‘Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race’

Tom Matlack asked his friend Steve Locke to write for us about race. He declined. Here’s why.



Dear Tom,

Thanks so much for asking me to contribute something to GMP. It has been exciting to see how this project has gone from an idea to a reality.

As much as I enjoy reading GMP and as much as I’d love to be a part of it, I don’t think I am able to write about race.

It’s not that I don’t know anything about it. I was on a social media site and I was looking at the post one of my friends shared. He was lamenting the fact that PSYCHOLOGY TODAY had printed an article saying that black women are “objectively” less attractive than other women. Others of his friends posted on his “wall,” saying that attractiveness was relative and that it was based on symmetry of features and the like. I posted a “sigh” and said that it was sickmaking, in 2011, that someone would even create a study to investigate humans in such a way, that the creation of the study was evidence of a bias, and the notion that peoples’ “tastes” and “preferences” are not affected by 300+ years of racialized bias was ignorant. Also, I have been told that black people are somehow deficient for most of my 48 years and that PSYCHOLOGY TODAY was passing this crap off as research was sad.

A poster responded that he didn’t see any racism in the research and that it was like comparing apples and oranges. He also told me that too many people say things are about race when they aren’t, and that maybe I was upset to be on the “losing” side of the article. He wanted me to explain why I thought the article was racist.

I told him that it is not my job to educate him about the experience of race in his own country, although as his darker countryman, I am called on to do just that. I told him that like most ostensibly white people his age, he wanted to locate a reason for thing in his own experience, probably so he would not have to have bad feelings about history, or have to acknowledge the privileges and benefits that he has received for nothing that he has done.

I am a college professor, however, so I gave him some texts that to read that would take him from Reconstruction to the current moment in culture and history. I told him that these would help him develop an understanding of how the caste system of the United States is racialized, and that the understanding of the American experience is structured through the creation, implementation, and sustenance of the racial boundaries through policy and culture.

Here’s the list:





Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall AGENTS OF REPRESSION: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement


(B)ell hooks BLACK LOOKS



The poster advised me that I was being racist by saying “most ostensibly white people.” I advised that I was going solely by his phenotype, which is what people do with me. I also told him to look up “ostensibly” and “racist.”

So you see, it’s not that I don’t know anything about the subject.

Tom, I don’t want to talk about race because it gives weight to a fiction that was created to oppress. It has no basis in biology and is a social construction in this country that was engineered to maintain access to free labor. The fiction created by race distorts the reality in which we live.

Plus, 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. So when a white person asks me my opinion about an issue that can be related to race, I suspect that there is going to be a moment later when that white person is going to say, “Well, I have a black friend, Steve, who says…” And that will be the black authority on the subject.

Black people can’t talk to white people about race anymore. There’s really nothing left to say. There are libraries full of books, interviews, essays, lectures, and symposia. If people want to learn about their own country and its history, it is not incumbent on black people to talk to them about it. It is not our responsibility to educate them about it. Plus whenever white people want to talk about race, they never want to talk about themselves. There needs to be discussion among people who think of themselves as white. They need to unpack that language, that history, that social position and see what it really offers them, and what it takes away from them. As James Baldwin said, “As long as you think that you are white, there is no hope for you.”

When you went to Africa, you said “you were the minority for the first time in your life.” That’s not true. You have been the only adult in a room full of children, the only man in room full of women, the only non-incarcerated person in a jail. In America if you were a minority at a hip-hop concert in Compton, you would still have the privilege that accrues unbidden to persons designated as white, with all of the political, social, and economic access that comes with it.

What you experienced in Africa, Tom, was that the apparatus that supports the dominance of white skin was absent. It has nothing to do with being a minority someplace, you were free of the prison that is whiteness in America. You could have brought all that privilege with you and manifested it when you saw Cole with Protus, but you didn’t. Letting go of that allowed you to show Cole that he can connect with another person independent of the color of their skin.

Do you remember how Clinton was vilified for wanting to have a national conversation on race? People thought it was unnecessary, that he was a “race traitor,'” that it would lead to reparations for slavery, that it would make white people feel bad for things that were not their fault. White people don’t want to hear about race because the don’t want to be called “racists” or they cannot see how they are responsible for something they didn’t do. That report talks a lot about white privilege. It was no surprise to me that it was not widely read and discussed.

