Speaking Sensitively About Racism?

I believe whole-heartedly in the necessity of conversations about racism, but those are conversations that we are, by and large, unwilling to have openly.  That obstinacy is spread far and wide and has little to do with class or wealth or level of education; factors that seem to impact only the method by which we avoid the conversation.

I was recently listening to a new podcast and the host (a writer) was interviewing her guest (another writer) about a book he had written about shopping malls.  He was commenting on how it had evolved into a sort of cultural study of suburban sprawl and urban renewal by way of an idiosyncratically suburban American institution.  The writer noted that he found himself dealing in detail with white flight and housing discrimination and mentioned the difficulty, in a short book or lengthy essay, of discussing complex topics without overwhelming the reader with specific information.  The host replied in the affirmative, for example:  “How do I talk about racism and white flight in a way that is sensitive, but complete as I can be?”

That brief question – innocuous though it may be – is indicative of our inability to have frank conversations about racism in intellectual – liberal, affluent – circles and it has a simple answer:  “You don’t.”

The goal of a conversation about race is only to speak about it completely, self-consciously, and with nuance.  Of course, an argument should be effective and concise, but it should be as complete as possible in the context of the question being argued.  I’m not sure “sensitivity” should be all that much of a concern.  That may seem odd to say – generally any argument benefits when the participants bring a certain level of sensitivity to the argument – but it’s really not.  The subversive nature of her question is perhaps best illustrated by a follow-up question:

For whom, precisely, is this sensitivity intended?

We often discuss racism as an abstract concept when, in so many ways, it is anything but – racial terrorism, mob violence, lynching, entrenched discrimination, affronts to dignity, stripping of wealth.  That’s in large part because we don’t have specific words to denote those experiences.  We have descriptions but they are long and imprecise.  They often seem distant.  More importantly, they often describe one side of the problem.

The host’s question and the specific topic she discussed indicate such an abstract concept of racism.  The term “white flight” rarely describes a single family who left a neighborhood because their public school was integrated or because a single black family moved in down the block.  It describes a general phenomenon wherein, over the course of multiple decades, white families spread further out of or away from cities and withdrew their children en masse from the public school systems.

The discussion was not about how to address a violent mob lynching or the brutal details of the murder of a civil rights advocate. There was no traumatic and violent image to reconcile with the experiences of those who had suffered similar agony.  The discussion is usually about ideas.  By and large, discussing racism as a structural force – an abstract force often without single perpetrators or easily identifiable victims – is incredibly useful in illustrating the reality of how racism works in a country fifty years removed from the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement.  But it’s important to consider, even in liberal circles, what terms we use to describe structural racism, and who those terms necessarily push from the discussion.  

“White flight,” “white privilege,” “white fragility,” “white supremacy.”  The attitudes and behaviors and ideas of White America are at the center of discussions of structural racism and their violent or harmful impacts are often peripheral (the genius of Ta-Nehisi Coates that he manages to illustrate the devastating impact of structural racism on individuals such that his reader necessarily thinks of abstract ideas in terms of that devastation extrapolated over many millions of lives and several decades).  Sensitivity serves only those who find themselves the object of such discussions.

We often consider the specific and traumatic violence of racism to be distant and perhaps contextual, even after events like those in Charlottesville prove that this was never really the case.  We often consider the specific indignities of racial discrimination to have died at lunch counter sit-ins even when we’re ruthlessly reminded by George Zimmerman and Michael Slager and Daniel Panteleo that millions of people endure them daily.

When we treat racism as an abstraction but restrain our discussions in order to be sensitive to others, who exactly does our sensitivity serve?  It’s not a complicated question to answer.  When we treat racism as an abstraction – a force without a visceral and personal impact – we strip from the discussion those who are injured by it in particular and brutal ways.  We’re left dealing only with those who initiate it.  In short – when we’re sensitive about how we discuss racism, our sensitivity serves white people.

Writing in 1963 of the delusions and fragility of White Americans, James Baldwin stated that it was only White Americans who believed that:

“… their ancestors were all freedom loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world's most direct and virile and American women are pure.”

Baldwin argues that only White Americans believe this mythology about America, so it’s only White Americans – not Black Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, immigrants, or any other children of immigrants – who need to be protected when that myth is punctured.  Speaking “sensitively” about racism serves only those who feel that they’re being accused of racism.

If the goal of a discussion about racism is to draw attention to the problem of police violence by graphically illustrating a police shooting, then it’s important that we’re sensitive to those who feel the impact and the weight of that story.  But sensitivity should be reserved for those who have experienced the pain and loss associated with the phenomena we describe.  Preserving another’s comfort, innocence, illusion of status, or untarnished picture of their country is unworthy of sensitivity.  Any description of racism should be accurate, true, meticulous, complete, and convincing.  Sensitivity to anyone other than those who have been wounded by racism has no place in the calculation.