What would it be like to go a whole day without thinking, emoting or talking about race?
I can’t even imagine…
Sure, I might manage it if I were in some kind of retreat setting with zero access to external information and technology—probably some environment where everyone is restricted to a code of absolute silence. Maybe then.
But in the real world, especially for those of us who are finely-attuned to social/cultural/political issues and plugged into news and social media, that seems an impossible task.
Since the 2008 election of President Obama), it seems that race-related situations, stories, thoughts, feelings and opinions are more prevalent than ever.
Especially the last month or so: between the Paula Deen incident, Supreme Court rollbacks, and the trial of George Zimmerman for murdering Trayvon Martin, race-related everything seems to be in overdrive. This layered on top of the everyday tragedies of police-on-Black violence, Black-on-Black violence, the cradle-to-prison pipeline, substandard public schools, increasing attacks on women’s reproductive rights and bodies….and the list goes on.
Race remains central to our processing of these and other incidents, often in the online public sphere, where everyone is a pundit eager to share their views.
These conversations can become overwhelming, since they’re never neutral or objective. We all have strong views and feelings, and social media provides every opportunity for sharing, responding, debating, and processing in community.
Meanwhile, there are always well-meaning people who say that we need to keep talking about race.
I see no point in talking about race, not if the goal is real progress in the seemingly endless but still essential struggle for justice and equality. I’m not even sure that a constructive conversation about race is possible in these United States, or whether it ever has been.
So how do we address and grapple with issues of justice, equality and the ways in which identity and categories are used to maintain an imbalanced power structure?
I say we go to the root cause of the issues, the problems, the contradictions, the complexities and the conundrums.
Forget race. Let’s talk about racISM. And by ISM I mean Institutionalized, Systemic and Malignant oppression based on categories designed to ensure an unjust and unequal system.
A wise man, Ronald Steele, with whom I worked years ago, gently schooled me on what seems like a fine distinction: “It’s not race. It’s racISM that is the problem, the issue and the core of what’s wrong.”
That simple observation opened my awareness.
You’ll notice that there is nothing in the title or tagline of this blog that mentions “race.”
Yes, the focus includes things related to color, culture, identity and community. Which naturally include race. But since my goal is to create some positive change and contribute to whatever progress we can manage to engineer, I want us to focus on the REAL issue.
More recently, Ronald Steele took his guidance a step further and reminded me that the root cause of racISM is White Supremacy.
Again, he’s absolutely right.
The entire USA was founded and built on the notion of White Supremacy. It is at the core of every law, ruling, policy, institution and tradition in this land. RacISM is the system required to maintain White Supremacy. And race—which is now popularly dismissed as a “social construct” and therefore not something that really exists—is the concept required to feed the racISM machine.
Those same notions are part of every aspect of popular culture, entertainment, and the nation’s educational systems. All are strongly biased in favor of one group, and against those deemed not good enough to be part of that one group.
Those who encourage endless discussions of race seem to believe that the root of our problems is a blend of ignorance and prejudice, and that if we talk enough, if we share enough of our stories, our pains, our truths, our realities, the dominant group will have a giant Aha! moment, wake up and rush to right the wrongs of over 500 years.
How likely is that to really happen?
It’s human nature to be tribal. To be biased. To be prejudiced. And to discriminate. That isn’t going to change, and it’s not where the bulk of the real damage occurs. The real damage is in the institutionalization of that bias, prejudice and discrimination to limit the options, opportunities and quality of life for a specific group of people. If it’s gender, that’s sexISM (and I include discrimination based on sexuality in that category). If it’s age, that’s ageISM. And so on.
Talking about race never seems to contribute to real progress. Why?
1. We’re not objective and tend to take everything personally, resulting in hurt feelings and endless, non-productive back-and-forth about who is good vs. who is bad; who is right vs. who is wrong; and who is the most victimized.
2. There is no commonly agreed-upon language that allows for a useful conversation about “race.” The very labels and categories that define our society are both weapons and shields that contribute to a culture of conflict.
3. People of all races compare wounds and victimization, going around and around in circles that leave everyone frustrated, drained and no more enlightened than they were before the conversation started.
4. The categories of Black and White were created as opposing groups, and it is the tension in that inherent opposition that is the foundation of this entire nation, from governance to culture to everyday life. Others, such as Asians, Latinos, Native American Indians, etc., often complain that race is more than Black and White. They’re not acknowledging that unless and until the ongoing warfare that is inherently part of everything in the USA is confronted and changed, White vs. Black will always be the dominant dynamic, theme and topic of conversation.
5. Few people—and none in the public arena—ever enter into discussions of race with the goal of honestly confronting the core issues and working towards solutions that actually advance justice and equality. The goal seems to be “winning” a debate rather than conversing with a common goal.
Truth is, most conversations on race seem to end up like Sly and the Faily Stone’s classic song, “Don’t Call Me N***er, Whitey. Don’t Call Me Whitey, N***er. So let’s forget talking about the surface symptoms and focus on root causes. Let’s stop trying to prove who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s the victim and who’s the villain, and acknowledge that we are all infected and affected by the disease that is racISM. Then, let’s gather those who are genuinely interested in finding solutions, and discuss how we can work together to find a “cure” for this insidious epidemic that controls our nation and rules our lives.
Now that is something I can imagine.