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An Honest Talk About Race

Desiree Cooper

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Sen. Barack Obama speaks in Florida
(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Today, the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic National Committee will decide whether, and how, to seat delegates from Florida and Michigan. Both states were stripped of their delegates when they decided to break party rules and hold early primaries. The committee's decision could move Barack Obama closer to the Democratic presidential nomination -- and that's bound to move voters closer to their true feelings about race.

Dawn Turner Trice, a columnist at the Chicago Tribune, has for the past month hosted an online forum about race. She says she was inspired to start it by a speech about race that Obama gave in Philadelphia back in March:

"This is where we are right now," Obama said. "It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy."

A favorite commentary on that speech came from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show: "And so, at 11:00 on a Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race, as though they were adults."

In a way, that's just what Dawn is trying to do with this forum. On the Web site are essays about race, A test you can take to gauge your own racial baggage, and there's a section for any question you ever wanted to ask about race, but were afraid to ask -- or didn't even know how to ask.


Dawn Turner Trice: When we started doing this, I decided to divide these up into categories, based on a tremendous amount of email messages that I got. Among the questions were people asking things like, 'Is it OK if I see a black woman with elaborate braids, may I compliment her?' I thought, 'That's really interesting, because if we are tripping over the somewhat smaller things, it's almost impossible to broach the bigger racial questions.' So I thought it would be nice to have a segment or a section where we just ask basic etiquette questions like, a lot of Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans have said that when they're asked 'Where are you from?' The real question is: 'Where are you from? Certainly you aren't American.'

Desiree Cooper: Or 'I can tell you're different, I really can't pin you down.'

Trice Yes. Right, exactly. It's these little questions where it's coded language that we have sometimes, and the people who are being asked the questions, they're so familiar with those questions that they know what's really being asked. We're staying on the surface as opposed to getting to the meat of what people really want to know. So I was hoping to design a forum where we could really do that and get below the surface.

What has surprised you most about the conversation you are having about race on the Web site?

It's astounding to me -- there are people who will come to the Web site and ask why we're talking about race. It's interesting, there's almost this idea that if we don't talk about it, if we ignore it, then it doesn't exist. And I'm blown away constantly by that mindset.

A sampling of questions from the forum:

-- Why do some African-Americans choose to speak so poorly, mispronouncing words like 'ask'? I feel it holds them back and presents a poor image of themselves.

-- Do some Asians find it rude if people don't remove their shoes before entering their homes? What should you do if you aren't sure whether to remove your shoes? What should you do if you don't want to remove your shoes?

-- Do you have any racists in your family? And if so, what do you say to them if they're saying something you think is racist?

-- What do Caucasians fear most about African-Americans?

-- My question could be directed at any minority group, but I'm aiming this one particularly at African-Americans. I wonder if, as American citizens surrounded by White people and White culture, if you constantly are made aware of your skin color or Black culture?

Trice: One of the things we do is we have people ask questions and then we have readers answer them. One of the questions was from a 71-year-old African-American man. He said, 'My question to white America is this: On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being absolute equal, how do you rate African-Americans on character and intelligence?' A lot of people hated that question. I think that what people were trying to get to is that it's nice to say in polite company that yeah, we're equals -- but on a reality basis, when you see the person moving in next door who happens to be African-American, what is your honest opinion?' We had a question the other day about Obama and safety, coming off the Hillary Clinton assassination controversy.

Right, the question is: 'Do you worry about Obama's safety along the campaign trail?' I have to say, when I saw that, I'm like 'Oh no!'

Right!

What kind of response did you get?

The response has been overwhelming. There are a lot of people who are saying that they're praying for Obama. There are people who are mad at me for even posing the question. There's almost a whisper, it's a little bit taboo. You don't talk about something like this. Even in forming the question, your heart kind of flutters a little bit.

You mean, editorially speaking, there was some hesitation about posing that question?

It's not necessarily from the editorial perspective, but it's from that personal -- where you can see the words. In the year 2008, sometimes it is extremely difficult to hear the way people feel about black people, what the people feel about white people. We had a woman who did an essay on the drama between blacks and Jews. Some of the comments there were extremely hurtful. I thought her essay was extremely brave, but a lot of people kind of missed that.

