One of the most important things in life is to learn how to get along with people, especially people who are unlike you. One of the best ways to connect with others is through face to face conversations. The trouble is, people tend to avoid talking about serious topics, such as politics or religion. Race is another topic commonly avoided. However, because it is one of the most pressing issues in today’s society, it needs to be talked about and understood.
“There is no substitution for conversation,” world history and journalism teacher Reid Westrem said. “When my wife and I were in the Peace Corps, we experienced firsthand what it was like to be the outsider, the immigrant, the minority. In talking about that with other Americans, we were able to get to that deeply personal level of conversation. In general, people fear awkward subjects, but if you can get over it and trust other people, you can have meaningful conversations and the payoff is huge.”
When it comes to understanding the subject of race, it’s good to follow current events and read books, but the best approach is to have authentic conversations because it’s simply learning about people from people. How can you do this?
Remember that race is a social/cultural construct and is not scientifically based.
Race is a concept, not a scientific fact. It is something humans have invented, not discovered. Biologically, there is one race – the human race. Of course, individuals inherit certain traits from their parents through their genes, but these differences are strictly superficial.
Scientists say there are no biological distinctions in humans that make one race superior, or even definable. “Race is not a biological reality among humans; there are no human biological races,” writes Washington University anthropology professor Robert Wald Sussman in his book, The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea (Harvard University Press, 2014).
In recent centuries, Sussman explains that science has been misused to support racism. American supporters of slavery, for example, believed that Europeans were racially superior to Africans.
However, modern scientists agree, Sussman adds, that “there is no inherent relationship between intelligence, law-abidingness, or economic practices and race, just as there is no relationship between nose size, height, blood group, or skin color and any set of complex behaviors.”
Unlike scientifically proven facts like gravity and force, many researchers have defined race as a socially constructed, which means they are concepts humans invent, such as “masculinity” or “middle class.” These descriptors were created to make an idea easier for humans to describe the world. But, they can also lead to misunderstandings and overgeneralizations.
When having a conversation about race, understand the language you are using. The words “European,” “Asian” or “African,” are used often, but remember that these words actually describe continents, which are socially constructed concepts. “Asia,” for example, refers to an enormous land mass with a diverse population, yet when people talk about “Asian-Americans,” the diversity is often lost.
“Race is a grouping of people based on physical characteristics,” said diversity director Paulita Todhunter. “[Earlier in history, it was used] to separate people and know who’s who and where they should go. Now, it’s intersected with culture and nationality, and in some cases, intersected with ethnicity.”
Realize that cultural interpretations of race can vary with individuals.
“We must remember that although race does not represent a biological reality, the cultural reality of race is real,” Sussman writes. “Although people are different, the main differences are due to the realities of their upbringing, to their culture.”
One thing to avoid in a conversation about race is stereotyping other people’s cultures. As Sierra Takushi described in “What it means to be African American at M.A.” (Talon issue #2), Minnehaha students each have their own definition and interpretation of what their culture means to them.
Treat everyone as an individual, not as a representative of a group.
A person should not expect an individual to be able to explain the viewpoint of everyone that happens to be a member of the same group. Each person is an individual and thus has his or her own individual experiences and personal reactions to events in his or her life.
College counselor Lauren Bae, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and focused her graduate-school research on ethnic identity development and its role in well-being (academic achievement, self-esteem and mental health), explains that there are major concerns when one expects an individual to speak for their entire racial group.
“The diversity is so vast, that you really can’t categorize a group of people as one way,” she said, “and the best way to truly understand a person is to reach out to bridge the gap and ask, ‘What’s it like to walk a day in your shoes?’”
Therefore, questions like “What do African Americans think about police brutality?” can be an unfair generalization of opinions. Instead, one should ask, “what do you think?” on a more personal level.
Remember that one race doesn’t represent racism
With recent police shootings of young black men and related protests reported in the news, attention has been focused on racism towards African Americans. However, it is crucial to note that many other minority groups experience racial hardships as well.
“We need to move into conversations about all the groups of our country,” Todhunter said, “especially Native American, Hispanic and Asian.”
Bae, who was born in South Korea, adds that it is also very important to understand the history behind each ethnic group, while being mindful of individual differences.
“For example, in the ‘70s, not all, but many Southeast Asians fled their homeland as refugees to seek humanitarian protection,” she said. “In contrast, immigrants from East Asia at that time came to the US seeking better economic opportunities. Today, we continue to have a large number of Asian immigrants from many different regions, and it’s important to remember that they vary in their historical, cultural and linguistic traditions.”
Get to know people before you ask personal questions
When approaching a conversation, avoid blurting out blatant stereotypical questions or comments like, “You must like basketball, right?” A generalized question based on a stereotype can leave people feeling targeted.
If having a discussion about race is considered a difficult task, then one should not simply jump into a conversation with strangers and ask questions that are intrusive. One cannot expect immediate openness from a stranger. Instead, a focus should be placed on building trust in order to reach a deeper, more meaningful conversation.
