How To Talk About Race Without Being An Asshat

How To Talk About Race Without Being An Asshat

Adrienne BoettingerWednesday,18 May 2016

In the latest sign of end times, Florida vigilante George Zimmerman wants to auction off the gun he used to kill Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old unarmed African-American boy. As if that wasn’t horrific enough, Zimmerman wants to use the money from the auction to challenge the Black Lives Matter movement.

After I stopped repeatedly banging my head into the wall and screaming “SERENITY NOW” I thought this might be an opportune time to discuss ways to talk about race without being an asshat.

I will admit right off the bat that when I first heard people shouting “Black Lives Matter” I didn’t see what was wrong with people who responded, “All lives matter.” It took a while for me to really listen to figure out the issue. When someone talks about “Black Lives Matter” in response to incidents they perceive to be examples of institutionalized racism, that person is talking about a specific problem. Another person defensively shouting “All Lives Matter” doesn’t address the problem the first was bringing up and in fact, seems to be downplaying the very real issues felt by the first person. Larry Wilmore, host of “The Nightly Show” and his guest, comedian Felonious Munk, had a great analogy that put it all into perspective: if you go to the doctor because you broke your leg, you don’t want the doctor saying “all legs should be healed.” You want the doctor to fix your specific leg.

But the real key to talking about race without being an asshat was something I mentioned so briefly it is easy to miss: listening. Listening is the key to talking about race without being an asshat. Really listening to the people you are engaged in conversation with is the only way to talk about anything serious and complicated without being an asshat.

You have to listen without feeling or acting defensive. That can be really hard. Listening to someone talk about his or her problems without feeling like they are blaming you is difficult when their problems are largely based on institutionalized racism and you are like myself, melanin-impaired and benefiting from white privilege for all of your life.

For yes, I am here to say that white privilege, like institutionalized racism, is most definitely a thing. It’s not in people’s imaginations nor is it a relic of the past. It is how black men are more likely to be pulled over than white men, how white women are offered better deals on cars than black women, how white actors and actresses consistently get awarded more frequently than their counterparts of color, and evidenced in countless other ways. It doesn’t matter that I don’t want to benefit from white privilege; the fact is I do benefit from it. What matters is that I recognize it and I know that it isn’t right.

Sadly, I think the fear of losing white privilege expressed as the desire to “Make America Great Again” — to return to some idyllic lifestyle that by and large only existed for white Americans — that is what has helped propel Donald Trump to power. Talking about returning to a “better time” where people tried to fit in more and looked and talked more like “regular Americans” seems to be based on a 1950s era TV sitcom where Dad came home after work to Mom bringing him his slippers, Junior asking him to have a game of catch, Princess pouting about a dress she wanted, and the only people who weren’t white were delivering the milk or cleaning the house.

We aren’t living in a post-racial society. People are still biased and not talking about racism won’t make it go away. Recognizing it for what it is, acknowledging the real grievances people have because of racism, and working hard to listen to one another when we talk and not shy away from the tough conversations — that is the only way to really move forward.

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Image Credit: The All-Nite Images on Flickr

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