when white people talk about race

Recently, I was a part of a discussion on facebook about race. (You gotta love social networking for juxtaposing people from all walks of life into 140-character-or-less philosophical arguments). This particular discussion took a turn that I often see happen when white people jump into conversations about race. A few folks implied that racism was over. References to society's Token Assimilated Black Guys were made (Colin Powell, Tiger Woods, etc). Someone suggested that seeing more interracial families would make black people seem more "normal". Awesome. And then, I made a gaffe myself by posing a question that made it sound like I was trying to get a friend to speak for the entire adult population of African Americans. It's not what I meant . . . but it sounded like it.

Why are white people so awkward when they talk about race??

Why do we seem to have serious foot-in-mouth disease on this subject? But what may be just as telling about this discussion is the fact that there were a number of people observing this interchange, with some strong feelings about this particular subject, who did not chime in. Obviously the fact that it was on Facebook might have been a hindrance, but I've long thought that white people are really, really reluctant to engage in discussions about race, and when they do, they can be really, really offensive. It's one of those taboo subjects, like religion or politics. People want to keep quiet because they don't want to ruffle feathers. Silence is the new PC.

A couple months ago, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech to some of his staff at an event celebrating Black History month. In it, he talked about the reticence we as a nation still have when it comes to talking about race. "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been and we -- I believe continue to be in too many ways essentially a nation of cowards." He went on to suggest that Americans are afraid to talk about race because "certain subjects are off-limits and that to explore them risks at best embarrassment and at worst the questioning of one's character." And what was America's reaction to his seemingly too-true observations about race? What happened when he made a big speech and focused in on this aspect of race relations? He set off a firestorm of angry people, appalled that he would suggest that we are all testy about the subject of race. (Um, irony?)

I'm not sure what the outrage was about, because I think it's a given that he is right and that most white people are scared to death to talk about race. We DEFINITELY don't talk about it in a racially diverse crowd. But it's kind of a taboo topic even amongst ourselves. When I talked with my son's first preschool teacher about how his experience as the only black child in the school might affect him socially, she looked like a deer in headlights for about five minutes, and then changed the subject. When I try to rally people at our church to move towards action in making our church more multicultural, I often feel like eyes are glazing over as I talk. And if I'm in a group of moms pointing out whose kids belong to whom, and I cut to the chase and describe my son as "the black child right there" or "the African-American boy", people look at me like I've just somehow insulted him by describing him in those terms. Even though everyone else is using physical descriptors, evidently we'd all be more comfortable if I beat around the bush with the most obvious one. And I certainly wouldn't strike up a conversation with another black person about my son's race

(In fact, writing this, I wonder if I should even push post. Will there be a backlash? Will someone call me out for saying Black instead of African American? Which one is right? The Black people I know say Black. Am I allowed to say it? Surely I'm pissing someone off now by even bringing it up, right?)

Honestly, I think Holder had a pretty accurate take on the "why's" of our corporate shunning of the subject. Again, he said that talking about it risks at best embarrassment, and at worst the questioning of one's character. I think this is often true. Kirstie Alley made a recent twitter about liking Black men better and it incited a serious tongue-lashing. On a recent parenting blog a mom talked about her son noticing a co-worker's race, and she got called out from all corners of the web. Now, in both these cases, there was some warranted criticism about how these women responded. However, in both cases, racism was overtly and covertly implied. And that accusation, I think, is one that most white people fear more than anything. That fear is so strong that we would rather be silent than risk being labeled with that nasty word. I mean, racist? That word is for KKK members, and deep south red-necks, and plantation owners. Right?

Well, yes and no. We can all have racist behaviors and attitudes at times. ALL. OF. US. I think we need to get over our fears of that word. We should be willing to learn when we might be biased by prejudice, or influenced by stereotypes, or insensitive to the experiences of others. Even if that puts us at risk. I think the fear of “getting it wrong” is another impediment in race talk. But again, unless we fumble a little bit, we will never move forward.

I know that another strong motivator for silence is the belief that talking about race perpetuates racism. I would really challenge this line of thinking. Racism has caused intense hurt for many people in this country. Pretending that it has not is insanely hurtful. Not educating our kids is potentially dangerous. Empathy is never an instigator for racism. Avoiding or ignoring the reality of racism perpetuates racism.

For me, I’m establishing a few groundrules for myself:

1. I’m willing to talk about race
2. I’m willing to be wrong
3. I’m willing to listen to the experiences of others
4. I’m okay with people having opinions that differ from mine
5. I’m okay with this being awkward
6. I'm okay with people wishing I would shut up about it already

(Cause I know some of you are thinking "there goes Kristen with her race talk again. . .")

