Unsurprisingly, most people have entirely differing, and often conflicting — contradicting even — views about race, what it is, how it works, if it even exists, and how it affects our lives. Which makes discussing race — an already complicated subject –even more difficult to discuss. It seems that everyone has their own meaning and personal interpretation of each word which makes every conversation about race quickly derail into “Webster’s dictionary says this is what race is!!”” gotcha moments. You can never get past this stage.
For example, the other day I posted this Facebook Status:
Oh you’re tired of hearing about #Ferguson? Good, imagine how tiring it must be to live that way.
There are currently 89 comments on that status. The summation of the entirety of that “conversation” is general agreement, I hear you support. A drive by where a guy says “yeah, looting must be very tiring” and then quickly backs
away from his own statement (I wasn’t trying to imply that all protestors are looting…*sideeye*) when confronted by the problems inherent in said statement. The majority of this 89 comment behemoth revolves around one guy “debating” everyone else about the “facts.” I just went back to reread the thread and I am exhausted all over again.
A major part of the frustration in this conversation was that the guy doing all the “debating” couldn’t/wouldn’t grasp what 5 other people were trying to tell him. I was in the process of getting my hair braided so I actually tuned out of the conversation for a bit, but then this caught my attention. He says:
This is simple. What are the protesters fighting for? Justice? Pick a better poster child than Micael Brown. He does not represent equality and justice, he is a thug that went to far
To which I replied:
how about Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha Mcbride, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner. Do any of those murdered people deserve justice in your eyes? Are thugs too?
one argument at a time.
He never answered my question. Ostensibly because his phone died and then because “well quite frankly you want to disagree and your mind is made up on the answer you seek,” but really, I think he didn’t answer the question because he couldn’t. He never grasped the fact that my question was in direct response to his own query. He could not process the answer when I gave it to him. And herein lies the gap in any conversation about race.
One side — predominantly made up of people of color — lives the issues that they are trying to debate. This side swims in the deeps seas of structural inequality and racism. The other side, predominantly white, doesn’t believe that a) either the sea exists or b)the extent of its depth. And so instead of productive discussions about ways to make the sea safe for everyone, you end up trying to convince them that the water is right in front of their eyes. Look, I’m even swimming in it! But they remain at the edge of the sea with their floaties on, not quite getting wet.
How does one bridge this gap?
My sister and I have had our share of debates on this topic. She was always very direct and clear that it wasn’t her job to teach people about the existence or depth of the sea. She thought her efforts and energy were best served by focusing on the people who were in the deep already, helping them to stay afloat. I used to think that was way too tough of a stance and hey, we should really teach people about this stuff! But the more conversations that I have like the one above, the more I realize that my sissy had a good point, you can’t teach people who don’t care to learn. But, I still think that in some cases (real friends who you are interested in maintaining relationships with), trying to bridge the gap is a must. Here are some suggestions:
1. Recognize that the gap exists. Seriously. Knowing that the gap is present will help you a)recognize where other people are in relation to the gap, b) allow you to keep your temper and emotions in check when you realize that you’ve hit said gap and c) recognize that the conversation can’t go any further at that point.
2. Realize that all perspectives or opinions are not equal. After we hit the gap and I stopped the conversation above, another FB friend stopped by to tell us (and I’m paraphrasing here) that we should be more open and stop closing off the conversation because one side is not more enlightened than the other. I begged to differ with him about that and I’ll do it again here. As I said earlier, one side is actively living with and grappling with these issues daily, metaphorically swimming in the sea. The lived experiences of the people in the sea is going to outweigh your second-hand accounts of it. Every time. Just like your Aunt Claire who survived Breast Cancer is going to know way more about breast cancer and survival than you do. No matter how many books you’ve read about it or how many breast cancer survivor friends you have (who may or may not agree with your Aunt Claire), your perspective/opinion is not going to have as much weight as your Aunt’s. That’s not saying that you shouldn’t learn all there is to know about breast Cancer and be a supportive and caring person, it just means that your perspective shouldn’t try to overshadow or out shout the voice of the one actually going through the ordeal. On the other hand, if you’re in the sea then heed #1 above. Don’t push your friends into the deep when you know they can’t swim and remember that even people of the same race are not going to have the same view or depth of sea experience.
3. Bridge Your Own Gap. Google is your friend. The internets have all kinds of blogs, tumblrs, tweets, and videos to teach you about any subject that you are willing to learn, including racism. If you don’t understand who Jordan Davis, Amadou Diallo, or Eric Garner are and why I would be talking about them in relation to Mike Brown, then figure it out. Ask questions, look it up. Improve your own knowledge on the subject. Not so you can battle me in a debate, but so that we can have a productive conversation where learning on both sides takes place.
4. Ask yourself: Is this Worth It? Not all conversations about race are worth having. Generally, ones on FB with no ground rules or moderators are too much of a free for all where everyone is trying to “take down” others without productive discourse.
Can you think of any other ground rules to make racial discussions more productive?