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?


Wordless Wednesday: The World is a Pigmentocracy

Driving in gridlocked traffic earlier in the week, a BBC Worldservice piece on pigmentocracy in Martinique resonated with me. People prefer lighter skin not only in the Caribbean but in all the former colonies. This form of reverse racism is appalling.

A more traditional form of bigotry reared it’s head with the awarding of Miss America to Nina Davuluri, an American woman of Indian descent, with many feeling that she was not American enough.

As a woman with darker skinned female Indian relatives, I corroborate the pressure to be as fair as possible.

Bleach based face creams can be found on shelves all over Asia and the Middle East. Ironically a dominant Indian brand is called “Fair and Lovely“.

While we looked at photos last night of the gorgeous Nina, a friend of Caribbean background commented “she’s a dark Indian.” And she is darker than the Aishwarya types who have represented India at Miss Universe or Miss World.




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Still not by the content of character

Yesterday I watched the Martin Luther King Jr. "I Have a Dream" speech on the anniversary of his birthday.
Today, three times at the American Embassy I was told to come back at 3:00 pm to pick up my passport because that’s when immigrant visas were issued.

Three times I had to reassure them, despite wearing Western clothing, speaking with a Western accent, and showing up during American citizen service hours, that I was in fact there to pick up American passports, not immigrant visas.

The most abrasive time happened when I was at the counter itself. The person took my two tickets and said, "Someone will be here to help you with this soon." He then pushed the electronic button to advance to the next number. I sat down, in the front row, right in front of the window.

A man came from the back and said, "You need to pick these up at 3:00 p.m."
I said, "Why? It says on the card from 1-3 o’clock."

He looked at thecard, at me, and said, "You need to speak to the person who gave you this. When did you do this?"

"Last Thursday," I said, "it was a woman." 

I don’t know who was more frustrated: The first teller, his colleague or me.

"They’re American passports," I said, for no reason at all, since no one had thought to ask me.

"For additional pages?" the first guy said, having not asked me this when I handed over my cards.

I nodded. He asked me to pass him the pick up stubs again – all the while the next person he had called up was standing next to me – and left the window.

Lo and behold: returns two minutes later with two American passports. Mine and my husband’s – Asian American.

I wonder if he had gone to pick them up if they would have bothered to ask him, either at the check in desk, guard gate, or the teller station.

Why make the Embassy such an unpleasant place to go? As if the three years and counting construction in front of the Embassy weren’t enough frustration, a chasm worthy of a fairy tale preventing any sensible direct entry, people’s assumptions that all Americans are still white made me angry enough never to set foot into that Embassy again. Me, a person who has received numerous grants from the State department and helps host dignitaries often on their visits to Qatar. Me, who has taken countless excursions with students from Qatar to the U.S. – many for their first time – for a positive experience with American culture.

Many Westerners give Qatar a hard time for their strict attitudes towards citizenship – by birth only and only through the father. What I experienced today taught me that the embassy could do a lot of training with their staff, guards, and consular services to help them understand that American citizenship is much more inclusive. If a brown person shows up during citizen hours, maybe she isn’t misinformed. Maybe she’s there because she’s a citizen. And maybe, one of the ten people between her and the door should think to ask her.

God bless Barack Obama  – I pray for strength fo him and his family  to serve four, or more, years in the White house as America’s first non-white president. And let all non-white, and white, American citizens the world over rejoice today as he is inaugurated. We can only hope it gets better from here.