Who am I to talk about race?


I had a conversation with a friend recently who said something to the effect that the reason people don’t object to my discussions about race and race issues is because I am black. Specifically, they don’t want to express any disagreement they may have with me because my status as a minority means I get to set the rules, and disagreement would look like racism. While I don’t think his/her statement was accurate in the specific case of people who read this blog (who are, for the moment, predominantly personal friends of mine or people who get here from comments I leave around the internet that link here), he/she may have a point for the population in general. It may be that nobody wants to disagree with a black guy about racial stuff because they don’t want to look hateful.

I would honestly hope that isn’t the case for me. I have been trying my best to lay out the reasons for why I think what I do, and provide evidence (wherever possible, or at least corroborating opinions) to back my beliefs up. As I do with my discussions of free speech, religion, and other important topics, I try to lay out a case for where my opinions come from. I provide and encourage a forum for people to disagree with me, and engage in robust discussion.

Be that as it may, there may still be people who disagree with me, but won’t say anything. I want to take this opportunity to explain where I’m coming from in all of this, and what my “qualifications” are to talk about race.

1. Being black doesn’t make you an expert on race

I grew up in mostly white communities. I went to a Catholic elementary school in which I was the only black kid in the class, of 2 in my grade. I went to a high school in a program where there weren’t a lot of black kids in my classes. I went to university in Waterloo, Ontario and did my graduate degree in Kingston, Ontario – neither town is exactly known for its large population of black folks. I now live in Vancouver, BC – again, not a bustling African Diaspora metropolis. My life and upbringing are about as far from the stereotypical black experience (at least the one that makes it into popular media) as you can get. There are white and Asian kids who know far more than I ever will about growing up in the “black” parts of the city – “growing up black”. I self-identify as a black person, despite this upbringing. Being black does not mean being “urban” – there are countless different “black experiences” that are all equally valid.

2. I don’t have an academic background in race, psychology, or anthropology

I took a handful of courses in undergrad, mostly for personal interest, in psych. I did a lot of private reading about philosophy and books with black characters. I’ve seen Roots a bunch of times. I don’t have what you would call a robust academic background. If pressed for specifics, I would be quickly overrun by anyone who is 2 years into a bachelor’s degree in social psych, or anyone who’s been to a historically black college for just about any subject. Nothing in my academic history makes me any kind of expert.

3. I can’t claim to speak for black people

My upbringing does not give me some magical authority to speak on behalf of all black people. I don’t know a lot of black people, to be honest. As noted earlier, I didn’t grow up around a lot of black kids. Most of the black kids I do know had childhoods similar to mine. Even now as an adult I am not deeply entrenched in “the black community”, which I say in quotations because it’s entirely mythical. Black people, like tall people, or Greek people, or people born in the 80s, do not have “a community” except insofar as we recognize when issues affect us all. People group themselves by any number of arbitrary (or non-arbitrary) characteristics. The larger the group, the more difficult it is to point to any one person and say “(s)he represents what we all think.” I cannot, nor will I, claim to be able to speak on behalf of anyone except myself, and perhaps a few of my friends.

So what the hell am I talking for?

There are two main factors that make me at least somewhat qualified to speak about these issues, and that make my opinions at least worth listening to.

The first of these is my racial heritage. While I self-identify as black, it is more mathematically accurate to say I am half black and half white. Of course the whole idea of anyone being half of something implies that it is possible to be pure something, and that idea is as unscientific as it is offensive. As I said above, I spent most of my life as a self-identifying black person among white people. When I got older and went out of my way to make black friends, I found myself feeling “not black enough”, or at least not as black as those who had been around other black people their whole lives. This experience gave me a unique perspective: I can look at race from an entirely outside perspective, having a foot in either camp but a home in neither. I will never know what it is like to be a non-black person, and I won’t even pretend to be able to speak on behalf of white people, but I have spent most of my life in white company, and have shared some very interesting and revealing conversations with my white friends about race.

The second factor in my qualifications is that I am happy and eager to talk about race and racial issues. I relish robust discussion. While I am constantly worried that I will get something horribly wrong and my position might get twisted to suggest that I want racial supremacy or segregation or something of the sort, I am willing to deal with that fear. I find often, in my conversations with all kinds of people, that as soon as racial issues come up, people immediately shut down and refuse to speak for fear of being misconstrued. I might not like hearing ignorance, but I won’t condemn someone for saying what’s on their mind. It’s only through open, honest and vigorous discussion that important issues become resolved. Ignoring them is not helping.

