Were your parents racists? Were your grandparents racists? How do you know the answer to this question? What’s the story behind your response?
I was inspired to write this week’s column by my friend and former student, Ebony Murphy-Root. Ebony posted on her Facebook page the following writing prompt: “Words only kinda racist people use.” She began with the example “race-baiting.”
I couldn’t resist reading and neither could anyone else, apparently: Within hours several hundred people had added their comments and answered her questions.
I then posed my own question on Facebook about how racism moves through families and was equally surprised by the immediate, passionate and intimate responses I received. I was also (naively and ignorantly, I now realize), surprised by the number of malignantly racist comments flung at me for simply asking the question.
It was an education. That’s why I’ve asked Ebony to write with me this week. I’ve asked that she introduce herself: “I grew up in Hartford, the daughter of a Teamster truck driver, and I am very proud of that. As a teacher, I’m particularly interested in gifted and progressive education as it shapes the independent school sector. This summer I’ll be attending the Religious Literacy Summer Institute for Educators at Harvard Divinity School so that next year, when I study the American Dream with my seventh-graders, I can do a better job helping them contextualize where faith fits in. I’ve mentored and instructed teenagers, young adults and learners of all ages for over a decade, teaching and serving in classrooms, educational nonprofits (and even a church basement or two!) and am a graduate of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale. I feel like a working class kid, but now, by virtue of my UConn degrees, solid enough income and California zip code, I question whether some might now consider me a member of the ’coastal elite’? We live in a remarkable country.”
Ebony’s signature wit was obvious in her post, of course, when she included the qualifier “kinda” to modify racist. Ebony explains the importance of the word: “I wanted to invite more people into the conversation, especially people who are in the process of trying to be better, of trying to be not ’self-appointed allies’ but actual helpful, actively anti-racist people. ’Kinda racism’ is still actual racism, to be sure, but because these words and phrases are so ubiquitous, we on the receiving end of them find ourselves questioning whether it is worth the trouble, and possible emotional exhaustion, to address them.”
Phrases under the “kinda racist” heading that kept being reposted included the following: “I don’t care if you’re black, white, orange, purple or green.” . “There were Irish slaves, too.” . “I don’t see race.” . “You’re very articulate/well-spoken/have a good vocabulary.” . “Stop and frisk.” . “The woman who raised me was black/Hispanic/Asian and she was just like one of the family.” . “It’s always about race with you people.” . “Hey, I dated a very nice black guy once.” . “Keep dribbling.”
Whether said with conscious malice or not, such statements inevitably reinforce invidious bigotry. “If you don’t see race, then you don’t see me; if you don’t see me, you render me invisible” was the response, in various forms, from many who replied to Ebony’s post.
Attending a conference on humor, race and ethnicity a few weeks ago, I was moved when Lanita Jacobs, associate professor of anthropology and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California quoted Pat Parker’s poem, “For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend”: “The first thing you do is to forget that I’m Black./Second, you must never forget that I’m Black.” Alliances and communities are possible but, as professor Jacobs argues, we need to hear about “first-hand experience with racial challenges.”
As Ebony writes, “Folks need spaces to talk about their lived experiences.”
“We need multiracial, multi-generational, good-faith spaces to talk this out, outside of our self-fabricated bubbles,” Ebony continues, because when “racism is framed as something with ’two sides,’ it’s limiting. Saying, ’Anyone can be racist’ just by talking about race is patently absurd. Race is everywhere in America. Let’s talk about it. Let’s tell our stories.”
Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books.