Slates William Saletan asked me to throw some ideas around with him as he composed a list of tips for how to talk constructively about racism in the wake of white-Hispanic George Zimmermans controversial acquittal in the shooting death of unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin.
I always sigh a little when I hear the calls for a national conversation on race that follow when inequality and injustice are brought to our attention in a big way.
Even President Barack Obama acknowledged in his remarks about Zimmermans acquittal that these conversations havent been particularly productive. I get it, though. The idea is that Americans might not totally understand whats happening (in the Zimmerman case, its the insanely unfair, deeply rooted and, in fact, deadly bias that black men face and how its perpetuated), that we need the tools and information to do so and that providing those things will involve a lot of talking about it, both privately and publicly.
If were going to have a conversation on race, I offer this nonexhaustive list of ground rules and reminders. Its based on my hope that we can retire some of the predictable talking points and misleading themes that do nothing but derail the type of dialogue thats been called for once again.
1. Talking about race isnt racist. Dont say that. Vilifying people who discuss race and point out racism – making them the bad guys – is one of the ways racism is maintained. So is acting as if blacks suffer from racism and whites suffer from reverse racism are equally valid points of view.
2. Yep, sometimes there are different standards for black and white stuff. You are going to get a different reaction for White History Month and Black History Month. A black person making a joke about race is different from a white person making a joke about race. To accept this requires letting go of the idea that this is really simple and thinking a little deeper about context and history. Please give up on the But what if the races were reversed? line of thinking. That type of analysis makes conversations simple, but it also makes them totally unhelpful.
3. African-Americans are not monolithic. There is no one black experience nor black point of view. Black people are individuals who dont agree on everything and shouldnt have to answer for one anothers actions, any more than white people do. (So saying a black person cant dislike the n-word because rappers use it doesnt make sense.)
4. Remember that while race itself isnt real, racism is, and our countrys long and well-documented history with racism has very real, lasting effects. Therefore, being colorblind is not helpful because it cripples our ability to deal with the tangible effects of racial inequality in just about every area of life.
5. Black people shouldnt have to fit your definition of whats respectable to deserve equality or justice. Its silly and unfounded to blame inequality caused by institutionalized racism on, say, sagging pants or rap music. If you want to celebrate black people who are educated and high-achieving and defy persistent stereotypes, great, but that cant be a requirement for fair treatment. We got into trouble with this type of thinking when evidence that Martin was a normal teenager messed up so many peoples impression of him as a sympathetic victim.
6. Dont defer to people such as Bill Cosby about their theories about black people, any more than you would defer to a miscellaneous white celebrity about how white people are doing. If you need guidance, look for someone whose background offers evidence that he or she had the incentive to spend some time seeking information and thinking critically in a professional capacity about whatever it is the person is discussing.
7. Individual racism and systemic racism are two different things. We should care about all the structures that maintain racial inequality, not just individual actors. (This is why its not unreasonable to jump from Zimmermans impression of Martin to racial profiling by police.)
That said, individual acts can provide strong reminders about larger attitudes and problems. Ahem, Paula Deen.
8. Dont give the word racism so much power that you cant speak rationally after you hear it. Remember that the threshold for racism is a lot lower than being a member of the KKK and hating every black person you see. It means buying into and perpetuating things that support the idea of white supremacy. You can be a very nice person and still do that, even without meaning to. You can do it even if you have black friends.
9. Resist the urge to believe and regurgitate myths about black people, even when theyre promoted by black people (African-Americans are all more homophobic, black-on-black crime is uniquely bad, there are more black men in prison than in college, all black women love being fat, etc.). Take a minute to challenge the things you hear many say over and over. Youll often find they dont have a strong basis in reality.
10. Finally, stop thinking about and discussing racism as something thats the problem of black and other nonwhite people. Remember that theres an ever-growing movement of anti-racist white people concerned with dismantling white privilege. When youre talking about racism, remember that its not just bad for those whom it oppresses; its bad for everyone because it creates an unjust society. When people want to fix racism, they do it not because theyre being charitable or nice, but because theyre being smart and decent.