What my whole history has made me is the kind of person you want talking about race. From a black perspective I have at least somewhat informed ideas, and can get in touch intuitively with those things that resonate with the general population of black people. From a non-black perspective I am someone who understands a bit what it’s like to look at racial groups from an outsider’s perspective, and so won’t immediately get my back up whenever someone says something impolitic. From both sides I am a skeptic and a scientific observer whose criterion for the value of an idea or theory is results rather than whatever makes people feel good.

This kind of reads like a self-congratulatory piece, and it is not intended in that way. In any issue, there needs to be a number of different voices articulating different sides. I like to think that my role in this is to give people the vocabulary and the tools which allow them the courage to speak about their perspective on race and racial issues.

A number of people have said to me that they’re glad to see someone talking about this, since they don’t feel qualified to do so themselves. That’s nice to hear, but you’d have to work pretty hard to be less qualified than me, and it won’t take that much effort to surpass me. Everyone has a position or an opinion about race, even if it’s just to say “racial issues don’t play much of a role in my day-to-day life.” We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it, and if my essays help spur a discussion, then I’m happy to continue to write them. As I’ve consistently said (and will continue to say), the issues of racial disparity and conflict will not merely dissipate with time. Like any major social issue, it must be discussed openly and without fear. It is only through such fearless and robust debate that progress can be made, and I am trying my best to get the conversation started.

Comments

  1. Kendra Ferris says

    I’ve been reading through a number of your posts today, so this comment is a response to a number of different topics.

    It’s safe to say that white folk likely shut down because we have never had to articulate a stance on racial issues.

    We’ve always talked about Brampton as providing a unique cultural experience. Even growing up in Brampton, race was never something that my family discussed around the kitchen table. Various courses in women’s studies and literary theory helped me to begin questioning norms and I obviously brought those questions home and into conversation with friends.

    It quickly became clear that white may not be the norm, but it is still the standard. There is a complex power structure that I can’t begin to understand, but I know it’s there. For that reason, it’s why it’s even more important for white people to discuss race, not from a guilt-ridden “sorry about colonialism” place, but from a place of understanding and self-assessment. Plant those seeds!

  2. says

    I never know who’s reading this stuff, so it’s a bit scary when I put it out there. I’m glad some of it resonates with you, as I’m never sure how much of my own personal experience can be abstracted to others. There was one thing you said “a complex power structure that I can’t begin to understand” that gives me pause. I think we can begin to understand the power structure. It’s complicated, definitely, but there are a lot of things that are complicated that we can know something about, and I think we should keep trying.

    I’m glad you are able to talk to your friends (like me) about racial issues. Knowing the people who you were close to (at least back then), you’re in a very advantageous position; not just because your group of friends was multi-ethnic, but because they weren’t the kind of people who would shut down an honest question simply because it ruffled feathers. I hope you’re still in a position to talk about those kinds of issues, and please believe I have no interest in shutting up about them :P

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. Justa Notha says

    I think that growing up as biracial in a white area definitely “qualifies” you to speak about race. You have the perspective of an outsider, and while you may not be intimate with the ins-and-outs of “black culture,” you know what it’s like to see things from a different perspective from those you grew up with. You also know that people respond to you as black, whatever you choose for your identification.

    I’m Jewish (or half-Jewish, assuming religion is something you can be half-of) And I may choose not to identify as Jewish due to my Pagan tendencies…I may even be able to “pass”….but to an anti-semite I’ll always be a Jew.

    I’m white and I talk about race. I don’t know if I’m qualified, it’s just something I think about way too much. I get so frustrated with the assumptions that I see people of many races having towards each other.

  4. says

    Thanks for your perspective, Justa Notha. The whole idea of race being anything other than a psychological shortcut really does break down when people begin exploring (and having kids) outside their own in-group. It’s good that you’re talking about the subject, and I hope you keep it up.

  5. collinmerenoff says

    Do you have a discussion on how to remove the racial bias from school entrance tests? I have an idea that is embarrassingly controversial, and I’d like to compare it with yours.

  6. says

    My sister is a white person who has a history of what I call “Integrated” relationships. Her kids are overall biracial/mixed, and we interact very democratically as a family, gramma, aunty me, my sister and her 3 kids. I’m only now coming to a place where I feel like it is time to really talk about things and get past the personal ignorance and discomfort. So I am lurking. Learning and talking humbly and a little bit here and there.

    I just found out about you because someone else was sad about your last and final blog post, so I am digging in your faq and your archive for more understanding. Thank you for taking the time to write. I also have a wordpress blog in its infancy, but I’m not gonna spam you.

    Have a good one, keep in touch if you like.
    Shilo Rives

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