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How can we have a conversation about race when we don't talk about it?

How can we have a conversation about race when we don't talk about it?
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The racial reckoning enveloping the country confirms that post-racial America was nothing but a pipe dream. The sheer depth and intensity of the reinvigorated Black Lives Matter protests portends the making of a Civil Rights Movement 2.0.

As more demands are made for structural and systemic changes around policing, incarceration, housing, health care, employment and education, there is much to be hopeful for as the nation struggles to create a new democracy out of its collective action.

Such macrocosmic changes are undeniably urgent. But even as the police are held accountable and the monuments fall, one wonders if a substantial transformation is possible if we continue to avoid interacting across racial lines at the smaller, quotidian level. Specifically, can Black and white Americans talk to one another about race? 

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We are still a nation segregated by race and class, steeped in a history of laws, norms and religious and scientific frameworks that have created and justified differentiated livelihoods. But currently there is less focus on the ways we plainly avoid confronting racism in our daily routines, and when we do engage with the topic, how those conversations work out.

Across news and social media channels is an expanding inventory of anecdotes that expose the inability or unwillingness of many whites to have mundane moments of coexistence with African Americans. Fear and anxiety permeate such interactions, and the threat of violence is often on the horizon. Whites too readily call the police on African Americans in instances when they would not do so on others. We have witnessed Black men afraid to enjoy a solitary walk in their white-majority neighborhoods; myriad microaggressions of today’s “Karens”; and in the more extreme, the brash rise of hate groups since the 2016 election. 

Our own identities factor into how comfortable we are talking about race. In a Pew study, two-thirds of Black and Asian adults said they had occasional discussions about race with family and friends, while 50 percent of whites and Latinos reported the same. Twenty-seven percent of African American adults responded that such subject matter came up often, while only 11 percent of whites agreed. Education also played a role. Those with a bachelor’s degree were more prone to talk about the subject, yet in this group Blacks and Latinos did so more frequently than whites.

Also, it turns out, being liberal does not enhance the quality of interracial communication. In fact, many African Americans point out that too many white allies stand on their soap boxes when it comes to race talk and attempt to “teach” Blacks about racism and social change. One study revealed that white liberals, with greater frequency than their conservative counterparts, patronized Black conversational partners. The white participants “presented less competence” — or talked down to — their Black interlocutors. Such liberal condescension belies triumphal claims of interracial unity that many white people proclaim. White activists can quickly become defensive when African Americans tell them that they too perpetrate the very racism they are fighting.   

But even more pervasive is aversion, as significant numbers of whites are simply incapable of having a conversation with African Americans free from anxiety. The pressure mounts to be a “good white person,” to disavow the guilt associated with contemporary privilege and the history of white-on-Black violence. This leads to situations in which whites who may desire more race-conscious collaborations doubt their own instincts and inclinations. Such moments are mired in an anxiety around intent and reception, and the end result is circumlocution or just plain avoidance. Better to omit race talk altogether than to get stuck in its thorniness.

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In an experiment that asked white undergraduates to analyze the traits of photographed subjects, students were far less likely to pinpoint race as a distinguishing feature of the images when joined by a Black partner than by a white one, unless the Black partner mentioned race first. Then white students overwhelmingly talked about the racial imagery. Another investigation disclosed that white college-goers were visibly more anxious when opining on both race-neutral and racially-tinged subjects with African American students than with white ones. In contrast, Black students exhibited less stress when discussing race-related themes with their white partners compared to when they chatted about race-neutral topics.

That these studies involved college students illustrates that comfort in discussing race is not merely generational. This has led to an anxiety in white folks who are afraid of coming off prejudicial, so they prefer not to engage at all. The country inches along between interactions in which whites descend into racism when crossing paths with African Americans — in Central Park, for example — and bypassing race talk altogether.

In contrast, engagement with race appears to bode better for all people. The Center for Talent Innovation found that out of a sample of Latino, white, Black and Asian professionals, 38 percent of Black respondents felt that it was never acceptable to speak up about discrimination at their companies, which left them feeling isolated and marginalized. When places of employment took racial bias seriously, however, workers — regardless of race — viewed their jobs much more positively. The findings indicate that talking about race in an open and collegial way can ripple into secondary feelings of satisfaction, even when that discussion does not directly involve you.

Readers will point out that America is full of such instances: people of all races do form lifetime friendships, intimate partnerships and everyday peer networks. They double date, carpool to work and worship together. But there is still much work to do if we are going to capitalize on what Rev. William Barber has called America’s “Third Reconstruction.”  

There is a need to move past paradigms of white fragility, to do more than indulge in book and film recommendations that teach how race and racism continue to determine and limit personhood in America. Also required is the commitment to shift out of comfort zones established by centuries of racial capitalism and into a sustained meditation on the long history of racial violence. Doing so helps to demystify today’s frustration around interracial intimacy, tokenism, affirmative action and racist caricature, for example. Such leaps can begin with an ordinary conversation.

John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco is an associate professor of American Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He is author of "Cuba, the United States, and Cultures of the Transnational Left." Follow him on Twitter @Professor_G_T.