Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What’s the Big Deal about Race?

Why is it so doggone hard to talk about issues relating to race? After all, it’s 2012, the second decade of the 21st century. In my lifetime alone, we’ve done everything from putting men on the moon and toppling the Berlin Wall, to inventing flat screen TVs. Yet we still aren’t having authentic, action-oriented conversations about race as a community. What’s more, in some sectors, there’s no conversation at all. The silence is deafening, and there are many reasons for it.
Some say, “There’s no problem. Race doesn’t matter anymore; we have an African-American president. Doesn’t that prove something?” It does. It demonstrates we’ve come a long way from the lynch-filled days of the Jim Crow era. But putting Barack Obama in the White House doesn’t remove racially discriminating practices still embedded in our court systems and education institutions – practices so entrenched we often can’t even discern them. Nor does it negate things more readily visible and equally damaging, like disapproving looks a couple might receive as they wait with their biracial child in a grocery checkout line.
Last summer, a vandal spray-painted racist and other hateful epithets on abandoned houses for the neighborhood to see. That fall, students at a high school assembly carried out what they described as ‘harmless teasing’ when they engaged in what many adults might regard as racial stereotyping. Just a few weeks ago, at another school, several white students reportedly taunted a group of African American students with a noose. In each case, there was little community dialog regarding the occurrences.
What is it about race and racism that makes it so hard to discuss, even among sensible, well-meaning folks? You think at least it’d be easy for people of the same race to talk among themselves about it. But more often than not it isn’t; at any rate, not in ways that propel conversation toward tangible solutions. Instead, when the subject is brought up, we wade into depressingly familiar refrains that sound like what used to be known in the 20th century as a ‘broken record.’
Something is indeed broken. Hopefully, it isn’t our spirit to face what truly is among one of the most neglected issues of our day. We’re better than that. I’ve met and worked with too many amazing and committed people (of all races) here and know it to be true. Yet in many parts of our community, race is the elephant in the room. It’s a topic that can dominate a conversation without a word being uttered.
Young people seem better able to cope with the issue but even they can be confused by its complexity. What’s worse, so many of them have little historic perspective of what happened in this country, which I learned firsthand last year as a volunteer docent when the Jim Crow exhibit visited the Art Center. Many youth I spoke to there had little to no understanding of what Jim Crow was, let alone the discriminating laws and actions associated with it.
It’s time this community came out of the closet to talk and do something about issues relating to race and racism. Clearly the head-in-the-sand approach isn’t working. I welcome comments on the matter; particularly those that forward the conversation about race, racism, and what we as a community can do about it – now, in the second decade of the 21st century.

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