I’ve spent a decent portion of my life studying racism. As a white American who was raised to actively work toward ending racial prejudice, I’ve attended seminars and workshops on healing racism since I was a kid. I’ve spent leisure hours studying the history of race relations in our country. I’ve talked with my friends and family members who are minorities about their experiences. I’ve written articles about my understanding of white people’s role in battling racism.
I’m certainly not an expert on the subject, but I’m familiar enough with it to be baffled by people who refer to talking about race and pointing out racism as “divisive.”
I’ve seen the accusation thrown about in comment sections over and over, and I’m gobsmacked every time. When people say that Obama has been “the most divisive president we’ve ever had,” when they point to racial tensions in America and claim they’ve been fueled by the words or actions of our first black president, when they respond to someone pointing out a racial injustice with, “Racism only exists because people keep talking about it,” it’s painfully clear that we have a lot — and I mean a lot — more work to do.
As part of that work, I try to understand where other people are coming from. I think some well-meaning people believe that there is only one human race (which is true), and that race is a social construct (which is also true), and therefore draw the conclusion that referring to “race” and “racism” is what keeps racism going (which isn’t true).
While race is a social construct with no real biological basis, the social construct of race has been a powerful force throughout history. And it is entirely and inseparably wrapped up in the story of America. The historical consequences of the concept of “race” include billions of instances of prejudice, discrimination, and oppression, in addition to individual and community identities.
Race may not be a biological thing, but it’s definitely a sociological thing. Therefore, pretending it doesn’t exist or acting as if it will just go away if we don’t look at it makes no sense.
Additionally, I think some people genuinely don’t know how to have a conversation about race and racism, and they interpret their own discomfort as others’ divisiveness. Mentioning race feels divisive because it doesn’t always result in a pleasant conversation. Indeed, talking about race and racism is hard.
Dealing with racism is infinitely harder, of course, but people of color have been on the receiving end of that stick for centuries. It’s only been fairly recently that white Americans have been forced to openly confront our subconscious biases and institutional supremacy. We aren’t accustomed to having our part of the racism equation thrust in our faces. It feels divisive because our automatic response to it is to feel defensive (“I never enslaved anyone!” “I’ve been mistreated for being white!” “I don’t even see color!” and so on).
But we really need to push through that initial defensive response to recognize that 1) yes, racism does exist whether we talk about it or not, and 2) we have the biggest role to play in eliminating it from our society. In America, racism is white people’s issue to resolve. We are the ones who have inherited the disease. We are still the ones who dominate the institutional power structure. We are the ones who subconsciously carry forward a legacy of what Yawo Brown eloquently refers to as “polite white supremacy.”
Those who believe that talking about race and racism are divisive concepts seem to have rather short memories. We’ve only recently gotten to the point where we can even have open, honest discussions about racism with those affected by it. Do you think minorities have safely been able to air their grievances over racial injustices throughout most of our history? Hell no.
We don’t have to go back very far to see this. Rosa Parks wasn’t just chastised for refusing to give up her seat on the bus, she was arrested. Martin Luther King Jr.— the icon of peaceful protest — was arrested 30 times. Those details get lost in our feel-good, whitewashed civil rights hero stories. We like to look at how they stood up for justice, but we don’t always acknowledge the white power structure that sent them to jail for doing so.
We’ve come quite a ways in the past 50 years, of course. The movement toward racial equality means that people of color have the freedom to speak out and protest injustice without (as much) fear of retribution. But that has only been legally true for a short time in our collective history. And socially, it’s still a big challenge.
I find metaphors to be helpful, so humor me for a moment: Imagine a kid is being bullied on the playground by a group of kids who beat him up any time he comes within 20 feet of the slide. After he complains enough, the teacher makes the bullies stop beating him. Now he can safely walk up to the slide, but every time he tries to go up the ladder, the bullies block his way. When the kid talks to the teacher about this, she tells him, “Stop complaining. They’re not hurting you anymore. You can go wherever you want on the playground. You’re just being divisive and causing disunity.”
That’s what it feels like when people say that talking about racism is divisive. True unity is impossible without real justice, and we’re just not there yet. How is it divisive to point out racial injustice, institutional inequality, or the ongoing effects of historical oppression? How can we address these issues if we turn a blind eye to them?
We can’t ever hope to heal the wounds that racism has inflicted — and continues to inflict — on a significant portion of our fellow citizens if we refuse to talk about it. Those conversations aren’t always easy, they aren’t always pretty, and they aren’t always comfortable. But they are absolutely necessary. They are critical.
Discomfort doesn’t equal divisiveness. If we want to be part of the solution, we have to be willing to get uncomfortable. True unity lies on the other side of our discomfort, but we’ll never get there unless we listen our way through it, one honest, uncomfortable conversation at at time.