What was the gist of her essay?

Her essay was how she as a Jewish woman considered herself to be fairly evolved in terms of race relations. She had worked during the Civil Rights movement, but as her kids started to get older, she realized that she had some questions about them dating black kids. And man, people at times kinda slapped her down! I mean, black people were mean, some Jews were mean, it was just... I was so protective of her. And again, the point is to post those comments.

So what was the point? What did you learn from that?

For me it says we need to put this out there. It's not all kisses and hugs, but we need to get these sentiments out there so that people can see we all -- we're a work in progress. We just have to keep working. If you're willing to work, you don't arrive at some racial destination where everything is harmonious even in your head.

I've written a column for a decade in a major market, for the Detroit Free Press, and I can't tell you the times I've been writing about... snowflakes, about some new-fangled product that came out. And the amount of vitriol that I get in the comments that have nothing to do -- I am not writing about race, it has nothing to do with race, and it couldn't even be mildly construed as about race, and yet people see my picture in there, or they happen to know that I'm an African-American woman, and immediately the comments are just... really, really vitriolic, really, really angry and directed at me in terms of my race. How much of that are you getting, and how much of that do you have to weed out in order to keep the discourse on a level that's constructive?

With this forum, I decided very early on that I wanted it to be open and honest, because there's no way that you can have a discussion about race, and have a fair discussion in which you try to really get to something, without it being open and honest. Because there have been so many years where we've been talking amongst ourselves in our very homogeneous groups and we've been more honest there, but we haven't crossed over in many cases. In all honesty, there have been some comments that have been fairly strident and biting but nothing that's been so, so nasty that I wouldn't post it.

If the forum is any indication, is the state of race relations more dire or less dire?

I think we tend to focus too much on the negatives, but if I were to just step back and look at the positives, the people I've met and the people who've been willing to share their experiences -- and again, these aren't all rosy experiences -- these are people who are trying and they are participating. The fact that they are participating says a whole lot. And so I would have to say definitely less dire. But I'm an optimist, Des.

Well, I hope your assessment is correct. Dawn, thank you for sharing your time with us.

Oh, it's been a pleasure, thank you for having me.

Comments

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  • By Reg Redmond

    06/02/2008

    Let me first say that being BIASED, having PREFERENCE, or ultimately, being PREJUDICED is as natural as breathing. We all have this propensity to lean towards the familiar, more comfortable, and easier to understand, at least from our personal perspectives. There is absolutely no wrong in that. I prefer jogging over aerobics (same heart healthy benefit), I biased to jazz music(not to say hip hop, rock, or classical can't be equally enjoyed on some occasions), and I am prejudiced against being around my wife's family versus my own (I love her and her family as much as I do mine, I've just known mine's longer).

    Prejudice, or pre-judging, only becomes harmful ignorance when you feel moral values are diminished, and educational and social skills are void based solely on ones complexion. So it's ok to say, for example, that 'I prefer my daughter to marry one of her own race simply because I am not sure of what another race may like in foods, in music, at social settings and in conversations. I am to fearful to break out of my own secure microcosm to embrace the wonderful and inevitable world of change.' It's ok to say this because in reality there is no other truth.

    By outside lookingin

    From boulder, CO, 06/01/2008

    For Laurie and Sal, seen from the dominant cultural perspective it is easy to say "we are all equal" and personally treat people equally. Seeing white culture from the outside, in my case from an Asian perspective, if I don't "act white", "go along to get along", etc., my life becomes extremely difficult. White people just don't want to hear about or understand how the intersection of a history of de jure and de facto economic and cultural oppression, extreme poverty, racial minority status, etc., pervades the dominant "white" culture in the US. There is a reason why 10% of the population produces 60% of the prison inmates, African Americans (and women) earn on average 60-80% of comparable white males, African Americans are unemployed at rates 2-3 times the rates for whites. Need I go on? As talim writes above, " Very often, anything "pro-Black" is automatically seen as exclusionary or even "anti-White" or racist, whereas an all-white scenario (think the world of Friends, or Seinfeld) is purely happenstance and usually taken for granted as the natural order of things." "Taken for granted..." sums up an important aspect of white priviledge. Slavery, genocide and imperialism are parts of the American experience, just as liberty, freedom, and democracy are. It is only by acknowledging and addressing the effects of the negative parts of our history that we are able to embrace the latter.

