Why it’s hard to talk about race

One morning, back when I was on the San Antonio Express-News’s editorial board, we were discussing a new study on racial disparities in higher education. Three of us — Bob Richter, Veronica Flores and myself — were thinking of writing columns about the study. We soon agreed that Bob should be the one to write it.

He laid out the reason why at the beginning of his column, saying that as a white male writing about race his views would be considered sound by some readers whereas if I, a black male, or Veronica, a Latina, wrote the same column, those same readers would perceive us as whining.

Those readers being white.

Bob knew that an important issue might be ignored based on who presented it. Through years of sorting through thousands of letters to editors as the Express-News public editor, he understood what Veronica and I also knew from decades of sorting through life: to be black or brown and bring up race, no matter how politely or obliquely, is to be accused of being too sensitive or even racist.

Of all the trip wires of controversial issues spread across the American terrain, none is more explosive than race.

When it’s said that Americans are uncomfortable discussing race, what’s meant is that many white Americans are uncomfortable discussing race. Being part of a group dominant in numbers and power means going through much of life without personally being confronted with the inequities of race and the indignities of racism.

But to be black or any person of color is to be confronted with race in sudden and subtle ways from childhood on; from the suddenness of the first time you’re called “n****r” to the subtlety of being followed in a store or steered away from a neighborhood in which you’re considering buying a home.

It means thinking about race when you don’t want to and have long grown weary with doing so.

When I began writing a column for the Express-News in 1994, I made a conscious decision to avoid the subject of race for as long as I could, because I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a “black columnist” with whatever limitations that would come from having my ethnicity shackled to my job.

By the fifth column, though, I was writing about race, prompted by my 10-year-old nephew wrestling with why his being a black male frightened so many people.

In 17 years, I wrote more than 2,300 columns for the paper. The great majority of them weren’t about race.  I did write about race more than any of our other columnists.

I also wrote more about child abuse, nonviolence, Halle Berry and a fictional dim-witted private eye more than the other columnists. But no one ever accused me of writing too much about child abuse, nonviolence, Halle Berry or the dim-witted private eye.

Yet, any column on a racial issue elicited complaints that I “write too much about race” or “only about race.” I could go weeks without addressing the issue of race, finally write something that did, and the complaints would flow, sprinkled with a few accusations of being racist.

The complaints always came from white readers.

I don’t believe most white people are racist or more susceptible to prejudice than anyone else. I do think many casually accept that their encounters — or lack of encounters — with race is the norm.

Whites struggle to acknowledge that beyond the privilege of being able to avoid unpleasant experiences with race, there are the additional privileges of avoiding discussing race at all.

It’s not unlike the privilege men have of not having to think often of sexism and sexual harassment because they’re not personally hurt by sexism and sexual harassment.

Among all the inequities we are facing in the United States, we must face the inequality of discourse on race. That’s largely because whites set the parameters, deciding what is appropriate to discuss, defining the terms of discussion and when is the right time to have it.

Using only your experiences as the reference point by which the experiences of others are measured isn’t a pathway to understanding.

Any conversation, on race or anything else, must be preceded by the understanding that people whose stories and experiences are different from yours are no less valid. Accepting the realities present in the lives of others, even if they’re absent in yours.

If, as is often said, slavery is the original sin of the United States, redemption must include acknowledging the racism which justified the “peculiar” institution and infected all American institutions since, a racism which for millions of Americans isn’t a fictional crutch excusing failures but a real chokehold on aspirations and opportunities.

Inheritances are blessings and curses, gifts and burdens. As individuals and generations, we aren’t responsible for our ancestors’ actions, but we’re obligated to understand the consequences of those actions, good and bad.

Minimizing the experiences of those who can testify to those bad consequences is arrogant. Denying the enduring power of racism perpetuates that power.

It mutes voices which must be heard and stifles conversations we need to have.

Cary Clack is a San Antonio writer currently working on a book for Trinity University Press called “Dreaming US: Where Did We Go From There?”

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