race?” )
But, how can we resolve our differences or rectify ongoing inequities if we can’t even talk about them?
A friend of mine shared a story about an incident in her daughter’s classroom recently. The class was making a time machine. While they were working on the project, their teacher, a white man, brought to class a copy of a newspaper from the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. He read an article from the paper that used the word “Jap” throughout the article. When he finished reading, he made no mention of the fact that the word “Jap” was used. My friend’s daughter, who is Japanese-American, understandably felt enormously uncomfortable. When the teacher made no mention of the use of this word, it felt to her as if he had sanctioned its use. And, it certainly left the class with an assumption that the word was OK to use.
She was relieved, therefore, when an African-American student in the class raised his hand and said he felt the use of the word “Jap” was the same as using the N word. His comment was followed by complete and utter silence. There was no place for this discussion to go because discussions about race are unknown and scary territory. So, what is the message the children in this classroom had reinforced for them? It’s not OK to talk about race.
When is the last time you had a talk about race?