Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's not a valuable discussion on race until the POC show up

I've been grappling with the question of whether conversations about marginalized peoples are valuable if the conversations take place without the participation of said people.

Recently, I observed as a comment thread sparked by Sammy Sosa's skin bleaching, which could have been a nuanced discussion of the impact of racism and Eurocentric beauty standards on people of color, jump the tracks. The discussion was a textbook study in derailing, with a mostly white commentariat minimizing the effects of race bias on self image; turning the discussion to beauty standards in the majority culture; and denying the lived experiences of the few people of color in the thread. The experience left me frustrated and angry and I found myself wishing that the conversation, which lacked strong participation from the very people most effected by the issues discussed, had never happened.

That wish--the wish that this group of mostly white people had not indulged a conversation about race and its effects in America--feels wrong for someone who considers herself an advocate of anti-racism. I feel strongly that people of color should not be the only ones discussing of race, racism and race bias. But can valuable conversations about race happen without us--without our unique points of view as historically marginalized groups? My gut instinct is to say they cannot. But how does that work? White folks, we want you to talk about race, but only if a certain percentage of brown folks are on hand to ensure the conversation doesn't go sideways.

I felt a similar discomfort earlier today, while watching excerpts from Joan Walsh's interview with Gail Collins, whose new book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present is already in queue on my Kindle. Watch this segment that Walsh described thusly:
We talked about how rare it is to see the struggles, and different priorities, of black, working-class and other non-white women depicted in a mainstream book on the women's movement:



I could be being entirely too sensitive, because the issue is fresh in my mind, but something bugged me about the way Walsh and Collins, who are white women, discussed, or didn't discuss, women of color. Their conversation begins with a nod to the ways that women of color have been erased in histories of the women's movement, but spends little time examining our role and marginalization within feminism, instead veering quickly into black women in the civil rights movement, then black female resentment of white women in the civil rights movement and then the tragic story of Viola Liuzzo, a white woman who was killed for her participation in the civil rights movement.

Barely half of the short segment on race and feminism was spent actually talking about women of color within the women's movement, before the issue turned to how the civil rights movement impacted white women. I know this was a longer conversation and much could have been lost in the editing, but the interview felt to me like another example of how the stories of people of color get short shrift when we are absent from the dialogue.

What do I want, really?

Would I have been happy if Walsh and Collins had not mentioned women of color during their discussion of the history of feminism? No. Would I have been happy if the pair authoritatively waxed on about the experiences of black women as if they have lived our experience? No. And there's the rub. I am frustrated when the stories of people of color are left out. But I am also frustrated then the stories of people of color are included, but glossed over or mistold. To an ally, this must seem like a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. And maybe it is...

I am not saying that all white people are inherently clueless when it comes to race. I have heard the voices of many eloquent and wise allies on and offline. But all that any of us can do, regardless of our race, is to speak from our lived experiences (our biases, strengths and weaknesses are all tied up in here). Yes, yes...we are (hopefully) impacted by learned experiences and empathy for others. But as much as I might seek to educate myself about what it is like to, say, be a Latino man, I cannot be that person. And I cannot tell that story like someone who has lived it. It would be presumptuous for me to try or extrapolate too much from what I presume to be shared experiences. The most valuable discussion about Latino males would be one with actual Latino males involved. So...

Can valuable conversations about race happen without people of color?

My conclusion is no. A conversation about race where people of color are not involved is woefully incomplete and, because of our country's history and present, likely to be mired in privilege. Of this I am sure. (This is easily illustrated by the poor representation of people of color in the media, entertainment and advertising industries, where we are under-represented in decision-making positions.)

But, this post has me thinking about the flip side of this equation:

Can substantive conversations about race happen without white people?

What do you think?

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