Transforming Conversations on Race

by Alexis Presseau Maloof

To uncover opportunities for a transformative dialogue, we must move past the myths.

Take a moment to consider the following questions. Can you remember the first time you became aware of your own racial identity? Were you a kid? A teenager? Did an adult ever talk to you about your race, or did you learn about racial differences in school or from friends? How has your racial identity impacted your life?

For those of us with European ancestry who identify as “white,” it may be difficult to remember ever having to think about our racial identity. We may question if being white even is a racial identity. For many of us, the issue of race has historically—and remains today—a problem primarily for and about people of color. Talking about race isn’t really in our vocabulary; in fact, it can be a bit of a taboo topic. In a society that professes to value diversity, simply talking about race can be seen as divisive.

Despite the desire to be “post-racial” in America, the past few years have made it clear that rifts based on racial division remain pervasive in our society. In 2015, a Gallup poll revealed that African Americans in our country felt the most important problem facing the U.S. was race relations. Last fall, Peoria was named the worst city in America for black Americans in an online study by the website 24/7 Wall St. While the city was quick to respond to technical aspects of this report, the first in a series of workshops held to address racial issues in Peoria drew hundreds of people, confirming the importance of this issue to members of the community.

Now more than ever, it’s necessary for us to realize that there are unifying ways to talk about race. But in order to get there, we have to move past the many myths that cloud our thinking and obscure opportunities for a transformative dialogue. As a community, we have to arrive at a shared vocabulary and increased literacy on issues of race, turning to the scholars of sociology and experts in the field of critical race theory who have extensively studied and analyzed the historical effects and current reality of racial relations in the U.S.

Increasing our racial literacy will allow us to have productive and transformative conversations about the reality of racism and racial disparity in our own contexts, whether in the boardroom, at the water cooler or within a larger community forum. In the book, What Does It Mean to Be White?, Dr. Robin DiAngelo describes several dominant narratives on racism that prevent us from transforming our outlook on race. These are popular myths that—as they continue to flourish unchecked—actually serve to reinforce the system of racism in America.

Myths about Racism
Race is a biological category. False. Race does not exist as a biological category because “races are not genetically homogenous and lack clear-cut genetic boundaries,” according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Instead, we should understand race as a social construct, a category invented in order to describe the relationship between different bodies and systems of power, e.g. the law, economics, education, the criminal justice system, etc. “Race” only has meaning because physical attributes have historically been given meaning.

Racism is simply personal prejudice against people who are different. False. Racism and prejudice are often wrongly conflated. Prejudice is a learned pre-judgment based on stereotypes about a social group, occurring at the individual level. Racism happens at the group level, “when one group’s collective prejudice is backed by social, political, economic and institutional power,” according to DiAngelo. There is a significant distinction between individual prejudice and a larger system of unequal institutionalized power. This difference can be hard to recognize because the way racism is systematically expressed is often invisible to those of us in the dominant group, but we cannot use the terms interchangeably. Racism is both historical and ideological, and results in the domination of a minority group and the subsequent privileging of the dominant group.

I am a good person, so I can’t be racist. False. This is a popular narrative that often blocks us from having productive cross-racial conversations about race. We often use a very reductive, good/bad binary to ascribe racism as an attribute of the morally deficient, and non-racism as an attribute of “good” people. But if we recognize racism as a system of power differentials that results in the inequitable distribution of resources in society, then we are able to see the difference between our socialization into a racist system and personal and individual accusations of racism. In this case, all of us, regardless of morality or personal feelings, are intrinsically enmeshed in the system of racism. Recognizing this can help disarm the highly charged nature of many conversations regarding racism because it removes the element of personal accusations against one’s morality and centers the dialogue on group power dynamics.

I don’t have any prejudice or bias. False. It is impossible for humans to avoid developing biases and prejudice. From birth, we develop knowledge of social groups based on the information we have learned from our own cultural contexts. This is how we create meaning and make sense of the world around us, and it occurs at the unconscious level, meaning we can’t control our instantaneous reactions that occur due to our implicit bias. Although we can’t prevent it from happening, we don’t want to leave implicit bias unchallenged. We must develop a habit of mind that will challenge us to identify our implicit bias… otherwise, unconscious negative attitudes about race can become more powerful and continue to flourish.

Racism does not affect white people. False. The myth of “whiteness” as a neutral racial identity unaffected by institutional and systematic racism is prevalent, but flawed. As DiAngelo points out, white people have “rights, benefits, and resources consistently available solely to the dominant group.” This effect, often referred to as “privilege,” reveals that while individual white people can be against racism, they still benefit from the distribution of resources controlled by their group. It can be difficult to identify these privileges, in large part because of the prevailing belief in American meritocracy. Careful, personal reflection and analysis is often needed to help increase our understanding of how white privilege manifests itself in institutions of power and in everyday life.

Transforming Racial Dialogue
Conversations about race—whether they take place at the community level, company level or personal level—can be fraught and tense. It is easy to try to avoid the topic in order to remain what we might see as “politically correct.” But dialogue on race can be made easier when we move toward a shared language of the basic premises and concepts that inform our understanding. Developing our racial literacy means that we must recognize that a “strong opinion is not the same as informed knowledge,” as Dr. DiAngelo states. So seeking out experts and resources to help develop our understanding is necessary.

Let’s remember that racism is a complex, multi-faceted system in which we are all involved—and which goes well beyond personal intentions. Thus, regardless of how we answered the questions at the start of this article—whether we have always been aware of how race affects our life, or if we are just beginning to examine our racial identity—the issue of racial stratification impacts every member of society.

As humans, regardless of race, we all share a linked fate. And the consequences of structural racism impact all of us—not just people of color—and ultimately threaten our future. Striving to transform conversations on race into productive dialogue that furthers our understanding of one another and improves racial relations must be a priority. iBi

Alexis Presseau Maloof is a freelance writer based in Peoria, Illinois. For more information visit alexispmaloof.com.

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