“People should be considerate with whether or not a person of color wants to answer a question or [is] uncomfortable,” senior D’Artagnan Urich said. “It’s important to make people feel comfortable before asking bigger questions and get to know the person before you ask any difficult questions.”
By getting to know someone on a personal level, a genuine impression is made instead of relying on a stereotyped opinion held before.
“History has shown us societies where people have blended peacefully, and societies where diversity produces conflict,” Westrem said. “Diversity prevents us with a beautiful challenge. Segregated societies face an ugly challenge. When people are separated, they lack the opportunity to know each other on a personal level. When you know someone personally, stereotypes will fall apart. In a segregated society, stereotypes flourish.”
Remember that positive stereotyping is still stereotyping
Some assume that positive stereotypes cannot offend, simply because the stereotype seems to be complimentary.
“From an Asian-American standpoint, a lot of people get away with saying the whole ‘you study a lot, you’re good at math’ [viewpoint], just because it’s supposed to be positive,” said junior Kai Gunderson.
While it can be meant to be positive, the assumption also places a pressure to conform to the stereotype, causing feelings of inferiority if the mold doesn’t fit.
“A positive stereotype can be damaging, because then people don’t take the time to get to know someone on a personal level,” Bae said. “They just assume something about you, even if it is a ‘positive’ trait. Can you imagine if you were an Asian student who wasn’t good at math? You would feel as though you didn’t live up to the expectation.”
Understand that some aspects of race relations are institutional and some are individual
As defined by a recent chapel performance by Theater on Purpose, a University of Northwestern-St. Paul student group, white privilege is the “ability not to recognize racism unless you want to.” The emphasis of this definition is the jarring distinction between the daily realities of the majority and the minorities.
The majority does not have to bat an eye at the injustices of the world if they do not wish to, because typically they do not have to face it on a daily basis. For some minorities, on the other hand, their daily reality is racism.
Todhunter explained that being a bystander is really just another way of supporting the systemic racism present in today’s society.
“We need to hone in on a topic, get the knowledge, feel it with our heart, and ask ‘what can we do?’’ she said. “It’s about moving with your feet and contributing to the solution. That’s the way we can eradicate racism, where we are contributing to anti-racism. It’s not enough to say you’re not a racist. The first step is to get knowledge. Figure out the history of our country, and why you have privilege. From there, figure out what you want to do with it.”
Try to move past guilt and blame
“I almost feel guilty, even if I haven’t personally done anything racist or intentionally used white privilege in my life,” senior Lily Bjorlin said.
“Guilt is a natural reaction to being told that you have been treated better than others for something as little as the color of your skin,” Todhunter said. “Guilt will diminish when you choose to work towards anti-racism, when you choose to use your privilege to advance others rather than call yourself a bad person.”
With the same logic, universal blame should not be placed as well. It is important to distinguish between whether an individual is personally responsible for injustice, or if it is a systemic issue. The point is, one should not get stuck in a blaming game or mess of guilt, because a solution will never be reached.
Stay focused on the purpose of having a conversation
“[Conversations about race] lead to a greater understanding and new perspective on people that may or may not be different than us,” principal Jason Wenschlag said. “It allows us to understand other cultures when we are having conversations. We say it’s ‘about race,’ but when you’re having a conversation ‘about race’ you’re not having a conversation about whether they’re black, or white, or Asian, or whatever ethnicity they are, but instead you’re having a talk about where they grew up and what their perspectives are. You quickly go from a very surfacy conversation about race to everything else that’s underneath that iceberg, like culture. That’s the important part.”
When the necessity for a conversation is addressed formally in a school community setting, students may feel that there is a major issue of racism needing to be addressed.
“I want our kids to be prepared for when they’re adults to have conversations with people that are different than them,” Wenschlag said. “When we have these conversations as a school, it’s not necessarily about addressing an issue going on here but realizing that this is the world. You’re going to have difficult conversations, and we want you better prepared to talk about the topics. At some schools, they protect their students from having difficult conversations, and you don’t reach past the surface of just teaching and learning.”
Go beyond conversation and gain real experiences with other people
“One of the most significant societal issues is polarization,” cultural field experience director Amy Swanson said. “There’s such a big emphasis about what is different with people and not on what we have in common. You’ll see there are actually so many more things you will have in common with a person than what is different from them when you actually get to know them. We can read about it, you can have a conversation about race, we can talk and talk and talk, but it doesn’t affect us in a deep, transformative way until you have an actual experience … and get to know and interact with someone different than you. CFE tries to set up opportunities where this can happen, and kids can see a new perspective.”
What is important is to get outside, experience and reflect on stories. Hearing a personal experience can be deeply influential in changing or solidifying a pre-existing opinion in one’s mind.
Everyone has his or her own story accompanied with their own unique experiences. One cannot predict how a conversation can run, but these guidelines will most likely allow for a more thoughtful, meaningful conversation. “It doesn’t have to be an awkward conversation to have, because it’s just getting to know the people you are around and associated with,” junior Jose Williamson said. “At the end of the day, we’re all people, aside from skin tones and race culture, we’re all students, just growing up in the same area. You just have to be yourself and be open to having conversations with people that don’t look like you, and just get to know people and their stories.”