Anyways, back to that facebook conversation. At the end of the day, this dialogue brought up some tension between myself and a new friend. There was misunderstanding, and some hurt on my part. But we talked about it, and (I think, I hope), came to a better understanding of each other. Because we pushed past some of our own fears, and talked about some things that would have been more comfortable to ignore, we ended up walking away with more respect for each other.

Alight, I'm ready to put myself out there. I am convinced from years of being a marital therapist that the old "stay silent where there is tension" plan is NOT a good one. So, at the risk of being embarrassed, chastised, or judged, I'm gonna try to dialogue about race issues. It's important, and if we talk about it more, it will be less awkward.

I guess what I'm saying is, when it comes to talking about race, we all need to lighten up.

Oh crap. I didn't mean "lighten up" like in the Michael Jackson way. I mean it metaphorically. I'm going to get in trouble for this, aren't I?


  1. "...seeing more interracial families would make black people seem more 'normal'."

    OUCH! Her comment would seem absurd if it didn't already have some historical bite.

    I think white people shy away from race because typically being white doesn't come with a price tag. People generally aren't invested unless it hurts them.

  2. Unfortunately, I think you are right. I think it is convenient to avoid a touchy subject since white people are sitting in the privileged seat and therefore don't really NEED/WANT to solve things for anyone else. Easy to ignore, easy to make "someone else's problem". Which is why it is usually white people in blended family situations who feel moved to make some noise.

    Obviously, with an AA son, I feel invested personally. I guess I just wish more people would commit to investing out of altruism (a concern for anyone hurting) even if it isn't directly affecting them. Hmmm . . . interesting how this plays back into the healthcare reform thing. "If it doesn't affect me, I won't worry about it" kind of thing?

  3. I admire you for bringing it up! It made me think a lot about my approach to these issues. By nature I avoid any confrontation or conflict, from politics to race to what to serve for dinner. Dionne is right in that since I haven't been personally wounded by race tensions, I'm not as invested. Am I invested at all? I like to think I am, but I guess that depends on the definition of "invested." Is it possible to have care & interest and not be invested? I don't know.

    But I think I resonate a little more with the other reasons for shying away from racial conversations: such as cowardess and the fact that I'm self-conscious of my whiteness (yes, that's what I said) and lack of interracial experience. I worry that I'll unintentionally use some offending verbage or even that I'll be overly sympathetic and cross the line to patronizing. So, thanks for taking a brave step and encouraging all of us to get over ourselves and take a risk.

    Do you watch 30 Rock? There's been some funny references to this topic, like when all of Jack Donaghy's friends scold him for being so insensitive and referring to his girlfriend as "Puerto Rican." "You can't say that in FRONT of her!!!"

  4. Irene7:08 PM

    Another excellent post! You are very right, white people in general are very afraid of talking about race. And when we do, I feel that many will preface what they say with some statement about how they are not racist, but then move on to say that African Americans or Hispanics or another group is too sensitive or take themselves too seriously or whatever.

    There is this amazing article on white privilege that explains this so well - we never think about white privilege because we live it constantly. I agree with you - even if we don't have a person of color in our families, we should still care enough to help work towards a more equal society.

  5. Great point, Dionne! I especially love your last paragraph.

    Glad I found your blog. It was from antiracistparent.com. LOL@the Michael Jackson comment. No, I'm not offended. I am African-American, Black, etc. It's okay to use both.

    I think more White people should talk about race. But, Dionne stated, most people aren't concerned with subjects if they don't affect them in some way.

    It's a big taboo in the SFF writers community right now. Oh boy, but that's another subject for a later time. :-)

    Glad I came to your blog. :-)


  6. Kristen,
    I agree with your connection to health care, which is why the hope for altruism may be a mute point. I think as you said, it boils down to our experiences.

    Like Jen, I too admire you for tackling such a delicate issue.

    I think about it this way: When I'm in a mixed group (not predominantly black) I don't want to be looked at or treated any differently than anyone else in the group. I think a common assumption is that because people look different, they want to be treated differently.

    After some thought about this post, I do want to challenge the notion that white people seem "awkward when they talk about race".

    I'll pose this as a question, because I'm quite undecided on the matter:

    Are white people awkward when they talk about race to other white people? Or are they only awkward when they talk about race to minorities/minority sympathizers?

  7. I'm glad I found your blog (through another blog where your healthcare article was posted...also a good post)...you talk about real issues. I don't understand why we can't point out people as "that Asian" but we can't really say "the black kid over there" to describe someone (much easier than saying the kid with the brown eyes,e tc...). We'll never get anywhere with race (still a huge part of this country...can someone say covert racism?) without providing proper discourse and platforms for which to do it. Let's get over the formalities and jump right into it. Great post. Look forward to reading more.

