Sometimes it’s nice to get egg-heady people in here to discuss racial issues. Kind of like reading the entire New York Times on Sunday. So, save your $2.50 and take a gander at Dr. Mikhail Lyubansky’s take on why it’s so damn hard for races to trust each other.
Published on Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com)
On Inter-Racial Trust and Why It’s So Hard To Go There
By Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D.
Created Nov 9 2009 – 3:50pm
I recently had a Twitter conversation that reminds me how hard it is to have honest conversations about race, even with those who are really interested in having those conversations.
If you don’t know Twitter, it’s a social network that allows users to “follow” anyone they want (unlike facebook, it need not be reciprocal) and, if both parties are interested, engage in dialog – 140 characters at a time. I’ve found such dialog, often with complete strangers, to be surprisingly candid. Twitter seems to create a bridge between two (or more people) that allows domain-specific intimacy, a way to talk honestly about something important and personal, without having to share other aspects of your life or worry about how such dialog will effect the relationship.
Twitter allows users to hide their identity, if they want to. Some want to, but I choose to be me. In the context of race, this means that everyone on Twitter knows that I am a white male, and when I say (tweet) something, what I say is interpreted through a racial lens so that the meaning that is assigned to it is assigned on the basis of my whiteness (and sometimes maleness).
I don’t object to this. The social location of the speaker matters. Though I think that most of us probably would prefer to just be perceived as a unique individual, as many have observed, “the personal is political.” This is to say that one’s speech, even one’s thoughts cannot be separated from one’s social context. What we say and how we think (and of course how we act) is not only determined, in part, by our experiences in this world, but influences that world as well. Thus, Sammy Sosa’s alleged attempt to lighten his skin has to be understood in the context of a Dominican Republic (and U.S.) culture that values light skin over dark, as well as the fact that, especially as a public figure, Sosa’s actions reinforce those racist beliefs. Social location matters and, at least in the United States, racial location especially matters. We all know this. We know there are some things people of color can say that white people cannot – at least publicly.
So, when I get asked to explain how/why I became interested in racial issues or what my “intentions” are, I am aware that such a question is much more likely to be directed to me (as a white person) than to a person of color. I also realize that there is often more to such a question than meets the eye. Sometimes, I choose to just respond to the question that is asked, but sometimes I make the choice to read “Between The Lines” and engage the person about what I perceive to be the unspoken question.
What the unspoken question is depends on (what else?) his/her social location. If I’m interacting with a white person who doesn’t seem to have a lot of consciousness about the role of race in society, I assume that the unspoken question is “Why do you care about race when it has nothing to do with you?” Sometimes, I perceive negative judgment (“you shouldn’t be thinking/talking about this”) and sometimes it’s just curiosity. Either way, I respond as though it were the latter, and see where it goes. Sometimes I’m wrong (about the unspoken question). I’m ok with being wrong. It happens when we try to initiate a conversation that we (white people) are socialized not to have.
Coming from a person of color, I assume the unspoken question is very different. People of color (generally) talk about race. A lot. So, when they inquire about my interest, I often take the inquiry as a concern about trust – concern about the possible negative impact of my writing (and other work on race) on people of color. Such concerns aren’t paranoid; they’re common sense. White Americans (and others) have a history of oppressing, marginalizing, and exploiting people of color. Frankly, I’m surprised I ever get the benefit of the doubt. I suspect that when I do it is because my name strips away some of my whiteness.
My point is that, though I realize that people of color are much less likely to get asked this question [why they’re interested in race] than I do, I never mind the question. If anything, I appreciate it because it allows me to directly address the trust issue, which is often a barrier to authentic cross-racial talk about race, and, therefore, to deeper and more authentic connections.
But, of course, on Twitter, as anyplace else, it takes at least two parties to have a dialog. And earlier today I got shut down, and I’m frustrated about it. I’m frustrated, not because I was asked about my “intentions” (on Twitter) vis a vis race by someone who I’ve been interacting with for months with some regularity, but because she was not willing to respond to my request for feedback (e.g., her thoughts and feelings) about my answer to her question, not even when I specifically asked her about trust.
My purpose here is to describe, not to criticize. To the contrary, I take her response as feedback that my approach wasn’t effective in meeting my need to connect and build relationships across racial differences. I will need to think about what I can do differently. This is my own growth edge, and I want to own that.
However, I also want to share some more general observations about talking across race and why it might be so hard. I think it’s hard because white folks often don’t want to take the chance of being misunderstood or (worse!) being called “racist” This comes in part from a misunderstanding that to notice and talk about race is “racist”. It’s not. Supporting the racial status quo (with all its racial inequities) is racist, and not talking about something is implicit support. But it also comes from a rational concern that people of color will not trust our good intentions (I’m speaking here to those who reject white supremacy) and humiliate us for our sometimes clumsy attempts to participate in the racial conversation or even just to connect. It feels much safer to just not engage.
Honest inter-racial talk is dangerous for people of color too. To begin with, there is often a sense of vulnerability because talking about race means talking about racism and talking about racism means talking about personal victimization. Additionally, there is also fear about being misunderstood, or being taken out of context. Colorism, internalized racism, and anti-White attitudes, for example, need to be understood in the context of hundreds of years of European colonialism, because without such context, they can be interpreted as being the same as white racism. This is untrue (because it ignores power dynamics) and dangerous because it lessens the pressure on white institutions to change . Contextualization takes time and openness from the receiver. Neither is guaranteed. Here too, it feels much safer to just not engage.
In response to this legitimate need for safety I want to share the most important thing I’ve learned about conflict, which is that it is much safer to more toward it than away (Dominic Barter). Moving away from conflict increases the distance between individuals or groups in conflict. This may have desired benefits in the short run but if there is conflict or tension, it is sure to bubble up again, usually “louder” than before because of the increased distance. The solution to any conflict is always dialog. Racial tension is no exception. If we are to racially heal, we have to talk to each other. Our mutual safety (and well-being) depend on it.