Vail Daily column: The conversation that’s going nowhere
“A nation of cowards” was the phrase used by Attorney General Eric Holder to explain America’s inability to have an open discussion about race. He went on to urge the attendees at a 2009 Black History Month event to open up and be honest with one another even if it was uncomfortable.
Yeah, like that’s going to happen.
Typically a discussion involves an exchange of ideas. It implies that all parties to the dialogue have the opportunity to voice their opinions. And while the word discussion can also indicate a debate, even in a debate there are two equally represented sides.
Unfortunately, that is not how discussions of race often unfold. For one thing, there is a tacit presumption that whites are naive, ignorant or disingenuous on the subject of race. Our opinions are invalidated because we have not been subjected to the historical racism blacks experienced, heedless of our individual family history. Speaking to The Television Critics Association in 2013, comedian W. Kamau Bell said, “The worst thing to say to a person of color is, ‘I don’t think that’s racist.’ … That’s what’s missing, white people. You’ve got a lot of jobs but should not have the ‘I know what’s racist’ job.” Bell is hardly unique. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a five-part series titled “White People Still Don’t Get It.” Following her appearance on “The Colbert Report” the Huffington Post headlines blared, “Toni Morrison Schools Stephen Colbert on Racism.”
Perhaps the reason so many whites avoid talking about race with blacks is because we are relegated to the role of listener. Opening our mouths opens us up to being schooled, scolded and accused. In any conversation about race, it is not a matter of if, but when something a white person says is called racist. Furthermore, a predetermined list of boundaries provided by the other side is not exactly the recipe for an open and honest discussion.
The conversations on race that do take place play out in the media between talking heads talking past one another. Each side comes armed with cherry-picked facts. One side wants to address police brutality and the disproportionate incarceration rate of black men and the widespread economic bias against blacks in general. Speaking for the other side, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly blames the high crime rate among young black men for creating a climate of “suspicion and hostility.” O’Reilly claims the breakdown of the family structure in the black community creates a fertile ground for crime and gang activity. These positions are not mutually exclusive. It is possible both contain elements of truth, but neither side will concede an inch.
Yet another issue preventing an open and honest dialogue is that whites suspect that discussions about race involve a double standard. Bill Maher exposed this contradiction on his show “Real Time.” When his guests thought a quote about black children aspiring to be “rappers” and “ballers” was attributed to Paul Ryan — cue the outrage. However, when Maher revealed the quote was actually by First Lady Michelle Obama, even the audience was silent. Comedian Bell acknowledged, “We talk to each other differently than we talk in front of you.” To which Maher responded, “Is something less true if a white person says it about black people?”
Academics employ terms such as white supremacy and white privilege to insinuate that blacks have a more difficult ladder to climb than whites. Collectively that may be true. However, we do not live collectively; we live individually. That argument is entirely lost on individual whites whose start in life was anything but privileged. Especially these days with people struggling financially, grappling with health issues and nervous about the future, implications that they have it easier are met with incredulity. People who struggled to escape poverty and then worked hard their entire lives likely resent the suggestion that their success was the result of anything other than hard work.
Furthermore, Attorney General Holder urged Americans to start a discussion about race, but with whom did he have in mind? Most whites and blacks do not have friends of a different race. In the event you are fortunate to have a diverse circle of friends, starting a discussion on race might actually make that circle smaller.
I will not presume to speak for all whites nor to all blacks. However, I suspect most whites not on college campuses or working in newsrooms will continue to avoid any discussion of race as long as double standards exist and a “gotcha” environment prevails.
Ultimately I do not think this issue is solvable at the collective level. The pundits participating in the 24-hour news cycle rouse their base and are long on outrage and short on solutions. America will not become a more tolerant, less bigoted country with daily reprimands. This change will happen one individual at a time, which likely comes as unwelcome news for those impatient for change. One thing both sides must acknowledge to move forward is shared responsibility for what is wrong, agreement about what needs to change and a feasible plan to change it. Then everyone needs to work together and give more than an inch. Talking about race is just that, all talk.
Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thehkhousewife.