  8. "Are white people awkward when they talk about race to other white people? Or are they only awkward when they talk about race to minorities/minority sympathizers?"

    Definitely I think white people are MORE awkward when the talk to minorities. I think a lot of people would be intimidated at the thought of striking up a race conversation with a minority friend. But even with each other, I find it's a taboo subject. Kind of like Jen mentioned, it's up there with politics and religion as Things That Should Not Be Discussed. For examples, the Gates situation, the pool incidence, or Glen Beck calling Obama a racist - none of that would ever be water cooler talk in a white crowd. Even though I think all of those things are worthy of conversation and analysis.

    Hmmm . . maybe awkward isn't even the right word here. I guess some are awkward, but others are avoidant. And then, still others are offensive. But it seems to me like very few are comfortable.

  9. I am so happy I found your blog. We have a mixed-family as well, as our children are Hispanic. Or Mexican. Just like what you said about Black vs. African American, I sometimes wonder which to use...

    Just like you at the playground, I have referred to my son (when pointing him out) as The Hispanic One, and some people look shocked. When I point him out as The Boy With The Red Shirt & Glasses, I can tell that a lot of people look past him at first, bc they are automatically looking for a Caucasian child. (I secretly hope when that happens that it makes them think about their own assumptions!)

    Speaking about race is so touchy, but I remind myself to take my children's cues. They, especially my son, ask lots of questions and are genuinely curious about people looking different. I'm hoping that by normalizing it and not making talking/asking about it a big deal, maybe it won't be such a big deal to them as they grow.

  10. i think you're right that we have to be open to conversations and dialogue.

    i remember asking a white acquaintance who was adopting a black child from the DR, how she could help her child get a sense of racial/cultural identity, and she essentially said that that would be a non-issue(!), since her child's primary identity was as a child of God.

    i think white people like to subscribe to a melting pot, color blind kind of perspective, where we're all the same, and recognizing differences is somehow inherently racist--hence the fear of identifying someone as Black. and of course, people/experiences/cultures are NOT the same. yes, of course, we are all equally valuable and worthy of respect, but it's foolish to presume (or pretend) that we share the same perspectives or stories or access or priviledges. when we insist that we're all the same, we close the door to the kind of conversations that can help us learn and understand and move forward.

  11. Finding someone with this level of understanding of racial issues is refresing -- thank you! Another thank you to all the thoughtful posters who have commented before me. Still, my wish is to have these conversations with a racially diverse group of people face-to-face. I'm not sure how to do it, but I'm determined to bring together people who will break the "taboos" of having conversations about race. We have so far to go in this country, where many believe that they already know all they need to know about race.

  12. kristen, i really appreciate your blogs on race. i'm kind of sad to see only 11 comments to this post, obviously revealing the stress people feel when dialoging about racial issues. hopefully, because of writers like you, that can change.
    i think when i steer away from conversations like this, it's NOT because i feel like it doesn't affect me and so i'm uninterested. i really WANT to connect. but i also have a racial history that is FULL of ignorant and arrogant actions, perspectives, and systems. i don't really know how i can "help" the situation. i feel like i don't really have a right to try to contribute anything.
    on another note, i am really drawn to families made up of somehow different races and ethnicities than my own. but i move quickly into celebrating everything about the diversity instead of acknowledging any possible awkwardness. i pretend the awkwardness isn't there. what is that?
    i guess this is just a little bit of processing outloud for me. thanks for the opportunity.

    last thought, do you know why we call this "race?" i always think, we have the HUMAN race, and then ethnicities and nationalities that make us who we are. it makes me feel like the african american "race" was made up way back in the day to make it clear that "they" were not the same race as "us" even on the basic human level, which was necessary to be able to own another person. but there must be a more textbook explanation. any insight?

  13. alyson3:14 PM

    Thank you for your thoughtful writing on race. i need it, we need it, especially here in OC where there is so much "pretending", for lack of a better word. You are encouraging us all to seek dialogue on color and not to shy away from it. Thank you for inspiring confidence in us all to seek honest conversation and celebrate diversity.

  14. I think a lot of people avoid the subject because no matter how well spoken a comment or statement is, there is always someone who will be offended. To be labeled a racist is extremely offensive to me, and yet to pretend that there are no differences between the races is to be in denial. To have a dialogue on a topic implies an openness in communication that often does not exist between black and white. There is too much mistrust and fear of being misunderstood, on both sides.

  15. How do i subscribe to this blog?


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