Speaking of Race
eBook - ePub

Speaking of Race

Why We Need to Talk About Race-and How to Do It Effectively

Celeste Headlee

  1. 272 pagine
  2. English
  3. ePUB (disponibile sull'app)
  4. Disponibile su iOS e Android
eBook - ePub

Speaking of Race

Why We Need to Talk About Race-and How to Do It Effectively

Celeste Headlee

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Informazioni sul libro

"Simply the best book I've read on how to have those conversations. Unflinchingly honest, exceptionally well-reasoned and researched, there is so much to admire about Speaking of Race."—Angela Duckworth, founder and CEO of Character Lab and New York Times bestselling author of Grit

A Boston Globe Most Anticipated Fall Book

In this urgently needed guide, the PBS host, award-winning journalist, and author of We Need to Talk teaches us how to have productive conversations about race, offering insights, advice, and support.

A self-described "light-skinned Black Jew, " Celeste Headlee has been forced to speak about race—including having to defend or define her own—since childhood. In her career as a journalist for public media, she's made it a priority to talk about race proactively. She's discovered, however, that those exchanges have rarely been productive. While many people say they want to talk about race, the reality is, they want to talk about race with people who agree with them. The subject makes us uncomfortable; it's often not considered polite or appropriate. To avoid these painful discussions, we stay in our bubbles, reinforcing our own sense of righteousness as well as our division.

Yet we gain nothing by not engaging with those we disagree with; empathy does not develop in a vacuum and racism won't just fade away. If we are to effect meaningful change as a society, Headlee argues, we have to be able to talk about what that change looks like without fear of losing friends and jobs, or being ostracized. In Speaking of Race, Headlee draws from her experiences as a journalist, and the latest research on bias, communication, and neuroscience to provide practical advice and insight for talking about race that will facilitate better conversations that can actually bring us closer together.

This is the book for people who have tried to debate and educate and argue and got nowhere; it is the book for those who have stopped talking to a neighbor or dread Thanksgiving dinner. It is an essential and timely book for all of us.

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Informazioni

Editore
Harper
Anno
2021
ISBN
9780063098176

Part I
The Context

Chapter 1
Who Is Racist?