    By Harry Bryant

    From TN, 06/01/2008

    Let's put the race thing where it belongs - in the trash can. Let's get back to the issues that matter. Let's pick a candidate with the leadership qualities needed to defeat Bush and his followers.

    By Catherine Goings

    From Lansing, MI, 05/31/2008

    I am a 56 year old white, single woman who has lived in a rent-subsidized apartment for the past 5 years. In my former life I lived in a very white environment, and rarely thought about race because it rarely touched my daily life. I always thought I based my reactions on individual actions rather than race, but for five years now I have fought an increasingly difficult battle in my mind against generalization about the people I see come and go. Sometimes I wonder if the only way I can not think on racist lines is to just keep a distance, but then I wonder if maybe its just the opposite.

    By talim lessane

    From chicago, 05/31/2008

    I was happy to hear Dawn's piece on NPR today. There are so many places to start this conversation but there is clearly no end in sight. Having said that, I would like to offer a bit of perspective as a man who is "bi-racial" (same make-up as Obama)but who grew up in New York City in the '70's and '80's. By the time I was in my early teens, I "decided" I wanted to be Black because it was the social circle in which I was made to feel most comfortable; in other words, despite a few exceptions, the Black community (in my experience) has been much more of the "melting pot" that America as a whole likes to pride itself as---people of all shades, with our own foibles and conflicts resultant from that as well, but ultimately much more accepting of each other than we (speaking in generalities here) ever feel among well-meaning White people.

    On the other hand, I have seen how white people tend to get verrrrry uncomfortable when they are in the minority and not on vacation. Very often, anything "pro-Black" is automatically seen as exclusionary or even "anti-White" or racist, whereas an all-white scenario (think the world of Friends, or Seinfeld) is purely happenstance and usually taken for granted as the natural order of things.

    By Laurie Tucker

    From Seattle, WA, 05/31/2008

    I am a 44-year-old white female, who spent her first 29 years in the South. Some of my family members were extremely racist and some were color-blind, so my formative years included hearing a wide mix of stories, opinions, and (bad) jokes, in addition to my own direct experiences.

    Personally, I have lots of mixed feelings about how I feel about my own racism, which I am too honest to deny. I have had both good and bad interactions with African Americans, and find it difficult to sort it all out.

    I am glad that this issue is being addressed in a mature, intelligent way, and plan to go to the Chicago Tribune website, and begin participating and learning in the discussion there.

    Oh, and by the way, I've been an ardent and active supporter of Obama from the beginning. I believe he is a caring and intelligent man who could lead and inspire huge progress for the U.S. in many needed areas, and I fear what will happen to us if he is not elected President of our country.

    By Ann Tschoe

    From Belleville, IL, 05/31/2008

    RE: Shoe removal Q & A...
    As a daughter of Koreans who emigrated to the US in 1965, it's habit for me to remove my shoes, but guests who are invited into our home may keep their shoes on. When in doubt about removing shoes, just ask the host. If one prefers not to remove shoes, just inform the host. Most Asians tend to be rather quiet, but say 'hi' & you may be pleasantly surprised.

    By Luanne Wetzel

    From Tucson, AZ, 05/31/2008

    I am caucasian.We live have a history of being imobilized by fear and we just need to not get caught in the "hype" and enjoy this moment in history where we have the possibility of electing Obama as President of the U.S.A.

