A post-polite post on digging deeper

by Kristin on October 4, 2008

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

I knew my recent post about stereotypes was going to offend someone.

When I sat down to write it, I knew exactly what I wanted to say—I wanted to call myself on the fact that I’m so careful about racial stereotyping but rather careless about stereotyping people like sorority girls and Republicans. But as soon as I started writing, I could tell that how to say it was going to be tricky. I was, after all, writing about race, one of the most controversial topics there is. (As you may have noticed, I also seem to enjoy writing about religion, politics and divorce. Why not throw another touchy topic into the mix, right?)

When writing about race, even the basic issue of whether to refer to someone as “black” or “African-American” is complicated. My general understanding is that black people today prefer “black.” I heard Cornel West speak on the topic once, and that was his preference. But many people still think African-American is the term that shows respect, particularly in writing. So how, in my blog, should I describe my friends’ baby, whose skin color was critical to my story? And could I describe my conversation with Ahbleza, without describing Ahbleza? It was a conundrum. The more I wrote and rewrote, the more I felt like I was digging myself into a hole.

As I wrote in circles, it reminded me of a video made during the primaries by a group of LA-based comics and actors called the Public Service Administration (one of the actors is a friend of mine from college). The video, “Don’t Think Of A Black Man,” is a spoof depicting Hillary Clinton’s campaign people trying to keep race out of the race. The more they attempt to avoid mentioning the color of Barack Obama’s skin, the more they get themselves in trouble. That was me, in a way, but unfortunately I wasn’t trying to be funny. I was trying to write about race without falling into the very pitfalls I was cautioning against, in the process.

Finally, after an extended amount of time spent messing with word choice, I sent a draft of my post to Jason for his feedback. Then I took a deep breath and published it.

Like I said, I was sure I was going to offend someone. And I did. Who knows, maybe lots of people out there are annoyed. Just thinking about it is stressful, and makes me want to avoid all touchy subjects on the blog. Maybe I should have followed my instincts and not written a post that I knew would come out wrong in some way.

But then I thought about the conversations and thoughtful email exchanges I’ve had with people since publishing that post. I’m glad those conversations happened, because I understand more than I did before. If I put myself out there and open myself up, there’s a good chance someone will be willing to engage, and open up along with me. Without the post—without the conversations—we would all be stuck on a polite, superficial plane, pretending that things like race don’t exist. Safe, but not enlightened.

I’m going to get it wrong in this blog, time and time again, whether I’m writing about race or something else. It’s just like getting it wrong in my life, but more exposed and public. Sometimes it’s very tempting to go back to journaling in a notebook as a way to practice my craft and work through my thoughts. But then I think about the great hope that comes with real dialogue. I think about the possibility of more conversations happening here in the open, through reader comments. And then I feel like maybe it’s worth the vulnerability and risk. At least if all of you are willing to step in and make it a conversation.

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  • Nathan Todd

    One of the characteristics of “whiteness”, or of being in the dominant group in the United States society, is the unexamination of our own racial privilege. We, as White people (I am a White male) don’t have to think about stereotypes or prejudice in the same ways that people of color or other minority groups do. Often when we are confronted with our own stereotypes we feel uncomfortable, possibly bad about ourselves, and try to get away from these negative feelings as quick as possible. At the same time, race –for whites too– is a pervasive organizing principle in our society and the more that people who are White try to ignore race, the more we as White people fall into oppressing people of color. And if our discomfort anything compared to the impact of stereotypes on people of color? Instead of trying to adopt the “color-blind” race doesn’t matter attitude, we should strive to understand how race does matter on multiple levels. Our unexamination can lead to negative consequences for others . . . our friends, neighbors, loved ones . . . is that what we want?
    Given the religious content of this blog, I also wonder the cost to our own spirituality and authentic relationship with others across difference . . . and doesn’t God over and over again cry out for those in power to examine the effects of their power and, god forbid, give some of it up for the benefit of the marginalized? Maybe we as a Christian community should re-read the biblical prophets through the lens of God’s passion for justice . . . or maybe we would rather focus on the touchy feely good stuff of Christianity that may allow us to feel like we are good people in this world while we ignore our role in the suffering of others. I should probably end this response before I really tell you how I really feel!
    Even if you felt there was some blundering Kristin, thanks for putting some of your White experience out there. We as White people are not going to be perfect, but hopefully by humbling examining our own whiteness we can become better racial allies to people of color (and other marginalized groups).

    ps. if you don’t think that being White matters, check out the following website to see how whiteness and White culture are articulated . . .
    1. Stuff White people Like (http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/)
    2. Stuff White people do (http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/)
    3. Black peopel love us (http://blackpeopleloveus.com/)