Thirdeyemom

Why is it so hard to talk about race in America?

“Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome”. – Rosa Parks

I’ve always been an avid reader and the more I travel, the more I want to read and learn about different cultures and perspectives around the world. Lately however I’ve been on a quest to learn more about our own country and identity, and reexamine my own personal beliefs and perspectives. What is the American culture and where is it headed? As a nation based on immigration and “life, liberty and justice for all” why does racism and other intolerances and hatred still continue to exist and why does it exist so strongly?

Recent events have made me question our country and the intolerance of some people who judge others based on race, sex, homosexuality, class and religion. As these issues come to a head and play in our minds, some are improved (such as gay marriage rights) while others continue to be ignored. The increased police brutality against black young men has been on the news 24/7 yet has our conversation really even begin to touch the real roots of racism? Are we as a nation truly able to speak honestly and openly about race and what it means to be black in this country? No.

In order to answer these questions, I’ve done a lot of soul searching and reading. I devoured Maya Angelou’s famous book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and just last week I completed the brilliant novel “Americanah” by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which brings the issue of race, class and status of immigrants in America to an entirely new level. Quite honestly, this book has really made me think about race issues in America and in a very different, unsettling way. It has also dismantled the American Dream quite easily but I’ve never been that naive to believe that simply coming to America would be a cure for all.

Our multi-cultural team to Haiti. How I wish these lovely ladies all lived here!

Our multi-cultural team to Haiti. How I wish these lovely ladies all lived here! All my friends in Minnesota sadly look like me. Although the population has become much more ethnically diverse over the last 20 years, communities are still segregated economically and racially.

Before reading Americanah, I’ve often thought about race. We live in the city of Minneapolis and my children go to urban public schools. In our little bubble world in Southwest Minneapolis, most of the students in my children’s elementary school are white. However, we do have a handful of Spanish-speaking kids, Somali-Americans, Asian-Americans and African-American students. Our school is one of the best schools in the district with student achievement tests well above state averages. But this is not at all the same for the dozens of other schools in the district in which 80-100% of the student population are students of color, receive free or reduced lunch, and the achievement levels are faltering, further reinforcing a vicious cycle of poverty and segregation.

Like many parts of the United States, our city is highly segregated which in my opinion is truly a tragedy. If more families of different ethnicities, religions and class could integrate, it would be a much richer place in which our kids would learn acceptance and tolerance of others not like themselves. Yet, realistically the majority of these families are poor and can not afford to live in Southwest Minneapolis and families like ours would not want to live in gang-ridden, rough parts of North Minneapolis either. Thus, for the most part we remain segregated based on color and class, and the few students of color that do attend my children’s school are bused in due to open enrollment.

I strongly believe having more interaction with people of different cultures, race, religions and sexual backgrounds, enrich our lives and lessen racism and intolerance. Yet I wonder how it can be achieved. You can’t just hop on a plane like I do and immerse yourself in a different culture. You need to immerse yourself in the different cultures and people in your own backyard.

Adichie’s Americanah examines what it means to be black in America by following a young intelligent Nigerian woman who comes to the US to attend college and is faced for the first time in her life with racism. Brilliantly written, Americanah makes you laugh and cry but most of all makes you wonder how on earth as a nation we can end intolerance, misunderstanding and hatred for others merely based on the color of their skin, the man or woman they love, the religion they practice and the money they make.

With rising anti-Semitism happening in Europe and other parts of the world, as well as a strong mistrust for Muslims and Christians on each side, how do we create a more tolerable, understanding world? It scares me.

The only thing I fall back to is that at least as my role as an individual and a parent, I can do my best to lead through example and teach my children the importance of being tolerable and compassionate for all human beings. It is the only hope I have. As more and more religious, ethnic and terrorist wars go on, what else can we do? It is up to us to change things and I sincerely hope we can.

It is only by talking about these touchy issues such as race, gender, sexual preference, religion, and class, that we can initiate change. Keeping it all hushed up and closed for conversation will only make it worse. Although I hesitated with writing this post on rather a “taboo” topic in the eyes of many Americans, I am glad I did it. Now I can do my duty and pass on Americanah to someone else and hopefully get the conversation flowing.

