Columnist’s note: This is the last in the series of columns about Margaret Andersen’s book, Getting Smart about Race: An American Conversation which is available from Amazon on February 4
We need to have conversations about race. But my immediate question is how? In our first series, we received comments from two groups who host forums for these conversations. (I would be honored to be able to attend forums and report about them in a subsequent column.)
Now the how.
Since we have been raised with our own lenses, we have misconceptions about each other. For example, most white Americans do not understand the extent to which they have been aided by white privilege.
Conversely, some African Americans may not be aware that some employers prefer diverse candidates.
Many white Americans fear being called the “R” (Racist) word and many black Americans fear that they will be misinterpreted. We may share the same planet, but we do not share the same experiences.
As we become more sensitive to racism, it becomes more evident that inadvertent and overt racism is a part of our everyday conversation. Microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidation can happen anywhere.
Microassaults refer to language or behavior that demeans. They can be inadvertent (e.g., using the term “blacks” instead of “black Americans”; using the term “Oriental” instead of “Asian”) or deliberate (e.g., displaying the confederate flag).
Microinsults are insensitive remarks which demean someone by race (e.g., I can’t believe that you got into the University of Maryland, or how did you get that job?). Again, they can be overt, accidental or reflect an implicit bias. Finally, microinvalidation minimizes the impact of color (e.g., I don’t see race; all lives matter). As with the other aggressions, these microassaults can be overt, accidental or reflective of underlying racism.
Let me give you a personal example. When I was running for the Board of Education, I had “meet and greet” events hosted in the homes of my black American supporters. At the end of one meeting, I complimented my hosts’ driveway and noted that my husband and I had considered that same material, but it was out of our price range. I discovered later I had insulted my hosts who felt that I questioned why they could afford a driveway that I couldn’t (the hosts were medical doctors). Then I asked myself…would I have made the same compliment to white doctors? Bottom line, racial conversations are fraught with minefields, both intentional and unintentional.
Question: How can we have a conversation that defuses these minefields?
Dr. Andersen: I think we have to develop trust and empathy across racial lines. That can start in immediate friendships and other relationships but can also happen in small groups if facilitators work to establish an atmosphere of trust. But we must be honest and white people must be willing to listen to the voices of people of color and not acting like they already know all about race and racism. For all of us, this will mean being uncomfortable at times, but honestly, some of the most transformative moments in my own understandings of racism have come when I might have been uncomfortable but learned from listening. If this can’t happen through personal relationships, for whatever reason, you can learn through reading, film, art, and other sources. There is, however, no substitute for strong, individual relationships across racial and ethnic lines.
Question: As a final note, would you say that things are getting better or worse among the races and why?
Dr. Andersen: The long road to racial justice is a bumpy one. Many have believed that we were achieving a “post-racial” society, but events over the last few years have shown us that there is a deep vein of racial animosity in this society and you cannot assume that change will always be for the better. There are signs of greater racial empathy and collaboration. Many families include multiracial relatives and people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. We know that greater social contact, especially close and personal contact, reduces racial prejudice. But the resurgence of white supremacy and the extreme extent of racial segregation, especially in neighborhoods and schools, are doing our nation great damage. I must, however, remaining hopeful that we can get smarter about race or I would not be continuing my role as an educator and writer about this critical national issue.
I believe that we have to learn as much as we can to get better. I am looking forward to reading Dr. Margaret Andersen’s book, Getting Smart about Race: An American Conversation available on Amazon this February 2020.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.