Note: I’ll start by saying that the open letter to which I’m writing is here, and is well worth your time to read. It talks about the importance of addressing and attacking the systemic roots of racism rather than identifying and personifying the issue via individual instances (that summary is what I got from it, apologies to Race Forward if I misinterpreted or misunderstood the intent).
Dear Open Letter to Starbucks and USAToday (AKA Race Forward, AKA Rinku Sen),
I appreciate the focus you have placed on the institutionalized aspect of race and the importance of understanding these underlying tenets of our cultural fabric. I could not agree more (and, in fact, have written numerous times about this very need) regarding the urgency of pulling back the curtain in order to expose and address these issues.
Having said that, I cannot agree that individual conversations are unimportant – or – as stated by Jay Smooth in a tv interview, that it is sometimes better not to have a conversation if that conversation is not focused on the big picture. I get (and, again, agree with) the idea that entering the blame game does nothing but create defensive, closed off people who are no longer a potential part of the solution.
The thing is, it doesn’t have to be like that. My father, for years, said “that was mighty white of you” whenever someone did something particularly praiseworthy. He grew up hearing it on a daily basis (never as a contrast to something being mighty black or brown by the way… it had nothing to do with race to him). *I* grew up hearing it on a regular basis (from him) and not really thinking much of it… until I went off to college that is.
I played basketball in college, and – as such – the racial makeup of my friends changed significantly (not a lot of diversity in a private Catholic high school in Reno Nevada). I never really got into my dads pet phrase so I never ran into a problem using it, but as I hung out with my new friends I found myself becoming increasingly aware of what was and was not racially charged. Suddenly, for example, the Cleveland Indians mascot was significant to me. Over the years, I sort of forgot about dear old dads expression. But then I went home to visit and *boom* there it was, big as life, and through my new world lens… unconscionable.
So I talked to my father about race, about bigotry, about reinforcing negative (or falsely positive) stereotypes… about “mighty white.” He was shell-shocked. What he was saying (the meaning rather than the words) had never occurred to him. Some would say my father doesn’t have a racist bone in his body, other would say everyone has some racism or bigotry in them and he is no exception; but either way, it is highly unlikely that anyone has ever said (nor are they likely to ever say) he is a racist in any way shape or form. The guy simply doesn’t have “race” or anything like it in his value system… people are people, their actions determine “good” or “bad.”
But here’s the thing, I could have talked to him for days on end about systemic racism or about institutionalized bigotry and it really wouldn’t have been something he could relate to. In his insulated world (he moved to Boise Idaho after I left for college… also not a hotbed of racial variety, especially in 1984) those idea just wouldn’t (couldn’t) resonate with him. His world, consisting largely of one race, didn’t really contain any racism. However, once I was able to illustrate how he, himself, was acting, it opened the door to the bigger, more substantive, conversation. Simply put, once he realized he could be doing racist things (without actually having any racist thoughts or ideals) the idea of a society so conditioned was no longer such a far-reaching concept.
My (long-winded) point is that the individual conversations do matter, in fact, they are important. It’s not the existence of these conversations that cause defensiveness, it is the method of delivery or approach. Most of society is not ready to take on big conceptual issues. Heck, much of society is already pretty occupied trying to get the kids fed and the house cleaned up in time to get some sleep before they start all over the next day. And, if they are potentially open to waxing philosophical about race (or gender, or sexual preference, or gender identity et. al.) they are probably more likely to do so if they are invested or the subject resonates with them in some personal way.
Again, I appreciate your focus on the more entrenched societal norms and how they effect race (and other issues) today. Those are the areas in which real and lasting change can take place. I’d just encourage you not to lose track of the value of everyday, personally relevant, conversation in the mix. It’s not a matter of settling, it’s a matter if being comprehensive and fully vested in your efforts, and I think that goes well beyond the shallow bar of settling for “okay.”