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A “conversation” on race isn’t always a good answer

By July 6, 2015December 20th, 2015No Comments

Ta-Nehisi Coates comes out swinging against the idea that a “conversation on race” is a useful response to any given situation in which racism rears its head.

I can’t really remember the last time I saw a public figure do something racist and say, “Yes. I am racist. I am sorry and I intend to do something about it.” Indeed virtually any “conversation” on race that would take place in this country must — necessarily — be premised on there not being any actual living racists, or any actual effects of racism.

We do not know. And we like it that way.

As a clarification, this is where I part with many of my liberal fellow travelers. I just don’t believe everyone should be engaged in a conversation. I strongly believe that people often have disparate interests. White racism is an actual interest held by actual people. Some people should be talked to. Other people must be defeated.

The week prior I came out with an article for the Rochester newspapers:  “We need action on race, not endless ‘conversation.’”

I don’t think any conversation on race has to be based on the premise that there are no racists having it – although I think it veers dangerous close to that territory, I’m just exhausted from a series of perennial “conversations” that the Greater Rochester community puts itself through every three-or-four years that cover the EXACT same ground as the last time, gradually desensitizing exactly the people who should be listening.

No conversation that you’re forced to have over and over again can go well.

I’ve seen this kind of conversation go very well:  but generally that was the first time people involved were having it, and they came to it willingly.  Those conditions for success can’t be overlooked.

More to the point, we’re just bad at it.  I remember interviewing Naomi Tutu (Desmond Tutu’s daughter) who said that every time she meets South African students studying in the U.S., they always ask her “How can Americans be SO BAD at talking about race?  They’re worse than us!  Americans can talk about everything – sex, money, religion – but not race!  What’s going on here?”

Tutu’s belief was that we (meaning the political consensus) simply can’t face up to the enormity of the situation.  We’re stuck, not able to look at the past and therefore not able to move into the future.

It sounds about right to me.  My call for a “conversation without words” on racism was a fairly blunt (and, I admit, clumsy) attempt to get past this in one community.  It isn’t always the right answer:  but surely Coates is right:  a “conversation on race” can’t be the go-to answer for every issue that comes up.  The reason that’s so tempting is that, in the wrong circumstances, a conversation can be busywork that shows concern while pressuring no-one.

Exactly the reason we need to learn to give it up, at least sometimes.  It’s no use pretending we’re good at something just because we keep doing it.  If anything, that’s a sign that we really need to do better.  I’ve seen a lot more change of the kind we’re looking for come from exposure and action – working directly with people to do something – than I have from a conversation.