I like to pretend that I have a scientific, intelligent attitude. I don’t like to admit that I’m subject to being swayed by stupid things like racism. But in my mind, I’m worried. Maybe I am a racist.
—Gilbert Gordon
There are many definitions of “racist,” and none that I’ve seen are entirely wrong. You could say a racist is someone who discriminates against others who appear to belong to a different race. For the purposes of this book, this definition doesn’t work, as it absolves people of being racist until they take concrete action to hurt another person. They can harbor very racist beliefs, but until they exclude Asians from their group or refuse to hire a Black employee, we don’t consider them racist.
Yet the racist behavior that is most common and affects the largest number of people is not the behavior that breaks laws, but that which harms others incrementally: the casual racist comments thrown out over dinner, the choice to look at your phone while a person of color is speaking in a meeting, the unconscious decision to avoid looking at Black people as they pass you on the sidewalk. Those behaviors are rooted in racist beliefs. Therefore, in this book, I will use this definition: a racist is someone who makes assumptions about another person (either positive or negative) because of their perceived race or ethnicity.
By that definition, we are all racist. Perhaps we don’t think horrible things about Muslims, but we might subconsciously assume all Mexicans are immigrants or all immigrants from India are hardworking. Maybe we think Koreans are good at video games or Native Americans are inherently and profoundly connected to the natural world. These are all racist assumptions.
Let me tell you about a series of experiments designed to answer the question of who considers themselves racist and who doesn’t. Researchers in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania presented people with a list of forty-six behaviors, including some racist ones, like “Have you ever avoided a Muslim person out of fear, laughed at a joke about an Asian person, or used the N word to describe a Black person?” Participants were asked to write down their honest responses, assured of anonymity. Months later, the participants were called back to the lab. They were given a list of behaviors that another person had engaged in and were asked to compare themselves to that individual. They were told the lists were randomly distributed, but in fact everyone was presented with their own list, a duplicate of the behaviors they either admitted to or denied. And yet most people rated themselves as significantly less racist than the “other person.”1
This result can be partly attributed to what is known as “the better-than-average effect,” or illusory superiority. In general, most of us think we’re better than average at most things. But this phenomenon does seem to be more dramatic when it comes to prejudice. The psychologist Angela Bell, lead author of the study, said that “understanding why people fail to recognize their own racism—even when confronted with evidence of racism by their own definition—is a necessary step to reduce prejudice.”
Our state of denial is not new; its history is as long as that of racial bias. For his book on race in the 1990s, the author Studs Terkel spoke with Peggy Terry, granddaughter of a poor white Oklahoma coal miner. As an adult, Terry became a passionate advocate for justice and equality. She told Terkel, “To a certain extent, we’re all racists. Maybe not to the point of burning crosses, but we have attitudes that we don’t even recognize in ourselves. I know I’ll never be free of it. I fight it all the time. . . . I will never reach the point where I can sit with Black people and be unaware of their being Black.”2
Another woman, in her conversation with Terkel, recounted an incident during which she was confronted with her own prejudice. Lynda Wright, a Black businesswoman, told the author she felt wary when she began working alongside a group of Asian Americans because she’d been told they’d come from Vietnam in order to take jobs from Black people. “I believed it,” she said. “Finally, I got a chance at a one-on-one. It was a Vietnamese kid, a teenager, who decided to just be my friend and forced me to face my own racism.”3
Then there’s the civil rights activist Bill Hohri, who spearheaded the lawsuit against the U.S. government over the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Hohri once said he’d be more afraid of three Blacks approaching him on the street than of three whites. “That’s because of my own racism and the way our culture works,” Hohri said. “Am I a racist? I think so. I’m probably racist toward Whites, too. I don’t have a real high opinion of White people. Racism is a hard thing.”4
Hohri is right: racism is a hard thing. I urge you to accept that racism lives in your subconscious, partly because denying that fact can prevent you from making headway in anti-racist efforts. In 2009, researchers at Stanford discovered that whites who expressed public support for President Barack Obama felt they were justified in favoring whites over Blacks, since they couldn’t possibly support a Black politician if they were racist.5
In a separate study with a similar aim, scientists asked people which candidate they would hire at a police department that had a history of racial misconduct: a Black officer or a white one. First, though, the participants were separated into groups. Those in one group were allowed to voice their support for Obama; those in the other group were not. The people in the latter group tended to say that both officers, Black and white, were equally suited for the job. Those who’d been given an opportunity to endorse Barack Obama were more likely to say the white officer was more qualified and better suited for the job.
In yet another experiment, people were given a hypothetical task: allocate taxpayer dollars to two different private organizations, one that served the Black community and one that catered to white citizens. Those who were allowed to openly voice support for Obama ultimately gave more money to the white organization than those who didn’t. One of the researchers, Daniel Effron, concluded that approving of Obama is “the psychological equivalent of when people in casual conversation say something like ‘many of my best friends are Black.’ . . . They say that because they’re about to say something else that they’re concerned might be construed as prejudiced.”6
Effron and his colleagues found that people who had the opportunity to endorse Obama in his first presidential campaign gave preference to whites over Blacks in job searches, for example, because they believed endorsing a Black president afforded them “moral credentials.”7 When we say that we are “not racist,” we assure ourselves that nothing we do could possibly be discriminatory. We give ourselves blanket absolution.
Globally, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be racist. If we are to move forward, we must stop denying our own biases. We must stop believing that the real villains all belong to neo-Nazi groups and sport swastika tattoos. As the diversity consultant Eddie Moore Jr. says, “When you say ‘white supremacy’ or ‘white privilege’ . . . people still think you’re talking about the Klan. There’s really no skills being developed to shift the conversation.”8
During a discussion about race with dozens of my colleagues in public radio, I urged everyone to accept that they’re biased and to watch for signs of prejudice in their own lives. One Jewish woman, Helen Barrington, an editor at Virginia Public Radio, told me, “I genuinely believe that older White women—especially Jewish White women—don’t think they can be racist. We were told by our parents they were oppressed and hence, so are we. . . . I think if we can accept we are racists, because our society is foundationally racist, we can open our eyes and make ourselves better.”9
When I asked Helen for permission to include this comment in my book, I said I could use the quote anonymously if she felt apprehensive about stating her opinion publicly. I had found, over the course of my conversations with public radio colleagues, that many people stayed silent during the meetings and then sent me private emails with their honest reflections. But Helen responded, “Perhaps you should not anonymously quote me. Time to step up and not worry anymore.”10 It takes guts to go on the record about race, but this kind of courage is what will ultimately drive anti-racist ...

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