by Eric Ratinoff
We have been talking for a very long time about how we really, really need to talk about race. How it’s time for a national dialogue about race. How we in the business community need to have that difficult conversation about race.
All this talking about talking.
Why do we keep talking about having to talk about it?
We talk about talking about race as though if we could just get the right people to say the right things at the right time in the right order, we could solve this tricky puzzle that’s been vexing us all these years.
But the reason we keep talking about talking about race, rather than actually talking about race, is because the actual conversation about race is dangerous. We risk being wrong. The conversation about race is painful. We risk being vulnerable. The conversation about race is scary. We risk being honest.
Saying we should talk about race, though? That’s safe. Who can argue with it?
In his piece, “I, Racist,” John Metta says another issue keeps us from having the conversation — we’re not actually having the same conversation:
White people and Black people are not having a discussion about race. Black people, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system. White people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about “I, racist” and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness. In doing so, they reject the existence of racism.
Charles Blow of the New York Times expands on this distinction between individual racism and institutional racism. Institutional racism, he says, is not limited to racist laws, or intentional racist acts:
All of these definitions of institutional racism are incredibly narrow, and therefore take an incredibly myopic view of what institutional racism looks like. These definitions require a sort of direct discrimination, an articulation either in law or custom, to be deemed real.
But institutional racism will not be limited in that way …. institutional racism doesn’t require the enlisting of individual racists. The machine does the discriminating.
How can we merge these conversations, when one group that wants to engage in a dialogue urgently wants to talk about racism at a systemic level, built up over centuries, and another wants to defend its individual actions, performed over a single lifetime — and the institutions with which it identifies?
For starters, those who enjoy White privilege can do less talking (and less talking about talking), and more listening. And more reading.
The only way we can have a productive conversation about race is if we’re having the same conversation. And the only way we can have the same conversation is if those who are worried about not appearing racist understand what systemic, institutional racism looks like — and in so doing understand how they’re not being accused of it, but rather being enlisted in dismantling it.
And if you’re looking for a good starting point for understanding what it feels like to be Black in America, set aside some time to sit with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Letter to My Son,” a powerful, personal essay (adapted from his forthcoming book, “Between the World and Me“) that offers a perspective on race that you will find either hauntingly familiar, because too many of the stories ring true to your experience, or sobering, because they don’t.
This originally appeared in The Mouse and the Elephant Weekly.