We Need To Talk…by Sophia Chitlik | February 4, 2013 | 1 comment
We’ve been raised to be risk averse, which means being extremely wary of topics that might be offensive – or that make people uncomfortable. But without the risk that comes from a real, honest discourse about the things that matter – like education inequality, or history, or poverty – there can be no real change. When we talk about a lot of these things, we’re often talking about entire webs of “tough stuff”: race, class, institutions, or even ourselves. So it’s important to get real, and to get talking.
In honor of Black History Month, I want to talk about race. And while we’re being honest, what I want even more is for you to talk about race – because talking is how we learn, and learning is the foundation for action (please don’t run away!).
For our Shabbat Suppers project, we put together an easy guide to tackle a tough topic. When you’re ready to show off your gift of gab, here are some key pointers for how to have a respectful discussion about race:
- Acknowledge that race might be uncomfortable to talk about (woo hoo – one down!). It’s sort of the elephant in the room, but in many cases, it helps to say out loud what others are feeling.
- Set group ground rules. Collectively, decide on a set of rules for your discussion – even if it’s with your mom, or your best friend. These could be formal, such as “whoever holds the spoon speaks,” or “if you agree, wave jazz hands.” These rules could also be more informal, including “whatever is said in this room, stays in this room.”
- Everyone speaks from their own perspective. Please do not look to people of different backgrounds to speak on behalf of their race, gender, or ethnicity. Individuals can only speak to their own experiences, and it puts unfair pressure on a person to ask him or her to represent their cultural identity.
You might find that people have never talked open and honestly about race before, and you might have an opportunity to really educate your friends and family members about the many misperceptions about race and racism. Here is a list of the most common, and how to handle them if (and when) they come your way:
- “Race is a fact of life.” Race is actually a completely artificial social construct. No genetic, personality, or intellectual differences exist between people of different races. Explain that race was invented to classify people.
- “I’m not racist!” While most people harbor very little ill-will towards people of other races, they may continue to make assumptions about others based on race. That includes you…and me…and everyone we know. In order to combat racism and tackle misperceptions, we first have to acknowledge that we are all somewhere on a spectrum of racial prejudice. Once you take the guilt out of the word, you can have an open conversation about the issue. Acknowledge the reality of racism as a spectrum, not as a dirty word.
- “We live in a post-racial society.” Racism is still virulent in America, and all over the world. While our generation has a more open mind about race and inequality, racism is still a defining part of the American experience.
But what should you do if a conversation about race becomes really uncomfortable? Like people are beginning to yell. Or cry. Or they just have that look that says “get me out of here.” All is not lost!! What to do when disagreement arises:
- Avoid “right” and “wrong”: While some opinions are commonly accepted as “right,” it is unproductive to cast someone’s statements or beliefs as “wrong.”
- If you’re offended, educate – don’t blame. Ignorance is not animosity. Use “I feel” (it’s less accusatory) to discuss how their statement might be perceived, or how it was perceived by you personally.
- Try not to use charged language such as “bigot” or “racist”: If someone says something offensive, assume that they simply do not realize that they have said something hurtful. Calling them a racist is one surefire way to make the situation a lot worse. Use the opportunity to educate.
- Provide context. Even though it’s difficult, try to explain why you believe what you believe. Provide examples, facts, and stories to illuminate your opinions, and encourage others to do the same.
Still terrified? Watch this awesome TED talk by Jay Smooth about how he learned to love race, and get PUMPED!