Not Talking About Race Is Not Helping Any Of Us

How far will I get with this race talk if I almost exclusively have it with black folks?

My girlfriend once said she’d wake up early every morning if she were white and jump out of bed because who would want to miss a minute of all that special privilege.

The funny thing is when I say that my brown and black friends laugh, really really hard. But I’ve never said it to my white liberal friends. Why is that? 

Am I just an enabler? It’s kind of like the fear I have that if I’m not teaching my son how to cook and do laundry what’s the point of raising a kick-ass and socially aware daughter? Where are the men going to be that she can partner with and marry (if she so chooses)? Same with race. How far will I get with this race talk if I almost exclusively have it with black folks?

I’m going to bite the bullet. I will talk about race because it’s been haunting me lately. I just can’t get out of my head that we are a nation avoiding the elephant in the room and, as a result, we are not getting where we want to go. White working class voters go into voting booths and make big marks next to names of politicians who work for the very people that are stealing food from their mouths and money from their pockets. And why are they voting against their own interests? Race.

We don’t talk to each other about race because it’s a minefield and no one has the manual.

The ability of powerful people to use the boogeyman of race to blind them to what they have in common with black and brown working class people. But I’m also interested in discussing race because everyone I know who is white and liberal is so damn scared to do so. And everyone I know who is black talks about it a lot. I talk about it a lot. With my black friends. And almost never with my white friends. My white liberal friends. Now why is that? And doesn’t that have to change?

It dawned on me that the reason we don’t talk to each other about race, across the color line of black and white, is because it’s a minefield and no one has the manual. Well, that’s not completely true. There are YouTube videos on white superiority and white privilege made by white people for white people that I found quite good. And there are a few other great resources I’ve found out there. But the truth is considering the SIZE OF THE PROBLEM and the paucity of materials dealing with the problem… I’d say we have an avoidance issue here.

The most important negotiating skill is to be able to step in the other person’s shoes. The most important step toward finding a peaceful resolution to a problem requires the same skill. Whether we are trying to out-maneuver and win in a zero-sum game sense or we are trying to find common ground and a solution that is best for all, in other words whether the motive is selfish or altruistic, the most important skill is understanding how the other side thinks. And why they feel as they do. 

So I began to think about this. What is it that blacks and whites have to do separately before they enter the room and have that conversation? 

But before I get to that, let me tell you a story. When I was about twelve I was at a fundraiser in Beverly Hills and this white woman came up to me and asked what I watched on television. Then she named the black shows and the white shows. I said I didn’t watch much tv but if I did I’d probably watch both. And she shook her head, her eyes looking all droopy and sad, and said, “Poor thing, you don’t know what you are, do you?”

Now those words really bothered me. I was only a child but I remember distinctly wanting both to cry and punch her in the face. She was saying that because I grew up in an all-white neighborhood and had parents of two races I was confused (black mother, white father). Well, she was right. I was confused. But it was through no fault of mine. America wanted to define me by putting me into some box. And this lady, who was raising money for a girls’ club of all black inner city girls, couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that I could identify with characters on television who might have different skin color. 

What that lady was also trying to tell me was that there was only one definition of a black person and I didn’t fit it. 

Yes, sometimes I am the Angry Black Person. Why aren’t you the Angry White Person when it comes to race?

This brings me to the first point of why black people don’t want to talk about race to whites. If a black person mentions race, you are allowing white people to write your one-line epitaph. Angry Black Person. You can watch their eyes hood over. Even many of my well-meaning white friends. Oh no, they almost audibly groan, she’s not going there. 

So one reason I never talked about race to white people is because I didn’t want to see the eye rolling. I didn’t want them to close the lid on me. I didn’t want to let them put me in that damn box. Yes, sometimes I am the Angry Black Person. But I want to ask my well-meaning white friends, Why aren’t you the Angry White Person when it comes to race? You should be. If you were I wouldn’t have to worry so much about being labeled one thing when, like anyone else, I’m multi-dimensional. Being a pissed off black person is only one of my many incarnations. Keep your damn box to yourself.

I’m tired of not talking about race to white people. And I can see it’s not helping matters. This election proved that. White liberals are just beginning to realize that voter suppression and mass incarceration hurts them, too. Now is the time to talk race.

And I want to talk about race to white people so I don’t have to be the one to talk about race all the time. In other words, so well-meaning white people have a script they can use and it won’t always have to be on me.

Here’s an example of what I mean… 

I was at a film festival in Annapolis Maryland. Nice festival. And there was a panel on feature film making. Mostly white young men on the panel. One old white gentleman. One Asian female. So they’re talking and it becomes clear to me that they are not going to address the elephant in the room. So I stand up and I say I don’t want to ask this question. It’s going to put limitations on me and I don’t want to do it. Then I looked around the room. Silence. But I will, I said. And then I talked about #OscarSoWhite and the response I’d been seeing in the television world where show runners, white show runners, were setting themselves quotas!

They were acknowledging that there was going to be no change, no more black writers who became show runners, unless they made personal vows to step outside of their comfort zones and social circles and hire black and brown people. So they imposed goals on themselves. Because that is the way change is made. Grassroots. Individually. They were awakened (I’m not going to say woke because I’m too damn old) by the hashtag campaign and became allies.

So my question to the panel was did they see such efforts being made in the feature film world. And of course is was a bit of a rhetorical question. I knew the answer. They knew the answer. The old guy on the panel got really defensive, said he’d left corporate America where it was much worse than in Hollywood (ie. Shut up, insert “n” word, this change is moving fast enough. Be grateful for the bones you’ve been thrown) But cool. He was old. The younger guys knew exactly what I was talking about. I could speak their language. I went to school with guys like that. I kept saying, come on, you know what I mean, you know who you hang out with and who you hire. It’s on you. 

Afterwards, the Asian woman pulled me aside and said thank you. Elephant in the room. Someone had to say it. But I’m thinking, yeah, but it didn’t have to be me. And it is so much more powerful when it is a white person.

So how do we get there? That’s the point of this blog. Stay with me.

 

Suzanne Kay is an award-winning filmmaker who co-wrote and produced Cape of Good Hope receiving numerous Best Film awards and nominations. More recently, she was hired as a writing consultant for Sankofa.org, a social justice organization founded by Harry Belafonte.

She is currently producing a documentary on Ed Sullivan and the important role his variety show played within the racial and social movement of the time. (Sullivision: Ed Sullivan and the Struggle for Civil Rights)

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