What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Race


It often seems easier not to talk about race than to talk about it. Certainly there have been times when I was so afraid of saying the wrong thing that I didn’t say anything at all. But the national conversation about Michael Brown, the unarmed teen shot to death by police in Ferguson, Missouri, makes avoiding the subject impossible.

Many people have declared, without irony, that the situation in Ferguson “wasn’t black-and-white.” From a legal standpoint, however, the matter is straightforward: It is illegal for any police officer to use deadly force unless a suspect poses an immediate threat of death or significant bodily harm to that officer or others. The police’s difficulty in making this risk assessment cannot be underestimated. And if you don’t think part of that snap judgment is based on racial stereotypes, you’re not paying attention.

Since 2005, a white police officer has killed a black citizen in the United States nearly twice a week. This summer, in addition to Brown, there was Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six choked to death by police on Staten Island for selling loose cigarettes. Then there was John Crawford III, shot to death by cops in an Ohio Walmart because he was holding a BB gun the store sold. Ohio is an open carry state, so even if the gun had been real, Crawford wouldn’t have been breaking the law.

But I get not wanting to talk about race. Throughout high school I studiously avoided the subject. In college, race came up in a number of contexts, but my denial remained strong. Things changed for me in grad school when I enrolled in an elective called Theories of Race and Ethnicity. Reading works by Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe, Mahatma Gandhi and Henry Louis Gates Jr. gave me some grounding in not only how but why I should think about and discuss racial differences. Namely, because my ignorance had blinded me to the full humanity and reality of individuals I encountered on a daily basis, people who lived and worked beside me and were members of my community. I realized that if I couldn’t see through the lens of race I would never understand history and culture across the globe.

I began to read African American novelists to better understand race relations in this country. I was so blown away by Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston and always, always Toni Morrison that I chose African American literature as one of my graduate areas of focus. Through my reading, I have been humbled by how much I did not know. I have been humbled by how little my public education taught me about the history of race in the U.S. after slavery. And I have been humbled by what it means that they didn’t teach me this.

I probably could have avoided conversations about race for the rest of my life. Before I read these books, I didn’t understand the extent to which my race afforded me this luxury. Now I realize that it’s impossible to ignore discrimination when it affects your everyday life. Still, denial can be powerful, and people of all races have fallen for misleadingly simple arguments based on individual responsibility and viewing the past through the lens of the present rather than contemplating the vast, layered historical reality.

Becoming sensitive to the history that shapes present-day racial tensions takes real effort. But we should all make this effort—not because we are guilty of the atrocities of the past, but so we won’t be complicit in those of the present.

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