A relative in town, someone loved and rarely seen, visits the Race Exhibit at the Science Museum and can't stop talking about it.
"That's what I always say--there's no such thing as race. It doesn't exist. Why do we even talk about it? It doesn't exist."
His kids hang with my kids, and my kids are deeply upset about Philando Castile's death. And I am deeply upset about Phil's death. And even before that, frankly, we talked a lot about race, because race may not exist biologically, but it haunts the world in which we live, affecting everything from policing to housing to education to medicine to child rearing. We not only talk about race, but about nuances--"Oh, you're black and Vietnamese and adopted?" Now we know approximately how old she is, what her early childhood was like--the Vietnamese were hostile to the mixed children of G.I.'s and Vietnamese women--and that she has had to explain this story many, many, many times." "You're Nepali? And you immigrated in 2001?" Now we know they were caught in tragedy. "So you fled after the Nepalese royal massacre. Did you lose family?" "Oh, you're Nigerian. Are you Yoruba. No, Hausa? And you grew up in the north, in a village?" (Most Hausa practice subsistance farming, herding or trading in patriarchal families heavy with mysogeny, often with multiple wives.) "What was it like for you to as a child?"
But as we are eating dinner, this relative says, "Don't talk about race. It doesn't exist. Don't talk about it. When you talk about it, you make it worse." And then turns straight to me and says, flat and angry. "And stop trying to proselytize my kids."
This relative is, quite honestly, an insecure and arrogant soul, with a childhood that made him exceedingly rigid. And he is warning me directly, in anger, that if I continue our conversation, he will withhold his children from mine, as he did for many years.
But I'll tell you, I want to scream and rage. You ignorant, hidden bigot. You arrogant white person, steeped in your privilege You come to visit, slightly over a month after someone we know was murdered by a police officer--because of Philando's race--and have the gall to tell me it doesn't exist and that I'm talking too much about it?
Instead, I take deep breathes and stare out the window, trying to think about how to respond. We rarely persuade when we push someone. I know this. We open minds by calmly introducing ideas and then giving the listener time and space to absorb them--if they can.
And some people, of course, we cannot persuade. How do we handle those? What is our moral responsibility? In this instance, with this relative, I know that if I give in to righteous indignation, if I pitch a fit, his children will be cut from our life. But if I back off, his children will occasionally hang around mine, and my kids are steeped in awareness of bigotry of many kinds. Knowledge will just naturally seep in.
So, I calm myself, breathing deeply, studying the peaceful scene outside their vacation location. Finally, I say quietly, "You have the luxury of not talking about race with your kids. Parents of minorities do not have that luxury. And studies have shown that, when we do not openly discuss race with white children, there is a tribalism that takes place, so that they grow up absorbing a kind of quiet racism."
"When my kids have birthday parties," he says, "they're surrounded by African-American kids, Asian kids. You don't need to talk to them or everybody else about race."
Tell that to someone black who is looking for an apartment and then explain why the landlords keep telling them that the place has just been rented, though it's available when a white friend goes to view it. Tell that to an Asian woman treated like a sex toy. Tell it to a parent called in to school to be told that their darker child is struggling to learn certain letters that it turns out the teacher hasn't taught in school yet. (This recently happened to a friend, who, fortunately, knows the curriculum and was able to point out that the materials for teaching those letters never came home--but how many times has this teacher caused other parents of color to unnecessarily worry about their child's progress?)
Tell that to Philando's mother, girl friend, uncle. Tell that to me, to all the children of Phil's school, to all his friends. Tell that to the family, friends, and community of Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child holding a toy gun turned into "monster" by a police officer's racial bias.
Race does not exist--biologically, this is largely true. Racism, though, is flourishing. And we have got to not only talk about it, we have to do a lot more than that. We have to find ways to persuade those who refuse to see racism that it still exists and must be fought. We have to find ways to persuade those who think and breathe racism--whether its something they were taught or something they refuse to understand.