What is an Earnest Discussion of Racism?

The recent racist shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has sparked discussion. This is good, right? This is progress, right? We can rest assured that in a few months we will have finally arrived: we will be a nation of unprecedented racial equality complete with counter-racist institutions and leaders who openly acknowledge the enduring, pernicious effect of race in America. Right? Surely we have taken a significant step forward…

Not exactly. It takes more than a few “race talks” to make lasting changes in our infrastructure. We need more than a discussion; we need an earnest discussion. Here is what I mean.

An earnest discussion of racism acknowledges privilege.

People who talk about race must first acknowledge where they stand. They have to understand the difference in altitude between their lookout points and those of everyone else. Let’s use a silly example to illustrate. Suppose a giraffe and a rabbit are looking for food in the savannah. Suppose all the grass in this region was recently burned in a wildfire. As a result, the rabbit is starving. However, the giraffe happily eats leaves from a tree that the fire did not touch. The rabbit asks the giraffe for some leaves, but the giraffe coldly replies, “Just stretch out your neck and get them yourself.”

When people who talk about race fail to acknowledge their own unearned advantages, they make the same mistake as the giraffe. They suggest, for instance, that minorities in America are responsible for their own disadvantage. But they ignore the real effects of racist institutions, which create an environment that either deliberately or incidentally favors the prosperity of one group to a disproportionate degree. Therefore, anyone who talks about race earnestly must acknowledge privilege.

An earnest discussion of racism acknowledges ignorance.

Even with full knowledge of one’s privilege, it is impossible to know the experiences of people in a group to which one does not belong. White people, for instance, cannot suddenly become black and understand what it is like to face the daily discrimination and institutional barriers that come along with being black. (This of course does not stop some from trying.) It is an unalienable feature of our human experience not to understand what it is like to be anyone but ourselves. Therefore, anyone who talks about race earnestly must understand that people in other groups have had different experiences.

An earnest discussion of racism leads to political action.

Discussions have many purposes. They can create understanding between estranged groups, enrich our understanding by bringing together a variety of perspectives, and even provide a peaceful means to conflict resolution. But words are empty without action. Millions of people are talking, but most of the discussion groups fail to make lasting change because they end without a practical plan of action.

By all means, talk. And talk earnestly. Acknowledge the unearned advantages that you have over others. Acknowledge the fact that there are limits to your understanding of the struggles of other groups. Do talk! But end every discussion of race by committing to lead a peaceful protest with the rest of your life. Speak up for the oppressed. Pull out the “race card” when our politicians lack the courage to do so. Vow never to grow complacent and coast along with a status quo that (often violently) destroys freedom. Write your representatives in the name of racial equality and racial justice and lobby for legislation that truly counters the effects of racism.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step—not with a discussion group.