Whiteness to me is oppression. And it oppresses not just black people, but people who think it offers them something other than dominance over their fellow man. Poor white people have been sold a bill of goods that offers them white supremacy and takes away jobs and economic growth.

Tom, I have never, not once, thought of you as white. I think of you as a father, a husband, a brilliant businessman, a feminist, a Quaker, and most of all as a friend. You have never treated me as whiteness demands that you treat me. I don’t want to talk about race because if I do, I stop being an artist, an educator, a godfather, a gay man, and most of all, human.

So I appreciate the offer, Tom, I really do. I just don’t think I can write about it. I can write about art if you like. I know a lot about that.

Love to Elena and the kids, and to you, my man.



Reprinted with permission


More articles On Race:

White Boy in a Black Land

Black Boy in a White Land

‘Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race’

Eating While Black

Facing Mecca

Beautiful on All Sides

Race is Always a Parenting Issue

The Race Walk

Poetry In Motion: A Story of Hardship and Hope in Crow Country, Montana

How Travel Made Me Confront White Privilege

I Prefer My Racism Straight Up, Thank You.

Whiteness Is Not the Absence of Racial Identity Any More Than Maleness Is the Absence of Gender Identity

I Ain’t No Whiteboy: A Reflection on Hip-Hop, Misogyny, and Racial Identity

Why We Need to Talk About Race

When Do I Get To Stop Apologizing for Being White?

Tourism Black and Blues


How Basketball Helped Me Realize I’m Not White


I Talk About Race Because I Don’t Know How Not To



Image credit:
“the neverending story” 2007

oil and acrylic on panel

12 x 16 inches

Private Collection.


About Steve Locke

Steve Locke is a visual artist and Associate Professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, living in Boston, Massachusetts. Find him at www.stevelocke.com


  1. It is easy for white men to say such opinions are silly, because honestly, they don’t have to deal with it.

    While I’m not black, I am a woman (a group who has been oppressed in almost every race for thousands of years)

    Women are also constantly told we are “deficient”, often times because it was “ordained by God”

    It is tiresome, and one grows tired of defending why they, as a human, are just as human as the person they are talking too.

  2. Being biracial, I would love to talk about race. I get to marginalize everyone. How much does the job pay?

  3. In my job I’ve learned, as I suspected, that while it’s true that experience is valuable, it’s far from being the only criterion for expertise. In fact, it can be a detriment. The best indication that someone will do a good job is intelligence and attitude. I think it’s the same for issues of social justice.

    What I think you may have not considered is a common human fallibility: that is that people feel the need to justify their own value and importance by contrasting themselves with others. If that justification fails, they will use any reason to justify their failures. Both tendencies are logical fallacies, and socially destructive, but most if not all humans do it. So, take oppression. It is most likely brought about by an attempt to succeed at the expense of those that can be taken advantage of. Men are generally physically stronger than women: before there were any rules, men, if they weren’t empathetic, could often use that strength to force women to be subservient–socially destructive. Rules arose to help society function in a more civil manner, but women were not given much ultimate control for many reasons, most of which were (at least in my opinion) also socially destructive–but were “justified” due to assumptions involving obvious natural differences between men and women.

    With the movement for women’s rights and equality, women (people) have rightfully campaigned for equal opportunity and voice within society so that their subjugations could be addressed and overturned: all good. But what happens then, because of women are human, and not every woman can be as notably successful as Amelia Earhart or Oprah, they want to excuse their failures according to the newly established and academically accepted issues of feminism. And in general, it’s reasonable to assume that these issues have a substantial effect on whether any individual woman is successful. But then that only works up to a point. Because most people aren’t so internally strong, they will tend to take advantage of the issue as an excuse to blame away practically ALL of their failings and frustrations. Their identity becomes almost consumed in their activism, justifying bitterness and vindictiveness toward, in the case of feminism, men. And individual men don’t deserve that; even if society isn’t ideal, it’s not their fault, they’re generally on board with equality, and they have issues of their own (many of them with women, who under traditional society, were not without their own underlying influences in the social/gender dance). So, yeah, they pushback, and they want a voice in the issue when the tone becomes accusatory and the complaints unbalanced and unfair. And their words, like anyone’s, should be judged by the content of their character, and not by their sex or race; because there’s a real chance that their empathy will bring their argument closer to the center of true equality than someone who has experienced oppression and whose opinion is colored by bitterness.

