How to Talk about Race

You’ve probably been in the room when someone starts off with “I don’t want to sound racist BUT —”

The speaker goes on to expand on a stereotype that is likely to make the other listeners uncomfortable.

Or, you’re at the dinner table a friend’s house and without any warning, someone drops the N bomb in casual conversation.

“They like him, for a nigger,” a man said, standing in my friend’s mother’s kitchen.

Lucky for him, and me, and them, my hosts, his Southern accent muffled what I heard, and we moved on.

I grew up in the UnitENGL 103 Privilege Bingoed States as an the child of Indian immigrants. Race was everywhere around me, in how people reacted to what I brought to school to eat to what they said to me about dating.

“Oh, I don’t think of you as black,” was an often repeated phrase, intended as a compliment.

But I’m not white either I would think. So what am I? Who am I in relation to you?

I didn’t have ways to talk about race when I was teenager. The prevalent idea then was that we didn’t have to: the Civil Rights movement had solved all our problems.

Post 9/11 anti-Islamism and recent cases of police brutality show us that race and ethnicity are still very much divisive forces.

We have to talk about them and in ways that are useful, that go beyond excusing ourselves for holding on to stereotypes.

We can begin simply by questioning our assumptions.

A friend, who teaches anthropology gives an exercise which goes like this: everyone in the room anonymously writes down racial stereotypes and passes them in. She reads them out. “Pakistanis smell,” read one card. She keeps going until anyone is so uncomfortable that they call out “Stop.”

Another friend, teaching a class on migrant labor, had all the students play Privilege Bingo. I heard someone present about this at a conference. You restructure the game of Bingo to make all the categories related to positions of privilege: access to education, living within city limits, specific religions, etc. When someone calls out Bingo, thinking they’ve won, you explain the categories.

You can give everyone in the room a ball (or a piece of paper to crumple up) and ask them to toss into the same basket.

On and on. Students seem an easy group to begin this type of dialogue. Talking about race is our collective responsibility.

Have you had any uncomfortable or productive talks about race?

 

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