We Race Together or We Race Apart

In the last week I’ve read several articles discussing race relations in the United States.

First, the Starbucks “Race Together” campaign has been in the news quite a bit. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, explained in a statement on the company website:

[‘Race Together’] is an opportunity to re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society — one conversation at a time.

Despite this idealistic intent, both liberals and conservatives have dumped scorn on the Race Together campaign. Liberals mock it as capitalizing on the oppressive experiences of minorities to sell coffee. Conservatives mock it as not the province of a retail organization, which should focus only on satisfying customers.

So which is it—an attempt to increase profits or a failure at customer service? I doubt it can be both.

I tend to give Starbucks the benefit of the doubt. I think that the CEO’s heart was in the right place in launching this initiative. If we don’t talk about race, how will we improve race relations? And we might each ask ourselves, as apparently Starbucks employees did, “if I don’t start the conversation, who will?”

As Mellody Hobson, a Starbucks board member and an African-American, said,

Race today is still one of the most controversial and uncomfortable issues to discuss in America. . . . Let’s face it, racial discrimination is a long-standing problem that has plagued our country for centuries. But we all know the first step in solving a problem is to stop hiding from it.

After admitting that talking about race can be uncomfortable, Ms. Hobson continued:

It is time for all of us to get comfortable with an uncomfortable conversation about race—black, white, Hispanic, Asian, male, female—all of us.  If we truly believe in equal rights and equal opportunity, we can’t afford to be colorblind.  We have to be color brave.  We need to confront issues of race and diversity with courage, honesty, and understanding.

So how do we become “color brave”? Not by ignoring the problem, and not by ridiculing those who approach it differently than we might.

A second race relations article I read recently was a review in the Wall Street Journal of Shelby Steele’s new book, Shame. See “Shelby Steele’s Thankless Task,” by Joseph Epstein, March 20, 2015.

Mr. Steele is the son of a white mother and black father and grew up in a black neighborhood near the South Side of Chicago. Mr. Epstein writes of Mr. Steele:

He has described his biracial birth as “an absolute gift, the greatest source of insight and understanding. . . . [because] race was demystified for me. I could never see white people as just some unified group who hated blacks.” Although he doesn’t say so, being biracial has also allowed him insight into the hypocrisy of both blacks and whites on the subject of race.

I have heard biracial friends and blacks in interracial marriages make similar statements, as if it takes the closeness of family to overcome the racial prejudices society imprints on us.

Mr. Epstein summarizes Mr. Steele’s philosophy:

What distinguishes him is his openly stated belief that blacks in America have been sold out by the very liberals who ardently claim to wish them most good. He regrets that affirmative action, multiculturalism and most welfare programs purportedly put in place to show racial preference, far from liberating black Americans, have failed to advance their fortunes.

As I read this, what came to my mind was how, despite their similar birth circumstances, Mr. Steele came to a very different philosophy than another man born to a white mother and black father, Barack Obama.

Which brings me to a third race issue I read about this week—white privilege. See “Why White People Freak Out When They’re Called Out About Race,” by Sam Adler-Bell, on Alternet.org, in which he interviews Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicutural education at Westfield State University.

Professor DiAngelo has taught about white privilege and other race issues for years. She described “white privilege” and the perspective it brings to Mr. Adler-Bell as follows:

from the time I opened my eyes, I have been told that as a white person, I am superior to people of color. There’s never been a space in which I have not been receiving that message. . . . We are born into a racial hierarchy, and every interaction with media and culture confirms it—our sense that, at a fundamental level, we are superior.

And, the thing is, it feels good. Even though it contradicts our most basic principles and values. So we know it, but we can never admit it.

And that inability to admit the existence of white privilege sets up

. . . this kind of internal stew . . . . We have set the world up to preserve that internal sense of superiority and also resist challenges to it. All while denying that anything is going on and insisting that race is meaningless to us.

As a result, whites have difficulty talking about race. Professor DiAngelo uses the term “white fragility” to describe

a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.

There is a moral dissonance, because we know we are not superior to people of color, yet receive society’s constant messages that we are. She told Mr. Adler-Bell:

For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. . . .

In large part, white fragility—the defensiveness, the fear of conflict—is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, “What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.” It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people.

So how do we learn to talk about race in ways that do not make anyone seem good or bad, accusatory or defensive, victim or persecutor?

Hands touching a globeOne conversation at a time. Between people who are willing one more time to put aside their defensiveness. Between people who are willing to listen with hearts and minds, who will look at the other as an individual and not as a representative of a race.

None of us is qualified to represent an entire race’s point of view. There is no reason I should expect Barack Obama and Shelby Steele to have the same outlook on life, just because of their parentage.

We can each only represent our own point of view. But because we each only have a single point of view, we have an obligation to listen to others on the subject—others like ourselves and others different than ourselves. We have an obligation to seek out opposing points of view.

The Starbucks “Race Together” program and Professor DiAngelo’s white privilege lectures are two brave ways to tackle the issue of race relations in this country. Both are difficult to do well, because most of us are not skilled in talking about race. Perhaps for that reason, these are necessary. Perhaps for that reason, we should not mock them.

What experiences have you had that taught you the most about diversity?


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