    By BARBARA DAVISS

    05/31/2008

    DESIREE COOPER IS THE FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN HOST I HAVE HEARD ON AN NPR SHOW. AT LEAST, ON MY STATION, KUAT IN TUCSON, AZ. AM I UNINFORMED? bd

    By Charles Ward

    From Greensboro, NC, 05/31/2008

    As an African American Theatre teacher who has studied standard speech, I've always been disheartened by the mispronunciation of "ask." However I've had to grit my teeth recently as I've witnessed well educated colleagues who have also mispronounced the word.

    Perhaps many readers are too young to remember the “Ebonics” controversy of a decade ago and the furor it created. At the time I helped monitor discussions on AOL, and some of the comments made by both Black and White respondents were astounding in the depth of their anger. Within a week White racists made their way to the discussion, and things deteriorated to a harangue that was so rancorous, mean spirited and shallow that I quit my volunteer position with AOL. (One person I talked with maintained that African Americans were intellectually inferior, since our ancestors were obviously picked for slavery because they were less intelligent Africans.) All this because of the assertion that teaching Black children to translate their own mode of speaking into standard English was racist dumbing down of the curriculum, an attack on Black Children, evidence that people of African descent were inferior, you name it.

    But in the end, to answer the questions of those who ask why Black Americans speak as they (we) do, the answer is simple. Survival and peer pressure. I’ve had to accept that if one of my lower income students began to speak standardized English at home and in their neighborhood, they would be branded as trying to “sound White,” and this would put them in social jeopardy. More educated member of the Black community have often pulled themselves up from poverty and retain some of that mode of speech.

    And lets remember that for years Whites form various parts of the country have mispronounced a variety of words. White southerners have often pronounced “tobacco” “tobacca.” Midwesterners say “worsh” for “wash,” And shall we discuss a Bostonians pronouncement of “Park the car in Harvard yard?” Yet nobody condemns their speech for being substandard and branding them as intellectually inferior. Perhaps those of us who are more educated need to consider that we may have a double standard and urge everyone in our society to adopt standardized speech.

    By k.a.m. kam

    From usa, 05/31/2008

    I worry about Obama like I worry about trolls trawling the airwaves and websites looking for the class warfare instead of a race issue from the confines of their safe and gated communities. Living in a gated community, where no one can "get to you" is fine if you exist in a bubble. Otherwise the majority of Americans have more in common with their fellow man and others in the class warfare vs race issue. We all Haven't been properly gentrified yet and I guess are kinda ghetto people. All of us. If ghetto means we do not live in a gated community then yes....yes we take care of our own selves. Leave it to a bible belter to divert the attention of the comment thread from race to class, whereby hijacking the whole idea in the first place.

    By Terrill Dunn

    From St. Louis, MO, 05/31/2008

    The long and short of the "aks" question is this: A matter of education and habit. Anyone who walks into a company interview and "akses" for a job, will probably not get that job. However, in professional settings I've heard normal people ask: "What else needs done?" Now, my question is: Is that proper English? Is it cultural? Or is it habit? I don't think so, but I've been wrong before. So does that belie an inferior intelligence as well or no?

    By Andrea Wilder

    From Cambridge, MA, 05/31/2008

    What about the pronouncing "ask" question.Does anyone have an answer on that one?

    I really don't get it.

    By Laura Gullett

    From Cleveland, OH, 05/31/2008

    1. Yes I have many times worried about Obama's safety, and hope nothing happens to him. I also worry about Hillary too, though. Whenever there are huge political revolutions, I think worrying about safety in such changes come with the territory.
    2. I agree with Greg about not relating to Ghetto residents, no matter what race they are. It is easier to feel more comfortable around people of any race in much nicer areas.
    3. As far as race in general, I am white and began being around "blacks" as stated to me, when I was in 7th grade. I remember the phrase "black people go to this school." I had no idea what that meant, and was not focused on political indifferences or race at the time. I only cared about school lessons at the time, and never watched the news at home. I was too young. I was streetwise ignorant, but people made a big deal about race.
    Now I have learned it really is no big deal at all. I have adjusted to the black culture as being different, just like someone from Boston is different to someone in Mississippi. I think it is more of a culture and behavior difference among each other, than skin color.
    The same is relative to differences in religious cultures. People think, behavior, and even cook different from one religion to another, or from one part of the U.S. to another. I don't think we should continue to accept these differences as a negative thing. It is a positive thing that helps all of us learn about different cultures, which should be respected as what makes the world go round. It is sad not to accept cultural differences as a positive experience.
    There is only one thing that bothers me more than anything else. That is the 'n' word used so often among blacks, but also used among the other races associating with them. It is not a word I ever heard one time in suburban America, but all the time in the city. Children very young constantly use the word as well, and it is very sad. One time I also heard a woman yell "come here you white boy" way across the street to her young son who was black. Was that meant to be a racist comment? He was around 8-years-old. No one in the area seemed bothered by her comment either, which was even more amazing to me. Out next generation will be racist as long as their elders keep enforcing racist comments and attitudes.