    That said, racism, particularly toward Native- and African-Americans, has more to consider. That Native Americans have endured genocide and African Americans have endured centuries of slavery has had a profound psychological impact in a more direct and malicious way, leading to generations of recovery. In addition, existence of these groups has largely been separate from their oppressors. Without the interplay that has always existed between men and women, a feeling of “us vs. them” is much more legitimate. There’s much less opportunity to address the racism in person on a regular basis, to dispel the myth of inferiority/superiority, and to find and embrace the acceptance that does exist from many of their “oppressors.” Also, the differences between races is almost certainly more superficial and baseless than differences between men and women, so counter-arguments have very little if any traction. I still think the same dynamics exist overall, but I think the issues in this sense have more weight. So as a white man, I would defer to experience a little with sexism, and a little more with racism, but I will not defer to vindictive reasoning borne out of personal weakness.

  4. “Black people can’t talk to white people about race anymore. There’s really nothing left to say.” Yet, somehow, you manage.

    Whites can’t help the color of their skin anymore than blacks can. They are born that way. Is it right to make them feel ashamed of who they are? By the way, I am neither white or black but Indian (“dot, not feather” to clarify). Once, my daughter’s teacher told she was “safe” because she was Indian. The same teacher told the white children they were evil and racist. This black/white racism gets really old. How can we evolve when we continue to point fingers and make people feel ashamed of who they are?

    • Madeline says:

      At no point in this article does anybody, in any way, attempt to make whites feel bad for being white. That is your perception, and perhaps you should examine why that is your reaction, and acknowledge how counterproductive that is. Oh and by the way, I am white. Not that you should need to hear this from a white person.

  5. huh. I’m going to assume you had his permission to publish this letter about race that specifically states he didn’t want to publish anything about race..

    I have a few other things to say. But it’s 8 am. So give me a few hours.

    • Never mind. Clearly I totally missed who published this article… 8am. I will absolutely contribute something of value in a few hours.

  6. Yes, I would love to read what Steve has to say about art. Please ask him to write about that!

  7. So unfair and tiresome that people of color are constantly subjected to hurtful ignorance. They shouldn’t have to stand up and fight every time a white person says something stupid. White people – time to stand up and fight it and educate ourselves and our children and stop acting like racism is “over” – it is not over because we *feel* like it is over.

  8. Professor Locke, I saved your list of good books to read about black history. Not a single one of these authors — not even W.E.B. DuBois — is listed in the e-Book online site of our public library. Also, now that I come to realize this — if there are any librarians other than white ones in the library building itself, they are not very visible. I generally scope out a workplace or place where I go or trade, and I would have been aware of the any racial or ethnic minorities working as librarians in our public library. I do realize that the black population of Portland, Oregon, is extremely small, but there are plenty of our darker toned brothers and sisters around — lots of black folks in the apartment building where I live, for example.


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  2. […] “There needs to be discussion among people who think of themselves as white. They need to unpack that language, that history, that social position and see what it really offers them, and what it takes away from them. As James Baldwin said, ‘As long as you think that you are white, there is no hope for you.’” – Steve Locke, “Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race” […]

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  21. […] is their relatively small size.  So, just by sheer numbers, they cannot challenge inequality alone.  Allies are crucial.  But, this need is not merely a matter of numbers.  Allies, by virtue of […]

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  23. […] is reserved for people of color, silencing, and tone policing; which is why many people of color shut down and refuse to engage any further, because we feel as if our voices are being stifled, we aren’t truly being heard, the […]

  24. […] not get much done in the work of saving our species from extinction. Voices like James Baldwin and Steve Locke are not saying, “stop oppressing me, person of privilege,” they are saying, “Stop […]

  25. […] is their relatively small size.  So, just by sheer numbers, they cannot challenge inequality alone.  Allies are crucial.  But, this need is not merely a matter of numbers.  Allies, by virtue of […]

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