Is there a subject that is sure to make the average American more uncomfortable than race? In my experience as an outsider (foreigner) looking in, the answer is undoubtedly “no.” But it’s no secret too that I take a particular interest in talking about race.
That interest is personal – I’m a Black Nigerian woman living in the United States – America’s constructions of race directly affect me. That interest is academic and professional – my scholarship mostly entails multiculturalism, of which my focus often centers on race. And I write publicly about race so as to educate and advocate.
As I write this, #Ferguson trends. A year after the death of Mike Brown, the city has not healed. In fact, St. Louis county is in an official state of emergency. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us because change is a difficult thing.
And the kind of change that Ferguson needs is not one that occurs within a year. It does not occur when a police officer leaves a place of contention, of which many believe he took a teenager’s life without just cause. And even the legal proceedings that would have proved his innocence or his guilt, were ignored.
The kind of change Ferguson needs is the kind that is needed in Baltimore, in Oakland, in Chicago, and from Staten Island, New York City to Sanford, Florida. The kind of change that is needed is the kind that an entire nation must undergo, on behalf of their descendants, and for their children’s children. It is the kind of change that is painful and terrifying and the stuff of true courage. It seems the nation forgets too often, but to borrow from Harper Lee, courage is more than a man [person] with a gun.
The courage to be a part of this change exists at the institutional level – where everything from education to housing to employment to health care becomes tarnished with America’s deep-seated racism. Changing this is the work of many generations. But there exists too a courage that is individual. It is a courage that begins with the discomfort of having to confront and question all you’ve been told.
For many – for the majority of those who exist in power and privilege as far as identity goes – it begins with the willingness to question the reality you live in; to admit that reality does not belong to everyone. Standpoint is important. Because how can we even begin honest conversations about race when we cannot agree that you and I live in the same world, but because of history and all that it brings, that world is unequal and just? We do not experience the world the same way as each other.
And many cannot admit this. Many refuse to see that one’s perception of the world is not the only one that exists. And indeed that goes for everyone, but especially those who exist in social positions of power. But if you want to find how well a society is doing in any one subject, you ask the least privileged and least powerful – and it is there that you will find your most important answers.
The truth is not always easy or simple. But the truth is an empty stomach, a long, hard day that becomes long hard months trying to make ends meet; the truth is a dead body in the ground. The truth is racism prevails in the United States in 2015 in a way that is sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious. But it is always terrifying.
I find there is little courage when people are asked to admit these truths. Perhaps that is what is so frustrating about our conversations on race. We seem to disagree fundamentally on the fundamentals – depending on who you are. Sometimes it is a matter of mere education and other times, it is willful ignorance.
You can’t force people to believe what you believe. But you can provide sound arguments, you can observe and explain social experiences of different groups – you can show patterns. But ultimately people must be left to their own devices to make up their own minds. The problem of course is that before we approach these conversations, many minds are already made up. The science, the stories, the realities cease to matter. It is unfortunate.
I do not think however, that because these conversations are almost impossible that they should not be tried for. On the contrary, I believe that trying to do the impossible is necessary. As a young girl living in Botswana at the time, we would make quips such as telling people something that was unlikely, was about as likely as the United States having a Black president. The impossible happened.
Apart from education, apart from the willingness to make one’s self uncomfortable, empathy and humility must be at the forefront of conversations on all social experiences, and because of this country’s history, especially race. Of course empathy and humility are hard to legislate, and you certainly can’t teach them. Those things, I think, you garner from life and experience and encounters with people who are very different from you – and yet you fall in love with those people.
Let us talk about race. Let us do it with courage. And for those who will get left behind, let them get left behind. History has shown that some people must always be left behind. I read too somewhere recently that any movement needs long-term revolutionaries, not short-term radicals. Let’s each take that to heart.
When we talk about race, we talk about so many different things with so many complexities. It can be overwhelming. But if we start talking honestly, with the desire to see multiple realities, and the willingness to change, the conversation and the work that belongs to several generations in bringing about equality and justice, does not seem so insurmountable. The impossible can happen.