If we don’t talk about race, Sarah Jackson argues, we can’t get to any place progressive.
Originally published on Role/Reboot
Recently Steve Locke wrote an incredibly on-point and heartfelt piece for The Good Men Project about why he was tired of talking about race. Locke, a talented artist and art professor, explained that “as a black person, I am called on often to speak for my ‘race.’ I can never give an opinion without it being assumed to be that of a multitude.” At the same time Locke details the hypocrisy that often evolves when he engages others in conversations about the continuing impact of racism in American society and is dismissed, attacked, or accused of being incapable of being objective. Locke notes that anyone genuinely committed to learning about race and how race has and continues to shape our country and everyday lives has “libraries full of books, interviews, essays, lectures, and symposia” to draw from, but that he, for one, is tired.
Steve, I feel you man, I really do. Talking about race is exhausting, especially in a world that pretends it’s a conversation that no longer needs to be had, especially when faced with an already hostile audience because of the color of your skin, and especially because, as you point out, “whenever white people want to talk about race, they never want to talk about themselves.” Which is, of course, why we all need to keep talking about race.
And let me be clear about whom I mean by “we.” I mean you. Whoever you are, whatever your identity, you should talk about race.
As an educator who researches and teaches about issues of social identity I find myself talking about race almost every day. That’s what I signed up for. But the thing is, even if it wasn’t my job to talk about race I still live in a raced world where race is talked about around me and to me, whether I like it or not. And that is not only because I am a person of color. Certainly, the color of my skin, like the fact that I was born with a vagina, influences the way the world perceives and treats me, but that same world perceives and treats EVERYONE in certain ways because of the color of their skin. Just as men’s everyday experiences are affected by constructions of gender and heterosexuals benefit from constructions of normative sexuality, white people live in a raced world, too. We are all surrounded by implicit (and explicit) race talk. I, for one, want my voice and the voices of others who want progress, to be a part of the conversation.
One of the tenants of feminism is that the lived, everyday experiences of women matter and should be considered equally valuable to those of men if we are to move toward a gender equitable society. We encourage women who have been the victims of gendered violence to tell their stories in order to de-stigmatize this experience. We call out department stores that sell shirts that tell our daughters if they are pretty they don’t have to do homework. We ask that our female politicians be judged equally to their male counterparts and not on what they’re wearing. We say aloud and repeat the fact that women continuing to make less money than men for the same work is the result of institutionalized sexism. We understand that constructions of gender are everywhere, even when not spoken about explicitly. Those of us invested in gender equality do all these things because talking about gender, naming it, and questioning it, can be empowering. The more we talk, the more we redefine the gendered social constructions that hurt us all. I’m sure you see where I’m going here.
Locke’s desire not to talk about race reminded me of an experiment conducted last year by John L. Jackson, Jr. (no relation) of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. Jackson attempted a 40-day fast from talking about race. In an interview with NPR he explained that from day one this fast turned out to be impossible. “Race is around every corner, so I had to excuse myself from every conversation. I couldn’t read any headline because it is there already,” he said. “The experiment proved that if you’re not talking about race at all you’re not actually talking about the contemporary moment in a way that’s going to get us to someplace progressive.”
Exactly. So let’s talk about race.
Contrary to the naive (and destructive) idea that we should live in a “colorblind” society where simply avoiding race as a topic makes it go away, talking about race, identifying its continuing impact on individuals and our society at large, allows us to move toward addressing continuing inequalities and validating a diverse set of experiences.
And let me again be clear, I do not mean that only people of color should talk about race. In fact, I agree with Steve Locke that people of color face the unfair burden of being expected to talk about race, even when they don’t want to or don’t, frankly, know much about it in an intellectual sense. I have seen this in my classroom when white students fall silent on issues of race and look to their black and brown classmates to address complex racial issues single-handedly. It’s as if my white students think that despite their peers sharing their age and educational level, the extra melanin in their skin has imbued them with the wisdom of Martin Luther King, the tenacity of Cesear Chavez, and the patience of Ghandi. I promise you, it has not. Similarly, like Locke, I have experienced the sting of being told I’m being “too sensitive” or “unobjective” about race many times, because of, yep, my race. Which is exactly why I want everyone to talk about race.
As Locke points out, as long as only people of color are asked to speak on race and then dismissed for doing so, white people maintain the privilege of not having to recognize the way race affects their everyday lives. Just as we need “good men” who are willing to talk about how being a man uniquely privileges them and how dominant constructions of masculinity hurt them, men who are willing to speak up against rape culture on college campuses and homophobia in the military, we need white folks to have open, public conversations about how their whiteness affects their everyday lives and to speak up against individuals, policies, and institutions that perpetuate racial hierarchies by refusing to talk about race. Silence isn’t only consent; silence is like giving a system based in racial hierarchies a bear hug and cooking it a romantic dinner.
I plan to keep talking about race, just like I plan to keep talking about sexism, homophobia, and classism. I talk about race because I don’t know how not to and because I wish desperately that others couldn’t help themselves either.
Note: Steve Locke already provided a valuable reading list with his discussion, in that spirit I would add:
White Women Race Matters, Ruth Frankenberg
The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, George Lipsitz
White Like Me, Tim Wise
Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins
Seeing a Colorblind Future, Patricia Williams
Sarah Jackson is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. Her research and teaching focus on how media discourses of race, class, and gender reinforce and/or challenge concepts of national belonging. Outside her academic life, Sarah volunteers with youth in educational equity programs, does a lot of yoga, and fantasizes about being an artist. Read more of her writing on Wandering In Love and follow her on Twitter @sjjphd
This article originally appeared on Role/Reboot and is reprinted with permission.