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“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word”.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
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26 comments

  1. I’m so happy to be informed about Americanah. I haven’t read it and it sounds fascinating!

    Since you didn’t offer a direct answer to the question in your title, I’ll give you one in response. It’s hard to talk about because the first requirement prior to discussion is to admit you yourself are likely to already have some racist programming simply by virtue of growing up American, which can affect your decision making in subtle, invidious ways. That’s embarrassing for any individual to admit, let alone being able as a nation to honestly state we (as a people) voluntarily maintained an evil institution (slavery) for longer than most other developed countries – for the sake of profit.

    In a moral sense, it’s terrible and uncomfortable to have to contemplate the spiritual cost of allowing human beings to be bought, sold, owned and regarded as property, even by many of those responsible for founding the country, and several past presidents. You can definitely get over your own racism, but you have to be able to see it first.

    You’ve found a good solution through travel and pushing yourself to interact with people and cultures that aren’t like ours. If you can’t actually live in a variety other places, it’s probably the next best way to expand your frame of reference.

    I grew up in Iowa and lived in the Midwest to age 28. Minneapolis is a beacon of enlightenment, as is Madison WI, in a vast sea of blind resistance to any sort of change. There are reasons they keep elevating the Michelle Bachmans and Chuck Grassleys and Steve Kings to prominence out there, mostly fear-based decision making. I’m glad you found the strength to stay there and work for positive change, and I admire you for it. I couldn’t take the glacial pace of change any more and went West in 1982. The same problems exist everywhere of course, but the attitude’s more permissive and inclusive generally here. It’s a holdover from the Old West, the tradition of re-inventing yourself, starting over and all that. Progress is progress wherever it happens though.

    • Excellent commentary! You know, it is so true. Every individual must face their own deep thoughts. For me I grew up on an exclusively white well to do suburb here and the only black kid in our school of 1200 was my best friends adopted brother (adopted into a white family in the 1970s). Seeing that and how hard his childhood was made me decide to live in the city and raise my kids here hoping for more diversity. We do have some interracial couples and gay neighbors but really not much. When I visit the east coast where my sister lives it is much less segregated. I wish it was more like that here. I’m trying to get more involved personally with different communities here but it is hard. Life is busy as a parent. Oddly enough my diverse friends have all been met through blogging. Anyway thanks so much for your thought provoking comment. Gives us more to think of and yes we all hold preconceived notions of people. Human nature but must be overcome.

  2. Americanah was an excellent book – well-written and full of insights that I had never considered. (You might also like Half of a Yellow Sun, her previous book.) As a traveler, a professor at a bilingual Latino college, a volunteer in diverse communities, and a mother, I grapple with these issues on a regular basis. I can only hope that education, exposure and occasional immersion will slowly but surely help fight the scourge of racism in our country. I am perhaps even more concerned these days about religious intolerance (a phrase I have always thought is an oxymoron). Most faiths actively teach tolerance (and certainly love for one’s neighbor) and yet their adherents somehow use their religions to support hatred and violence against those not of their faith or in any way different from them. Studies also show that alienated people – often made to feel that way through race, class, or economic discrimination – are more inclined to join fanatical organizations (if only for a sense of belonging), thus combining the threats of racism, classism, and terrorism in a very scary new brew.

    • Great commentary Lexi! I was hoping we would get the conversation flowing. Yes, I am deeply concerned about ALL intolerance. It is so hard for me to understand it all, really. Yes the growing intolerance of different religions is very scary and I’ve been listening to a lot of remarkable podcasts lately (CSIS Smart Women Smart Power with Nina Easton) has been really educating me on a lot of what is going on in the world. It is a fascinating listen if you have the time. I remember hearing a black friend of mine when we talked about racism saying to me “I live it every day”. I often think that sometimes whites have a hard time thinking about racism because there is no way we can truly know what it is like. The only times I’ve ever felt uncomfortable about my race is when I was in India. The further I got out the more deep, soul bearing stares I got and it was very very uncomfortable. I know this is small compared to what many people face every single day of their lives due to race, sex, gender, religion, etc but it did give me a small taste of how incredibly awful it feels to be singled out like that. I truly hope we become more tolerant of differences but I’m afraid the world seems to only be getting more intolerant, more hateful and more difficult. For that I am truly sad.

