I Can’t Stop Talking About Race (or Maybe I Just Won’t)

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I was with a girlfriend earlier today and we talked about Trayvon Martin and what it means to be a young black man in America. Typically I’d refer to him as African American but my friend uses the term black and I’ll appropriate it here. My friend describes herself as multiracial, she’s used the term half black in other conversations. I’m sure, though, that people describing her would describe her as a black lady because when one of your multiple races is black that’s what people can see. This is one of the only times in our friendship that her blackness or multiethnicity has come up in conversation.

We talked about the sadness of the Zimmerman verdict and the horror of a child growing up next door to my own and being treated so differently by the community. We talked about people just not getting it and white ladies changing their avatars to hoodies but not having a single friend of any race other than their own in all of their facebook friends (and presumably in their lives). We touched upon this breathtaking essay by Amir Questlove Thompson in the NY Times where he recounts one of the many times a lady has been afraid of him and he attributes that to his blackness. More on this fear later.

A smart and self aware woman would take this opportunity to delete this post but I think we’re at a point where I need to just swan dive off this cliff and know that a body of water will appear. I’ve used black, African American, multiethnic, and white in two short paragraphs. I do not know what the right term is. I don’t know what won’t offend people and I’m seldom sure that what I’m doing is right. I can’t guarantee that no one will be upset but I know that people like me, people who appear to not be a minority, need to talk about race before more horrible things happen.

When I’m with African American friends who call themselves black I sometimes ask them if I should say black or AA. They all give me different answers, they’re all different people.

In polite society we don’t talk about people’s color. When my kids were in kindergarten I’d ask them about their day and they’d talk about a classmate. I’d ask which kid that was and they’d describe them starting with white, Asian, African American, Hispanic and then move on to hair color and other traits. By the end of elementary school they’d start with hair color and then something about who they were and finally land at race, which is arguably one of the first things we notice about one another. My son is the red head, your son is Japanese, these are things that make them easily identifiable. After establishing these things we can talk about how they both have brown eyes and impossibly long legs.

In our rush to prove ourselves as being color blind are we creating other, larger problems?

Part of me wants to console Questlove and let him know that the lady in the elevator who was afraid of him in his swank apartment building might not have only been afraid of his color. She might have just been afraid of his size (though that’s probably wrong). We all have issues. Recently I was walking in my neighborhood with ear buds in and realized that someone was walking behind me. I turned over my shoulder, got a look at him and smiled, turned forward again and started walking some more. After two turns he was still behind me and I turned once again to look at him (I wasn’t afraid, it was midday and I live in a sleepy suburb, he was a middle aged man wearing loafers and carrying a bag of Indian food) and he freaked out. He apologized, explained he wasn’t following me and then started to walk on the other side of the street.

Some things are just complicated because we are men and women. Adding race to gender issues is terrifying for everyone.

Recently a young African American man named Brian Banks was released from prison after having been falsely convicted of  raping a white girl while they were in high school. Bank’s story is no less important than Trayvon Martin’s. You can’t make it right for Banks, we are incapable of giving him back ten years of living. Would a white teenager have been convicted? Would a white teenager have been accused? Banks’ story has a happier ending than most but it needs to be told and retold.

We have a president who is making us look at race, even when we don’t want to look.

It’s not enough to have an African American Community talking about race. We all have to talk about it and stop whispering. Try having uncomfortable conversations with your friends of other races and if you don’t have any friends whose skin or hair looks very different than your own ask yourself why that happened. How did that come to be?

No one needs answers today or tomorrow but what we do need today and tomorrow is dialogue. When we all pretend that there isn’t a problem and we’re all “ooh I love everyone I’m so liberal and post racial” then we never make changes.

Today’s challenge is to talk about the different Americas we live in. Even when we are neighbors.



Facebook Comments

  • nyssa23

    This is great! I agree, we need to have these tough conversations. I worry now about when my son will stop being adorable and start being “threatening.”

    • http://jessicagottlieb.com JessicaGottlieb

      I want to be a pollyanna and say “hopefully never” but we’re steering a large ship and they turn slowly.

  • http://joshuawilner.com/ Josh

    I haven’t commented on Questlove’s overall post but I have to add something now.

    Some of what he experience is easy for me to relate to because some women act differently around strange men. In elevators, parking lots and various places it has been quite clear to me they were uncomfortable.

    If I take my kids to the park by myself I still get looks sometimes from the mothers there.

    Is his experience worse than mine or magnified because he is Black? I don’t know. I am not convinced either way and it is not a competition.

    But we are so hypersensitive about Race it is hard not to wonder about some things.

    • Momtothree

      I think the difference is that while women may be suspicious, it’s due to fears we carry due to historical violence against women by men (which unfortunately is still not history in many parts of the world, but a current reality.

      Blacks are often followed, avoided, an looked at with suspicion in normal everyday situations. Both men and women. Children and adults.

      I’m a 30 y/o women and have been followed around more stores by managers/employees who were convinced I would steal than I can count. I’m a writer, mom, and live in a middle class neighborhood. It’s getting old.

  • Christina

    I’m glad you didn’t delete this post. You have the view of somebody with a rare awareness of how a person of color might feel when being discriminated against. You’re able to put yourself in our position, to the extent possible. That’s too important a characteristic to stay silent. We need everyone to speak out against racism, not just minorities. Well said.

  • http://www.cathyherard.com/ Cathy H.

    I agree we need to talk more about this and I want to talk more, but I sometimes feel my voice is such a small one that nobody will listen or I will somehow stumble over what I’m trying to express and be attacked for saying something “wrong”. I read Questlove’s post and for a moment I stopped and put myself in that woman’s shoes and I can’t say with certainty it would be his skin color or size that would keep me quiet, but simply that he was a strange man. I too have been followed and looked over my shoulder when out for walks and I can promise you it wasn’t because the person had a different skin color since I live in one of least diverse states (sadly) in the country, but instead because I simply felt uncomfortable being followed. I’d like to be a part of making big changes, but unfortunately there will always be prejudice people who will continue to raise prejudice kids and that sickens me to the core. I can promise this, though, I will continue to raise MY kids to be as colorblind as possible. More importantly, I hope to raise at least one child that feels courageous and brave enough to stand up and speak out against such hatred. Nothing would make me more proud.

    P.S. Sorry for such a long comment…..I wasn’t going to leave one at all for fear it would be this lengthy, but this is too important to stay quiet.