An Honest Talk About RaceMAY 31, 2008
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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!'
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.
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