How many times have you hear it said that finding a solution to the ongoing racial strife in this country would be much easier if people talked about it more? That statement has been made many times over the years by people yearning for racial harmony. Following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and others too numerous to list here, amicable people – black and white – keep reiterating “Let’s talk.”
Is race relations an issue that people really want to discuss or is it simply that some individuals merely pay lip service to the idea of dialoguing, because they think that’s what blacks want to hear?
I’m pondering this question because recently there was an interesting discussion on a genealogy website concerning whether – in addition to other atrocities — some black infants born to slaves were used by whites as alligator bait. The conversation began after one of the members of the gen group posted a post card and video relevant to the subject. (You can see it when you click on the link.) Several of the group members commented on the topic. Some said that it could have happened, others said it was a myth.
Curiosity about this subject led me to check the Library of Congress online newspapers. My search revealed that in newspapers published from 1836-1922 alligator bait was mentioned in 119 papers. I reviewed 24 of those 119 before abandoning the task. At least nine of the 24 made direct reference to black children (and in some cases black adults) as alligator bait, including the February 5, 1899 edition of The Richmond Times.
Whether the “gator babies” account is truth or not isn’t as much an issue as the fact that at least one member of the gen group stated that the information should not have been posted on the site because it had nothing to do with genealogy. That statement led to another member replying that even if the story could be neither proved nor invalidated, a discussion about it might be useful to some of the people tracing their ancestry.
I’ve seen similar debates on a different subject occur on neighborhood Listservs. Although the Listserv members usually discuss things occurring in the community: slow mail delivery, loud neighbors, illegally parked cars, etc., the discussion occasionally concerns race. For example, a new business opening in the area. Often the news of a new business is well received, providing that is is not specifically identified as a black-owned business. Sometimes it is simply the reference to race that fans the flames.
“Why did you have to say it was a black-owned business?” A member of the group might ask. “Why not simply say that a new business opened?”
The retort from another member would be something like this, “Because we don’t have that many black-owned businesses opening up and I thought it was worth mentioning.”
And thus the bickering begins, with people often siding along racial lines until an intermediary intervenes.
My point is that many people say that we ought to talk about race matters, but sometimes when a race-based subject is brought up, someone calls “Time out!”
I understand peace-loving people wanting to circumvent any discussions about race when the milieu is hostile, but absent that negative, what is the harm of having a civil dialogue when the occasion arises? As I have witnessed, open-minded people seize the opportunity to have a relevant conversation about race matters – past or present – while others avoid it as if it were the Ebola virus.
It seems that overall people have no problem discussing LGBT issues, same-sex marriage, politics or religion, but discussions about race, in a mixed-race group, is off-limits, unless the group was convened specifically for that purpose. Obviously, dialogs about race make some people uncomfortable.
In a Huffington Post article, “Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism,” Dr. Dr. Robin DiAngelo, associate professor of critical multicultural and social justice education at Westfield State University, theorizes that discussion about race “trigger racial stress for white people.” To be fair, I will add, that it sometimes raises the anxiety – and probably the blood pressure – in black people, too. Yet, I have friends in both racial groups who have no problem discussing race, in fact, many welcome the opportunity.
Silence and detachment are as dangerous as turning a blind eye to individual and institutional racism. Discussions relevant to the history and the current status of black Americans is as important to us as times past and present is significant to other racial groups.
Whether we want to seize an opportunity to discuss the possibility of slaves used as alligator bait or the senseless killings of black people by police officers, the dialog is what is important.
I can’t recall where I read the following quote, and therefore am unable to identify the author. Nevertheless, it adequately sums up the issue concerning communication – or the lack thereof – between the races, “For white people, talking about race is uncomfortable. For people of color, it’s a necessity.”