Sunday, July 5, 2015

Talking/Thinking About Race

Will Moore has an interesting post about taking about race and racism.  It comes out of a conversation that he and Erica Chenoweth and Christian Davenport had online:

There is a fourth reason why folks don't talk about race and racism: fear.  That is, people are careful about talking about race because they don't want to offend anyone and don't want to be accused of being racist.  Whether it is something being taken out of context, like Obama's mention of the n-word (notice that I don't spell it out) in the Marc Maron interview, or just musing aloud might lead to something that one might regret saying, fear matters a great deal in how/whether people talk about this stuff.

I guess I vary in my comfort/discomfort when I talk about race.  As a scholar focused on ethnic conflict, I tend to view race as I view religion, language or a similar attribute that shape people's identities and shape the politics of countries.  Despite the troubled history of race in the US, I tend to think of race as being less inherently problematic than other identities since there is no direct logical implications about racial divisions as there is for religion, for example.  Different religious groups will have different beliefs about right and wrong and about what the role of government is because the differing values are inherent in religion.  Linguistic divisions usually matter politically in employment and education because that is where language matters.  Race?  What does the color of one's skin have to do with anything?  And the answer, obviously, can be everything as I was reminded listening to a Moth podcast yesterday about apartheid.  While everything is ultimately socially constructed, the political implications of race are much more so, I think.  

I get less comfortable thinking/talking about race when I think about the course of my life, rather than the conflicts elsewhere.  Why? I have tended to live in highly segregated communities:
  • I went to summer camp at a Jewish camp.  The only African-Americans were a few counselors and some of the staff.  The kids always considered the African-American counselors to be the coolest.  
  • that my high school class had one or two African-Americans, a few Latinos, a couple of Asian-Americans, and was mostly quite white. 
  • that Oberlin had more people of color than my high school, but the place was still fairly segregated.  And raising the question of segregation was problematic since it was perhaps the case that some of the African-Americans chose to live among themselves in part because they had always lived in segregated communities and felt isolated in the mass of white people.  Criticizing them for not exposing themselves was wrong.  So, I didn't develop any lasting friendships with African-Americans from college.  I did develop friendships with other people of color during my college years, including Latinos and Asian-Americans.
  • This pattern largely continued in grad school, as the folks in my class and in the cohorts around mine were largely white with some Latinos and Asian-Americans and one African-American.  
  • While Lubbock was perhaps one of the more diverse communities I lived in, it was also very highly and very clearly segregated.  My only friends were junior faculty in my department and frisbee players.  So, no, no new African-American friends in Lubbock for me.
  • My brief time in Virgina was different.  The community may or may not have been diverse, but I didn't really notice since I was working very long hours at the most integrated office of my life--the Pentagon.  We didn't talk about race and racism.  The only "heavy" conversation I remember having there over identity was about religion--about "under god" in the pledge of allegiance.  The place might have been more racially diverse than religiously diverse, or at least it sometimes felt that way.
  • In terms of my two lifetime preoccupations, both are relatively white.  The latest TRIP survey has IR in the US and Canada as being 80-something percent white.  I now have some African-American political science friends, and we have talked about racism even if we have not really talked about race itself, if that makes any sense.  Ultimate frisbee is less white than it used to be, but is still a very white sport.  I have had Asian-Americans/Canadians* and Latinos on my teams as often as not, especially in Montreal, but I have only briefly played alongside or against African-Americans/African-Canadians. 
* For this entire section of this post, I feel uncomfortable since I am not sure what is the way that various groups prefer to be called.
 The point here is I am not entirely comfortable when talking about race because I have rarely been engaged in sustained conversations about race with people of other races.  The internet helps with this as my twitter feed is more diverse than my facebook feed.  But these virtual friendships that are formed are not quite the same thing either.  I am sure there is some of the guilt that Will mentions in his post  is at the heart of my discomfort, since I sometimes think I have not done enough to reach out.  Again, it gets to fear--that I might say the wrong thing.

The good news it that my daughter has lived in far more integrated communities than I did, as we tended to end up sending her to schools with lots of immigrants especially in Virginia and Montreal.  And she went to her college a week early as an "international" student despite her American citizenship, so she immediately had a more diverse community to hang out with.  Her friends on facebook are a far more diverse lot than mine.  I don't know whether she is more comfortable about talking about race with her friends, but I guess I can find out on one of the many long drives in our near future. 

Of course, when I am uncomfortable, I try to make jokes and making jokes in a racial context can be very problematic, which is why I leave it to the professionals:

Update: I wrote this post and then read this piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which makes my notion of fear silly by comparison.  Which points to a second way in which the internet is a positive force--I read more stuff written by those who have very different, very powerful perspectives.

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