Why Do You Keep Talking About “Race”?

Inspirational reflections on race and ethnicity…Everyone can have a seat at this table.

Fear is the one emotion I didn’t expect to feel when I launched the Race and Change oral history project in the year 2000 – a 21st century look at race in the U.S. from the personal point of view.
I planned to interview a cross-section of people on race and ethnic relations and they understood that their life stories would be preserved in the historical archives and shared with others on TV, radio, and the Web.
Talking to strangers was not my problem.
For a couple of decades before my academic career I had made a living as a journalist, knocking on the doors of others’ lives to gather information.
Talking about “race” in America, however, can be tricky business.
First of all, the term is a fiction: there is no biological basis. But, in reality, it has come to encompass a range of experiences where groups of people encounter prejudice, discrimination, and inequities. Language, religion, and even sexual preference get tossed into the mix, along with people wrestling with multi-racial and multi-ethnic identities.
But let’s face it, skin color and African descent looms as the most racially-charged difference that causes the most repercussions.
Still, many people persist in dismissing race as an issue of the past that has been resolved in the 21st century. We have larger global issues to work on, they say. Others just want the topic to go away so they ask: Why do you keep talking about it?
If race is not a problem today, I answer, we should be able to talk about it – and easily.
Instead, when conflict situations flare up in the media, they can be counted on to spark outrage and national debates. Minority groups usually take the lead in discussions and majority groups go on the offense, or retreat. Targets of discrimination keep changing, and on the global stage all kinds of “us” and “them” clashes are played out everyday.
Human nature gets the discredit: people will always find someone to look down on, we say. But our greatness lies in the human potential to continually strive to rise above those tendencies.
If race is a problem then we must keep talking – or trying.
We just need some better ways to do it.
I wondered this: What if you asked a cross-section of people the same questions – not about their opinions but about their personal experiences with racial change – and gave them the opportunity to discuss race relations as a naturally-occurring part of their lives? Maybe this could turn into cross-cultural dialogues that shift the tone of the conversation a bit.
During those first interviews in this new territory, though, a wave of trepidation would sweep over me, suddenly, at times. I’d pull onto the swale of some quiet street and take a few deep breaths until I felt composed enough to ring the doorbell for the scheduled interview. I was unsure of what to expect, especially from Whites. Would the wounds that I knew I would inevitably encounter across racial and ethnic lines be too painful – for all of us? Would it be possible to talk about race in a nation adept at stonewalling conversation and do it in a non-confrontational, hopeful way?
Beginning can be the hardest part.
The work has resonated with people, and with the media, over the years. So far, more than 125 race and ethnic relations oral histories of Blacks, Whites, Hispanics/Latinos, Caribbeans, and Asians have been collected for the historical archives – native-born and immigrant residents of Southern Florida, nationally cited as one of the most diverse areas in the country.
It has spawned books, public TV productions, CNN coverage, youth training programs and community projects on race in Florida as well as an expansion of “race” and change oral histories to Ghana, West Africa.
In the U.S., polls and surveys are quick to note that most of us continue to live racially-separated lives across ethnicities outside of work, school, or occasional activities, and despite the election of a president of African descent we still don’t tend to see eye-to-eye on progress in racial attitudes. But people’s personal stories provide glimpses behind those walls.
Many told me they were surprised at the things from the past – good and bad – that surfaced in the process of the telling, including struggles with differences within their own groups as well.
The fear I would feel from time to time always subsided when I remembered that this was their stories, not mine. Once I relaxed enough in the living room with a cup of morning coffee, at a dining room table after the dinner dishes were cleared, or in a quiet corner of an office at the start of end of a workday, all I had to do was listen.
Getting people to talk about racial progress and change in their personal lives proved to be much more challenging, however. Maybe that’s because we aren’t often asked? (More next time.)

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