Three Elements of Constructive Conversations on Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality and the -isms of Our Day
Over the past few years, I have blogged on many issues of justice in the United States mostly around racism, public education and lgbtq struggles. While I have been called the anti-christ, a blamer of “whitey” and an insecure victim, I have tried to approach the topics and subsequent interactions with thoughtfulness and grace. I have not always succeeded. I have allowed my righteous indignation to give way to harmful snark, I have given into my own stereotypes about particular groups and I have, no doubt, fallen short of my intentions to rise above the destructive and violent rhetoric.
Still, despite our individual and collective failings . . . we must press on and continue to talk about racism and other issues of justice in the United States and around the world. We will not always agree with one another’s perspectives or tactics, but we must keep working towards a more just world. The alternative is to give into the brokenness that exists and retreat into a bubble of our own survival and individualism. For me and I hope for you, buying into a Darwinist “every man for himself” world is not an option.
So we keep talking, we keep struggling and we keep hoping.
Over the past week the airwaves have been filled with reporting, commentary and rants about the Florida shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. This has again made clear that issues of race are not only bubbling under the surface of our societal discourse, but they are spilling over into our politics, our churches and our larger culture. Some are not surprised by any of this and others are shocked at the incident and the reactions.
I certainly have my opinions and, for the most part, am glad that these conversations on race are in the public view, but political punditry will not ultimately drive the future of our cultural understandings race and racism. When it gets right down to it, true transformation will only happen through those who live day-to-day, neighbor-to-neighbor, friend-to-friend in our cities, towns and social media platforms. It is times like this when we have a choice in how we will respond: retreat into ideological enclaves or engage with fear and trepidation. I am not a big “battle imagery” guy, but in someways this is a battle for our cultural soul. I am not talking about reproductive rights, or religious freedom, but a battle to claim the importance of human decency and respect for the other.
Yes, the Trayvon shooting is still playing out and is tragic, but it also challenges us to engage in ways that do not give into the inflammatory rhetoric and accusative tone that so many have chosen to adopt. Yes, righteous indignation and anger have their place and purpose, but this situation has highlighted the importance of having conversations with one another that break down barriers of misunderstanding and reject a strategy of constructing walls of rhetorical and social division. To this end, I offer these three perspectives that I believe can help us have constructive conversations about, not only race, but any of the “-isms” of the world: race, gender, class, sexuality, etc.
Acknowledge YOUR PRIVILEGE - Privilege is always a tricky topic, especially since White males are often the target of the privilege police. And while I do think that White men have a particular challenge in addressing their privilege, if we are to have meaningful conversations about any situations of oppression and injustice, we must ALL acknowledge the realties of our individual and collective privilege.
Michael Skolnik, Editor-in-Chief of the Global Grind wrote a powerful and, dare I say confessional, piece in response to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, White People, You Will Never Look Suspicious Like Trayvon Martin.
I was born white. It was the card I was dealt. No choice in the matter. Just the card handed out by the dealer. I have lived my whole life privileged. Privileged to be born without a glass ceiling. Privileged to grow up in the richest country in the world. Privileged to never look suspicious. I have no guilt for the color of my skin or the privilege that I have. Remember, it was just the next card that came out of the deck. But, I have choices. I got choices on how I play the hand I was dealt. I got a lot of options. The ball is in my court. [Read more]
Again, privilege touches us all. In conversations about class privilege might be family wealth or education, in conversations about sexism, being male is a privilege and when it comes to race and being Black in the United States, privilege often lies in not being Black. Acknowledging privilege should not generate guilt or abdication, but should compel us to leverage that privilege in a way that equals the playing field for others . . . yes, even if it may FEEL as if we are giving something up that we deserve or earned. This may come in the form of sacrificing prestige that makes room for someone else to take leadership, challenging our own communities who have institutionalized privilege and exclusions and/or simple recognizing that much of what we have achieved, not everyone has had the opportunity to achieve the same. When we can each acknowledge our own privilege, wherever it may be, we give ourselves permission to stop the conversations that often land to dead-end arguments of “my oppression is worse than your oppression” or “if you would just work harder” and we begin to see one another as human beings who have been caught up in circumstance, but who are also seeking a way towards a more just world.
Recognize THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE “-ISM” AND THE “-IST” - One of my favorite social commentators is New York DJ Jay Smooth. His commentary is flavored with profound insights on the world as well as humor that is meaningful and pointed. The offering that I continually return to is his video, How to Tell People They Sounds Racist where he dissects the nuances of and differences between being a racist and doing something that is racist.
The truth is, any of use can do things that are racist, sexist, classist or homophobic without having to wear the a sash labeled, racist, sexist, classist, or homophobe. When it comes to conversations about specific instances of injustice in the world, we get sidetracked when we turn it into a personal battle to defend or prove one another’s ”-ist” quotient. Personally, I don’t think that at the core of my soul I am any of the above mentioned “-ists” but I do know that because of my upbringing, privilege and not always being willing to always reflect on my actions, I can do things that are certainly “-ist” in nature. My maleness can assume space in a room or a conversation, my education can assume authority and voice in debate, my gut reactions to a person based on race can alter my behavior. Some might say, well then, Bruce, maybe you are a sexist, classist, racist jerk! Could be, but I simply think these are things that I must constantly be aware of so that I do not repeat, encourage or institutionalize the behavior. By removing the need to prove the motivations and intent of individuals, we can then discuss the nature of the actions and situations that have actually taken place.
Understand THE FOREST AND THE TREES - I think this is one of the most important things we must understand if we are going to move forward in any meaningful way as a country and a culture. Understanding the big picture about race, culture and ethnicity allows us to navigate our individual interactions with nuance. Generalizations must not confine people to a way of being, but rather they allow us to understand larger issues which may have impacted current situations and actions. As an Asian American I certainly do not want you to assume that I have a particular family structure, political outlook or sense of self as you engage with me, but I DO want you to understand larger issues that have impacted Asian American culture such as the meaning of saving face, cultural approaches to conflict, assumptions about individuality, etc. All of these things will give you some foundation and insight into my general background . . . only to the point that you then interact with me. Soon you would discover that, as much as I would hate to admit it, I do embody some normative Asian – both Chinese and Filipino – American characteristics as well as some that are inherited from other life experiences and contexts. Each of us is individual and unique, but none of us is immune to large cultural narratives that have impacted the way we live. This tension between the trees of our individual selves and forest of our cultural context must not only be acknowledged, but it must be held with care if we are going to be nuanced and thoughtful in our interactions with one another.
Again, none of us is perfect and I offer these suggestions with as much humility as I can muster, but despite these things, we must keep trying. Thanks for reading and if you have any more suggestions, please feel free to leave them in the comments.