Why We Keep Talking About Racism
When the media publish articles that explicitly talk about race and racism—calling out or calling in White people—sometimes people get upset. “They’re divisive,” some have said. “YES! used to be positive,” others have said.
Why do we do it? Because race matters.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her 2014 dissent on the Affirmative Action ruling:
“Race matters. Race matters in part because of the long history of racial minorities’ being denied access to the political process. Race also matters because of persistent racial inequality in society—inequality that cannot be ignored and that has produced stark socioeconomic disparities. And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away. Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, ‘No, where are you really from?’ regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’”
YES! is still about the solutions that lead us toward social justice. But let’s be honest: Some problems won’t be solved with co-ops, solar panels, and water wells. Sometimes difficult discussion about race and oppression is a solution in itself, crucial to the liberation of everyone. And, yes, these discussions can cause discomfort.
We live in a system that keeps Americans divided by race, those who have lived traumatized by it and those who have benefited from it. So talking about race is not easy, and depending to whom you’re speaking, dangerous. But there’s a lot at stake. We need courage and a willingness to engage others who have different experiences. After that, we need the fortitude to sustain those conversations and the sensitivity to deepen them.
We live in a system that keeps Americans divided by race.
This is hard work, I know.
For years now, I’ve attended racial equity and dismantling racism workshops to learn how I can personally, and professionally in my role as a journalist, talk constructively about racism both within my race group and across racial lines. Recently at the National Summit for Courageous Conversation, I spoke with the event’s founder, Glenn Singleton, author of Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools and its follow-up, More Courageous Conversations About Race.
Singleton offers a unique approach to having conversations about race, intended to engage, sustain, and deepen the conversions. Whether talking to people within our race or with others, he believes we need to practice four agreements: stay engaged, speak your truth, experience discomfort, and expect and accept non-closure.
The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Zenobia Jeffries: You’ve said, “If you’re not talking about race, you’re not talking about the problem.” You’ve also referenced W.E.B. DuBois’ summation that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line, by saying it is also the problem of the 21st century. Can you define what the color line is, particularly now when there are so many variances of racial identity?
Glenn Singleton: It’s … “the relationship between the darker and lighter men,” [DuBois] wrote, “in Asia, Africa, America, and the islands of the sea.”
DuBois’ narrative was not only a study of the challenge in the United States, but he spoke of global White supremacy. [He] indicated that we would come up with all kinds of reasons to minimize this stark reality that race matters, and race has mattered, and race will continue to matter, as long as we meet … these racial realities with denial.
We can look at the data and see that there’s racial disparity.
Jeffries: Does the conversation around other identity factors—intersectionality—take away from the conversation about race?
Singleton: Only when we diminish the importance of race. [When that happens] you can feel the difference in the conversation. For the first time, I decided to theme [this year’s] summit at the intersection. “She Speaks Her Truth” is really a recognition that race isn’t walking in the sphere of challenge for human beings by itself as an isolate; it’s walking in intersection.
But the premature decision to deal with the intersection without representing and understanding the parts coming into the intersection causes us to look like we’re crashing into ourselves.
We can look at the data and see that there’s gender disparity. No one coming into the intersection denies that there are genders. We can look at the data and see that there’s racial disparity.
Yet people deny that there’s race. As a social construct it doesn’t really exist, I get that, but that social construct is so ingrained and it’s so profound that these disparities are the most significant disparities we see of any data set.
And really, [people are] not necessarily denying that there’s race. Their behavior in terms of how segregated our communities are … indicate that we clearly get that there’s race. We’re denying that there’s racism.
Jeffries: Most people of color understand the benefit of talking about race and racism. What benefit is there to White people?
Singleton: White people have a conscious or unconscious sense of superiority. So their place of operation is from this place of privilege and advantage, which they are seeing often as a neutral start, which allows for many White people who are unconscious about White supremacy and racism to believe themselves as people of greater proficiency, people of greater competency. That is a very dangerous mindset.
The most obvious case for me has been the past presidency. Obama will never get his recognition for having to redesign leadership in this country at the highest level to work for a Black man against all of the oppression. And then the powerful juxtaposition of [Trump], a White man who is by every definition of the presidency and the criteria completely unqualified.
White people in the United States with an inability to see that this would never be accepted for a person of color, that’s where this destroys them. And while it’s not [the kind of] violence that has [targeted people of color] over the ages, from killing and hanging, castration of men of color, rape of women of color … it is a moral, spiritual decay that occurs when a person who is White can’t see these things and feel these things as an injustice.
White people have to develop a capacity to understand their resistance to engage with Black people.
Jeffries: How does the change happen for White people to want to enter into a conversation about race, or do anything about racism?
Singleton: Because they as a collective … have an extraordinary diversity within them. And within them—which is why I went to the intersection—there are White women. And if women truly understand systemic marginalization based on the factor of their gender/sex, then they understand marginalization. So there’s something in White women that’s not allowing them to make the application, to make the translation [to race].
They know that society is capable of a kind of categorical oppression—systemic oppression. So they get that. Jewish American people in the United States also know that because anti-Semitism is profound. So, Jewish White women should really be showing up quite differently around race and racism, but that’s not [what’s happening].
