Learning to talk about race

I expect to make mistakes and get called out, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying.

Full disclosure: talking about race terrifies me.

This may surprise some of you, if you know me or have read some of my other columns, like when I recently spoke out strongly against Patriot Front’s unwelcome presence in our city.

But there’s an irony to writing at length about white supremacy while never using the words “black” or “race” that weighs heavily on my mind, especially because I did not recognize what I failed to do until I started drafting this column.

That was not a feel-good learning moment. I’m embarrassed, and more than a little ashamed that, in a twisted way, these hateful people got what they wanted through me — the erasure of people of color.

I think many white people have felt what I’m feeling now, when they’ve said or done something racist only to realize what they did, and how it hurt someone, after the fact. And I know how tempting it is to stuff that shame down deep inside, because we want to believe that we aren’t racist, that we are in no way similar to the tiki torch-bearing, Confederate flag-waving, Nazi insignia-displaying yahoos we regretfully share a country with.

Our desire to prove this almost always results in the opposite.

One recent example comes to mind: A man pulled over to the side of the road during the June 4 George Floyd protest alongside Griffin Avenue to actually yell, “Go home! We don’t have racists in Enumclaw!” at the peaceful demonstrators.

(This was a funny incident for two reasons; first, he clearly wasn’t around when an individual in a pickup circled the block multiple times for the sole purpose of flipping demonstrators the bird and yelling “White Power”, and second, the protestors all replied in cheery unison, “We are home!”)

I honestly can’t guess what his intentions were, but I can say without doubt that his attempt to argue that racism doesn’t exist out here in the fringes of King County only strengthened my belief — and likely the beliefs of the other demonstrators — that racism has been, is now, and will continue to be, present on the Plateau.

This reaction to being intellectually challenged by the presence of racism is understandable, though highly unfortunate.

“I could see the power of belief that only bad people are racist,” author Robin DiAngelo writes in the first pages of “White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about race.” “I could see how we are taught to think about racism only as discrete acts committed by individual people, rather than as a complex, interconnected system. And in light of so many white expressions of resentment toward people of color, I realized that we see ourselves as entitled to, and deserving of, more than people of color deserve; I saw our investment in a system that serves us. I also saw how hard we worked to deny all this and how defensive we became when these dynamics were named. In turn, I saw how our defensiveness maintained the racial status quo.”

So here’s the bad news, while folks: we can no longer deny our racism, our complicity, and the similarities we share with the extremists we abhor. And yes, we are similar. How could we not be?

“White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality,” DiAngelo continued. “As a result, we are insulated from racial stress, at the same time that we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage.”

In other words, although white people have unique lived experiences, we all benefit from the racist systems we’ve put in place in all factors of our society. Because of this, we have formed a collective attitude toward race defined by the fact we’ve never had to consider the color of our skin every day of our lives.

“For much of American history, race has been a black culture’s issue; racism, a black person’s burden. Or substitute any person of color for black and you’ve got the same problem,” Dr. Michael Eric Dyson writes in the introduction to “White Fragility.”

Racism can no longer be just their problem — it’s ours too, and we can’t be afraid to talk about it any longer.

And I’m afraid I don’t have good news about that. We’ve sheltered ourselves against the reality we’ve shaped in our country for so long that the pain of change is inevitable, but imperative, and this path will require us to forget what we think we know about America, and see the Land of the Free with new eyes.

We will trip. We will stumble. We will fall.

But if we listen to our Black brothers and sisters, and their allies of every race, color, and creed, we will find our feet again.

And every time we do, we should recite the names of all those who could not get back up:

Eric Garnet. John Crawford III. Michael Brown. Ezell Ford. Dante Parket. Michelle Cusseaux. Loquan McDonald. George Mann. Tanisha Anderson. Akai Gurley. Tamir Rice. Rumain Brisbon. Jarame Reid. Matthew Ajibade. Frank Smart. Natasha McKenna. Tony Robinson. Anthony Hikk. Mya Hall. Phillip White. Eric Harris. Walter Scott. William Chapman II. Alexia Christian. Brendon Glenn. Victor Manuel Larosa. Jonathan Sanders. Freedie Blue. Joseph Mann. Salvado Ellswood. Sandra Bland. Albert Joseph Davis. Darrius Stewart. Billy Ray Davis. Samuel Dubose. Michael Sabbie. Brian Keith Day. Christian Taylor. Troy Robinson. Asshams Pharoah Maney. Felix Kumi. Keith Harrison McLeod. Junior Prosper. Lamontez Jones. Paterson Brown. Dominic Hutchinson. Anthony Ashford. Alonzo Smith. Tyree Crawford. India Kager. La’Vante Biggs. Michael Lee Marshall. Jamar Clark. Richard Perkins. Nathaniel Harris Pickett. Benni Lee Tignor. Miguel Espinal. Michael Noel. Kevin Matthews. Bettie Jones. Quintonio Legrier. Keith Childress Jr. Janet Wilson. Randy Nelson. Antronie Scott. Wendell Celestine. David Joseph. Calin Roquemore. Dyzhawn Perkins. Christopher Davis. Marco Loud. Peter Gaines. Torrey Robinson. Darius Robinson. Kevin Hicks. Mary Truxillo. Demarcus Semer. Willie Tillman. Terrill Thomas. Sylville Smith. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Terence Crutcher. Paul O’Neal. Alteria Woods. Jordan Edwards. Aaron Bailey. Ronell Foster. Stephon Clark. Antwon Rose II. Bothan Jean. Pamela Turner. Dominique Clayton. Atatiana Jefferson. Christopher Whitfield. Cristopher McCorvey. Eric Reason. Michael Lorenzo Dean. Breonna Taylor. Tony McDade. George Floyd.

And countless more.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to talk about race, order Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism” or Ijeoma Oulo’s “So you want to talk about race” from The Sequel in Enumclaw (360-825-3144) or an independent book store near you.


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Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
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