  3. Excellent post, Nicole and I am looking forward to reading more responses. I grew up in a predominantly white middle class town, composed of many Hungarian and German immigrants. When we decided to explore our roots, we were led us to a little town in Germany where everyone’s last name was Goehring. It was in this quaint little town where we discovered that Herman Goering was a distant relative. At first, we were horrified. How could such an evil person be related? I was embarrassed and remained silent for many years as to our ancestry. Kind of like how Ben Affleck didn’t want anyone to know he was a descendant of a slave owner.
    I think it’s so hard to talk about race because we are fearful. Fearful of being judged, fearful of not belonging, fearful or not being loved. So many of the problems we face in the world today stem from fear. Once we opened the door and invited vulnerability into our lives, we had incredibly insightful conversations with our German relatives on a range of topics like white supremacy, race, greed, and fear.
    Thinking way outside the box here…maybe a way to open doors to a discussion of race is to have a DNA test done to determine heritage. It may be surprising. I know it changed my life.

    • Thanks Debbie for the commentary! I was hoping I’d get more and so far am surprised to only have a few comments! Maybe it is because people don’t want to talk about race like the title of my post implies??? Regardless, that is an interesting take from your perspective. I look at my ancestry and it is Swedish from my dad’s side (MN is a HUGE Scandinavian population with many blond hair blue eyes) and German/Russian on my mother’s side. I don’t know anything about my ancestors who came to the US. What is interesting about Minnesota is how much it has changed since my youth. Now we have the largest Somali population in the world outside of Somalia. We also have many Hispanics, Indians, Hmong, and other populations. It is truly becoming more of a melting pot yet very very segregated. The communities mostly keep too themselves and that I find sad because I think integration is key in making our country a better place. It will be interesting to see what happens here in the next 20 years. I hope it is for the better.

  4. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of ‘Americanah’ Nicole. This is a very troubling issue that I have no answers for, except I have found that immersing myself in other cultures has helped to make me a more tolerant, compassionate woman. I do know however, that many do not have the means nor the desire to travel as some of us do. Where I grew up in small town Illinois, there was one black family and they were not allowed to swim at our beach, which I found to be heartbreaking. Lucky for me, one of the boys was my age and he quickly became part of our group. Living in Mexico for a year helped to break some of the stereotypes I had heard so often when living in Phoenix, where gang violence was a reality. And, of course, in this country it is in our face daily when we see how our own President is treated. Very distressing indeed. Beautifully written post Nicole.

    • Thanks LuAnn! It is one of the best books I’ve read in years. It is right on target. Yes I agree we are lucky to be able to travel and for us, to live in the city. When my kids go to high school they will be the minority. I hope to raise them so they understand that tolerance, acceptance of differences and compassion are critical in this world for making it a better place.

    • You’re welcome Sally. These are my favorite posts to write but the least read, least commented on and the least shared. Oh well. Glad I wrote it though.

  5. I really like your honest and informal approach to this difficult topic. I try to take time to be as aware and informed and reflective about these issues as I can, but it is easy to get into a routine of a comfortable existence where I’m not having to fear for me or my family’s personal safety, and skip doing the learning and listening and thinking it takes to be a good contributor in the world. Thanks for doing this and helping us do it too, at least for these few minutes.

  6. This is a very good post and I am glad you wrote it. I believe that you, as a mother, have the power to influence and teach your children to be accepting, respectful, and kind to everyone. My mother, who I only saw every other weekend growing up, taught me not to be racist, that women can love women and men can love men, and that being poor or rich does not determine what kind of person you are, all by the time I was ten years old. Many of the lessons she told me very bluntly and made it very clear how serious she was about them – I remember each instance like it was yesterday. I am very glad that she made it such a point to explain it to me, as no one else in my life even talked about race, S.E.S, or being homosexual. I am sure your children will be the future that our country needs if they are anything like you!

  7. maamej

    A lovely, thoughtful post & interesting comments too. It really is one of life’s big questions, why people are so intolerant. I think it comes down to fear of difference a lot of the time, and in the case of countries born of colonialism, like the US and Australia, a lot of defensiveness (on the part of white people) about our past. I’m actually writing about this in a post I plan to publish later this week, which is also, coincidentally, related to a book. I do think it’s vitally important that white people talk about racism and acknowledge it it in ourselves and our families, or nothing will ever change, so good on you.

    • Thanks for the thought provoking comment. Yes fear of the unknown creates intolerance and hate. I agree we have so much past history of awful behavior too towards people that it is sometimes hard to erase. I hope someday it dissipates.

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