White people have to develop a capacity to understand their resistance to engage with Black people, and what that resistance is about.
Jeffries: How do they do that?
Singleton: They look to other White people who are doing much better than they are in terms of engaging with Black people. And they begin to inquire.
White Americans don’t have trouble talking to other White Americans, particularly when they’re White Americans who share political ideology and economic class. And within those similarities there is a range of engagement around race. [Those who are] more advanced [in that engagement] have struggled to bring along some of the others [in their communities].
Jeffries: Since the Trump campaign and subsequent presidency, more people are talking about race/racism and White supremacy, but some would like to center the conversation of America’s problems around economic class or political divides—liberal versus conservative. What happens when we don’t center race as the problem?
Singleton: Racism in this country occurred long before the political parties. Racism in this country begins with the genocide of the indigenous, and there are no [political] parties there. Racism continues with the insistence of the language of the empire, and the gobbling up of people’s land, and culture, and experiences.
Until White American people truly see people of color as their equals, we’ve got a problem with race. When we talk about the president, I don’t think this is a political conversation, it’s much bigger. It crosses economics, it crosses education.
When do people learn the behaviors of interrupting White supremacy?
Jeffries: When we talk about the color line, it’s mostly the Black–White binary. You say other people of color (Native, Latino, Arab, Asian) are all in between. But many people of color don’t see themselves as part of that color line, preferring to identify specifically.
Singleton: You cannot deny the Black–White racial binary. What we do in Beyond Diversity seminars is we help people distinguish between what is a racial binary and what are ethnic and national identities. Race goes across ethnicity and national identity.
On [one] end [is] where Black is targeted, Black is oppressed, Black is diminished, Black is seen as the problem, as DuBois wrote. There is an understanding that those two very different situations exist. Black people are the understanding of how bad racism gets. And Black doesn’t mean that I’m not talking about Southeast Asian, Native, Latinx.
I have staff that are Afro-Cuban, and this is Cuban national identity of Black skin, African tradition in the ethnicity piece, all of those are there. But Cubans need to be able to talk about the movement and the experience of Cubanos who are [on the full continuum of] Black to White. You can start to see very specifically when those shades start to be seen as part of dominant and when they start to be included as part of oppressed.
Jeffries: But race is not only about the physicality of one’s skin color, hair texture, etc. You identify three parts of race: color, culture, and consciousness.
Singleton: Color—that’s really just negotiating privilege. It saddens me that the country struggles so much to accept that basic aspect. Once you’re told about it and then you can observe it, you have to stop denying it.
I didn’t ask to have this skin color. I find it to be a blessing, but these aren’t choices that we make. I point out to my White friends over and over again the places in which oppression occurs for me, and privilege occurs for them. So, I expect them, when I’m not around to be able to see these things also.
There are so many behaviors connected to a single belief.
And, if they don’t see it, I don’t mind pointing it out.
The culture aspect is behavioral. When do people learn the behaviors of interrupting White supremacy? That to me is the sophisticated place that we have to go, those places where we keep making it that white-skin people have the easy way to go in this society.
And consciousness is born out of our [behavioral] experiences. How much of what is hoarded in the White experience causes damage to my psyche, to my sense of belief in self, to my ingraining decision that my skin color means something about ability, something about all of those factors of my humanity?
Jeffries: And so having race conversations is an effort to change beliefs, first?
Singleton: You have to. There are so many behaviors connected to a single belief.
I always use the example when working with teachers: When I walk into a classroom and I’m observing a teacher [so I can] support the teacher’s development to culturally relevant practice, and I notice that the teacher is mistreating a Black male student by further marginalizing him and putting him in the corner. And I say to the teacher, don’t do that. “Don’t do that” is a behavioral modification. But the belief that allowed the teacher to put the student there is going to show up in something else.
So you’ve got to get at that belief, at the core, which is in the essence of the country. It’s the value, it’s the belief in this society.
Some educators want to only correct those behaviors so that if you stop putting the kid in the corner, then you’ll see that the kid will perform. And once you see the kid will perform, then you’ll have a different belief about the kid. That’s too many steps. By that time, that kid, the spirit, the light in the kid’s eyes, is gone.
We’re really sensitive and understand when we’re not welcome.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield is the former executive editor at YES!, where she directed editorial coverage for YES! Magazine, YES! Media’s editorial partnerships, and served as chair of the YES! Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. A Detroit native, Zenobia is an award-winning journalist who joined YES! in 2016 to build and grow YES!’s racial justice beat, and continues to write columns on racial justice. In addition to writing and editing, she has produced, directed, and edited a variety of short documentaries spotlighting community movements to international democracy. Zenobia earned a BA in Mass Communication from Rochester College in Rochester, Michigan, and an MA in Communication with an emphasis in media studies from Wayne State University in Detroit. Zenobia has also taught the college course “The Effects of Media on Social Justice,” as an adjunct professor in Detroit. Zenobia is a member of NABJ, SABJ, SPJ, and the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. She lives in Seattle, and speaks English and AAVE.