All of the recent hullabaloo about blackface in some of our politicians’ pasts can be an opportunity for a renewed public discussion. As Gene Demby from NPR’s “Code Switch” program has said, calls for racial dialogue rarely lead to any real process, much less actual change.
But perhaps the blackface controversy represents an opportunity for renewed dialogue about long-neglected racial issues. As someone who tends to think a lot about effective dialogue, here is my personal take on some tips for what needs to happen for that dialogue to be successful.
(Be prepared for the fact that, while some of these tips apply to everyone, some of them are most suitable for specific segments of the population).
Tip 1, for everyone: Put the public back into public dialogue. Too often, we define “public dialogue” to be something that is confined to what happens on talk radio and Sunday morning pundit shows.
Celebrities and politicians talking is fine, but each of us must do our part. We all need to be talking about blackface and our perspectives on it at the dinner table, at church, over the fence with neighbors, at crochet meetings and wherever else we congregate.
And we don’t need to wait until some far-off future, when these settings become interracial.
Tip 2, for everyone: Stop being shocked about racial divides and start working on them. The inescapable fact is that racial divisions exist in our minds, hearts and social lives. They are deep and enduring, but changeable. Some illustrations:
- Studies show that blacks and Latinos trust whites significantly less than they do their own groups, and report higher levels of distrust across the white/minority divide than whites have across this divide.
- 32 percent of whites think that black people are less industrious (i.e., lazier) than whites. As shocking as this is, this figure is down from 60 percent in 1990.
- About 75 percent of whites do not have any people of color in their groups of seven closest friends. Just under two-thirds of people of color don’t have any whites in their circles.
Instead of being shocked by and lamenting these realities, we need to be having conversations with people who look like us about these kinds of questions:
Why is there a lack of cross-racial contact with people in my circle? Should this matter to me? What can we do about it?
- Are there lingering resentments that people in our group have toward other groups that we don’t like to admit but that we need to start talking about?
Tip 3, for white folks: Get up to speed on blackface. Google is your friend, so do a little reading and watch an instructive video or two. Even better, before you accost Jamaal from accounting in the lunch room, have a conversation with a white friend or two where you can begin to sort out your feelings about blackface as well as do some learning. People of color might be happy to share their perspective with you, but this is not their job, and they may not want to participate. But that need not stop your learning.
Tip 4, for white folks: Remember that this is a sensitive topic, though perhaps not for you. When you are defending your niece Suzie’s freedom to, “in good fun,” darken her skin to portray Beyoncé at Halloween, remember that what you see is not what others see.
With reasonable justification, many people of color will see Suzie as the modern-day version of a tradition of racial mockery that goes back to the 1830s. Even if Suzie’s intent is benign, the impact matters.
Tip 5, for people of color: Try to give white folks some grace on their limited racial literacy. One trick of modern racism is that it keeps people unaware of itself. While your family and friends have been talking about racial imagery and hierarchies since you were playing with Legos, most white folks have not — and the education system is designed to not help them.
So, while it is not your job to educate every white person who asks you a question they could have Googled, you do not encourage more curiosity by slamming people for getting up the gumption to ask naïve questions.
Tip 6, for people of color: Talk courageously about black folks’ response to blackface, and more speculatively about white folks’ motivations. When talking about blackface, we are on safe ground in discussing how the documented history of this dehumanizing practice has made us feel and continues this degradation.
The fact is, this history has made us sensitive to it, and we should be honest about that. Little Suzie wanting to darken her skin so she reminds folks of Beyoncé might not reflect a deep-seated racial animus, even if pushes our historical racial buttons. So, as we collectively settle on the convention that blackface is verboten, let’s not act as if all intent is the same.
Tip 7, for everyone: Acknowledge your own sensitivities as well as ignorance about what others are thinking. With some dialogue based on open-hearted and open-minded curiosity and personal engagement, we might be able to turn Virginia’s crisis into something positive.