Let’s talk about Race

“The politics of respectability are counterproductive to an honest engagement with race. And on the other hand the kind of politics of amnesia practiced in broader white society, at least in the presence of others, is counterproductive to that kind of conversation. When we can create a forum where we can honestly and openly engage that, then I think we have much more progress”

– Michael Eric Dyson, best-selling author and professor of Sociology at Georgetown University

The conversation of race, especially in the context of America, is a topic complicated by a history of racism and inequality characterized by a fight for civil rights and more broadly a struggle for human rights. Of course, there is almost an incomprehensible amount of information and considerations required to really delve into this topic, but I’m not attempting to prescribe a fix all solution to a systemic and embedded issue in our society. Nor will I deliver a pedagogical criticism and analysis of what we have done wrong because if you want that and wish to really comprehend the issue of race, you’ll turn to history. Naturally, that will require investing in countless hours of research and reading, but well worth it and practically necessary to develop a sense of cultural and global competency because outside of actually engaging with marginalized and oppressed groups, it is arguably the most accessible and best option. Instead, I will offer we open ourselves to conversations of race, so we may advance our society and develop a healthy relationship with this term.

Michael Eric Dyson’s quote comes from an interview on the “Aspen Ideas to Go” podcast about his new book, “The Black Presidency”, examining the influence of the politics of race on President Obama’s presidency. I will not be commentating on President Obama’s handling of racial issues, and leave you to form your own opinion on those matters. The significance of this quote is its ability to highlight two ideas hindering our discussion of race: the politics of respectability and politics of amnesia. If you are not familiar with the politics of respectability, it is a term coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in regards to how black people were forced to carry themselves in the 20th century by earning respect through the way they carried themselves. It includes the way people dressed, interacted, and functioned to become prominent authority figures. They were practiced by figures like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and many others. The issue is when we attempt to apply this same strategy going forward because it shows we have stagnated in changing the way we understand race. It calls forth the question of do you dress the way you do because you like it or are you dressing to conform to pressures outside of your control? I realize this terminology and practice extends to other minorities who are not racially or ethnically black, and it is not so simple as to instantly cast it aside. Our society is still warming up to the idea of accepting people’s cultural traditions and representations such as wearing hair naturally or covering hair with a hijab, especially in the context of the employment. We ask for diversity, but with the caveat of trapping people into normality. We are forced to conform, which speaks volumes to how little we can appreciate the beauty of our differences and merely use the term diversity loosely as a statistical litmus test. The politics of amnesia endorse a similar constraint in our future. Let’s be realistic, white people are the majority of this nation, so yes they bear a heavy burden of being forced to acknowledge race and the complications that come with it. And, America has a lot to answer for in regards to race compounded by the recent events of police brutality and historically for its mishandling of the issue in relation to all minorities. But, the minorities of this nation, Asians, African Americans/Blacks, Hispanics/Latinos, Native Americans, and others (depending on how people identify) must carry this same responsibility by fostering conversation and educating others. It will take a coalition of all people to open the space for race and advance the conversation.

We are all humans bound on the same overwhelming journey that is life, carving different paths, but bound to cross paths with one another. As Boaventura de Sousa Santos notes in his work, “social practices are knowledge practices”. When we continue to ignore race based on the fallacy we live in a post racial society, then we solidify this misrepresentation as undisputable fact. When Martin Luther King speaks of judging people not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character, it is a beautiful dream calling for us to redeem our humanity. A dream which tells us that our complexion is something we must look past so we may weigh the essence of who we are versus the perception of how we may appear. Yet, this dream is a fantasy. We have barely begun to accept race and to race towards the end of our dream without the struggle of understanding one another would be detrimental. We should know because we have tried. To transcend from a racially divided society and into one where race is no issue instantaneously cannot be done. We must slowly build the bridge to reach Martin Luther King’s vision, always placing the groundwork for an evolution of society. We build now, with this generation by challenging the taboo applied to an essential social construct. Have the tough conversations, push people to learn more, and educate others. Do this so we engage one another in open, meaningful dialogue to recognizing each of our races are unique and beautiful. For you’re not defined by your skin color, but how consciously you navigate that space of race.

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