How to Think and Talk Constructively About Racism

How you look at things.
July 22 2013 3:00 PM

Rules for Racism

How to think and talk constructively about race and racism.

Headshots of neighborhood watch volunteer George  Zimmerman (R) who has been charged with second-degree murder of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
George Zimmerman (left) and Trayvon Martin

Handout photo by Reuters

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, politicians are calling again for a national conversation on race. Previous attempts at this conversation have often broken down. Let’s learn from our mistakes. With the help of my colleagues, here are some suggestions for thinking and talking about race and racism. I’m white, and so are the vast majority of my colleagues, so most of this advice is written from and to a white perspective. (For a black perspective, I recommend the Root’s excellent Race Manners column, written by Jenée Desmond-Harris.) But I hope everyone will find something useful in it.

1. Don’t freak out. When somebody accuses you of racism, it’s natural to get angry and deny it. Relax. We’ll never be able to talk about this stuff if racism is always a firing offense. Treat racism the way you’d treat sexism. You can have sexist moments or sexist blinders without being a pig. Inadvertent sexism is something you’re allowed to work on. Racism should be the same. The way you’re talking about that “nice African-American gentleman”? Yeah, that’s a little bit racist. Don’t get defensive. Just understand why and try to do better next time.

2. Treat each person as an individual. Don’t tie yourself in knots trying to be politically correct. There’s no special way you’re supposed to treat this or that group. Just remember what Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned 50 years ago: a nation in which people would be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” That’s the ultimate principle. Resist inferences based on classification. Judge each person on his or her merits.

3. Practice what you preach. Nobody likes to be accused of racism. The best way to open hearts, eyes, and minds is to apply the same scrutiny to everyone, including yourself. If you want people to see racial bias in George Zimmerman’s reference to “punks,” don’t rationalize Trayvon Martin’s use of “cracker.” No, these terms aren’t equivalent. Yes, Zimmerman is the one who pulled the trigger. Yes, white-on-black racism dwarfs black-on-white racism. But if your goal is to persuade, get past the differences. Focus on shared failings, shared lessons, and shared rules.

4. Don’t pretend you’re perfect. If you’re racially colorblind, great. But it’s more likely that you’re human like the rest of us. Studies have documented pervasive, unconscious racial bias even among people with pure hearts. That’s understandable, given our history and the common tendency toward intergroup bias. To overcome this bias, you have to notice it. You don’t have to think about it all the time—that would make your interactions weird. But every now and then, reflect on things you’ve done or said. The seat you walked past on the bus, next to that woman. The way you tightened up as you passed that guy on the street. What was that about? Little by little, you’ll clean yourself up.

5. Be gentle and forgiving. People have been uncomfortable around race for a long time. Some will presume, accuse, rationalize, or deny.  Others will speak obtusely or ineptly. Resist the urge to rebuke them. Summon the grace to forgive. Don’t just correct people; change them. You’ll get your message across more effectively through kindness, good humor, and clear but friendly engagement than through confrontation. And by listening, you might learn.

6. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Did you hear President Obama on Friday? He talked about the Martin case. Here’s a bit of what he said:

“There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. … There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.”

If, like me, you’ve never had any of those experiences, imagine how they feel. Imagine how you’d react to the story of a young man like you, your brother, or your son being suspected, followed, and killed. How can you comprehend the outcry over Martin’s death without understanding that feeling? You don’t have to shut up about the case. But try to understand where others are coming from.

7. Separate the issues. The legal case against Zimmerman is related to, but different from, nationwide problems affecting young black men. Everyday personal prejudice is related to, but different from, ways in which our institutions—schools, markets, sentencing laws—exacerbate racial gaps. Black-on-black violence, like white-on-white violence, is a bigger killer than white-on-black profiling, but all three problems are real. It’s a lot easier to discuss these questions intelligently once you distinguish them and stop using one issue to drown out the others.

8. Race isn’t everything, but race isn’t nothing. Conversations about cases such as this one often get bogged down in a fight between “This is about racism” and “You think everything’s about race.” Let’s drop the caricatures. Consciously or not, race influences many things: Zimmerman’s suspicions, Martin’s reactions, the police response, and the jury’s inferences. But other factors also come into play: vigilantism, concealed firearms, self-defense laws, and 911 protocols. Race isn’t the whole story. But if you leave it out, you’re kidding yourself.

9. Don’t polarize. The world isn’t black and white. The U.S. population is 17 percent Hispanic/Latino, 13 percent black, 5 percent Asian, 1 percent Native American, and 2 percent biracial. Obama descended from Kansans and Kenyans and grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. Zimmerman has a Peruvian mother, an “Afro-Peruvian” great-grandfather, and an old Myspace account that once disparaged Mexicans. Everything about race and ethnicity—identity, integration, prejudice, conflict—is getting more complicated. Don’t oversimplify the topic or the individuals involved.

10. “They” don’t all think alike. Don’t speak loosely for or about “white people” or “the black community.” Charles Blow, Charles Ogletree, and Charles Barkley see things differently. So do Cornel West, Allen West, and Kanye West. These differences don’t weaken black America any more than the differences between Joe Biden and Joe the Plumber weaken white America. It’s diversity. Deal with it.

11. Put things in perspective. Slavery, segregation, cultural dysfunction, and economic stratification are, to put it mildly, a difficult legacy to transcend. It’s easier to say “get over it” when you’re not the one being followed through the store. But don’t forget how far we’ve come, either. Laws and culture have changed. Disparate treatment persists, but it’s less racially motivated and more mediated by class. Forty-three percent of whites voted for our first black president. We have an attorney general who knows what it’s like to be profiled. “Things are getting better,” says Obama. He’s right.

12. Build trust. You can stand there all day defending drug laws, racial profiling, and a jury with no black members. But if millions of black Americans vehemently disagree, that’s not just their problem. It’s your problem. A healthy society requires broad public confidence in its institutions. When people march in the streets because they don’t trust the criminal justice system or the voting process, their confidence must be earned. These are your countrymen. They need answers, reform, and hope.

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Read more about the respones to the George Zimmerman trial and verdict.