    By Kimberly Macher

    From usa, 05/31/2008

    I just finished listening to Weekend America and popped over here to your website.

    I felt compelled to ahhhh...... share.

    I am in no way promoting my blog Cheyannescampsite.blogspot.com, however that is where I sound off on all things remotely race related going on in America today. My latest blog on Barack Obama is titled Assasination Nation and the public use of the "A" word... which was an eye opener for me.Even Merriam Webster's on-line dictionary has a picture of Obama when you look up the word assasination....Go figure.....I'm not making this up.

    Make no mistake.....I grew up in the projects of St Clair Village in the 1960's located in Pittsburgh Pa. I had "colored" kids to play with and we played till the street lights came on and had to go in. I am Barack Obama's age and understand the mindset of older
    white people. I understand the whole OREO issue for lack of a better term. Sometimes, culturally it seems, I too am an OREO. It saddens me that the humps and bumps we thought "we shall overcome" we really haven't overcame at all. They're still there festering like some boil that needs to be popped again to get all the pus out. I'm sorry for that analogy...but it's the only one that fits on the face of this America now. Just go to my blogspot for more...I'm disgusted quite frankly, and sometimes even fear writing this stuff out here rural country bumpkin NRA green acres land. I could go on, but why?

    By Joseph Louis Mazzitelli

    From Cary, NC, 05/31/2008

    When I heard you mention concern for the personal safety of Senator Barak Obama, it touched me in a profound way. This is a subject I have been thinking about quite a bit of late. The comparisons of Barack Obama with John and Robert Kennedy have made my cynical mind race to a place I and the world do not want to revisit.

    What I have taken from this issue is the strengthened admiration I feel for Senator Obama. His courage is inspiring.

    Sincerely,
    JLMazzitelli

    By Terrill Dunn

    From St. Louis, MO, 05/31/2008

    I'm African American. I think that I'm a fairly well rounded and average individual. I have just as many white friends as African Americans. It's not that I don't trust whites, I just don't wholly believe it when you say "we're all equal". I think that for the most part, we all want this as Americans, but recent history -- this forum in fact -- shows that it isn't the case. I mean, Hilary makes a comment about assassination, and suddenly we're fearing for Obama's life. What's that say about race relations in America to me? It tells me that there is a strained politeness tinged with fear on both sides. We've come a long way, and we have a ways to go. But in my honest and humble opinion, that's where we stand. This may be a sweeping indictment, and imperfect at best. But it is what it is.

    By Jeff Stone

    From Boston, MA, 05/31/2008

    This great and the more discussion, the better. For an example of a face-to-face-on-race in Boston, go to: www.bostondialogues.org and see this new article: http://www.baystatebanner.com/local12-2008-05-29 and this one: http://www2.baystatebanner.com/issues/2007/05/31/news/local05310711.htm

    By sal thomas

    05/31/2008

    I am Caucasian. I am baffled by the race issue. I look at a person's heart & attitude. God made people with different skin colors.

    By Greg Braun

    From Omaha, NE, 05/31/2008

    How many of these 'issues' are more correctly described as an issue of class, not race? I share little in common nor understand a person who resides in a ghetto, regardless of what ethnic group dominates that ghetto. In spite of my ‘whiteness’, I share much more in common with the black banker three doors down the street than with a white guy in the projects.

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