Darron T. Smith, Ph.D.: How Do You Define Race? Lessons From HuffPost Live

Discussing the thorny subject of race is often polemical to such an extent that most folk simply ignore the discussion all together, particularly white Americans who are typically disengaged as it pertains to matters of race and the history of American racism. Many are completely unaware of the historical facts that belie the existence of ongoing racial inequalities covering most major sectors of our nation from educational outcomes, school discipline and ritualistic expulsion of young black men to gripping disparities in health that are matters of life and death. Race shapes everything we do.

I was recently invited to participate in a panel discussion on race at HuffPost Live Marc Lamont Hill. The segment featured an article on “Being White in Philly,” written by Robert Huber. Huber discusses the obvious disjuncture between himself and the larger black community in Philadelphia, drawing on racial assumptions and his understanding of blackness as geographic space of danger. Huber was speaking his truth as a white man in an honest way through his lens. That lens, one of “first world” privilege to speak and be heard, is a reality of unadulterated whiteness. The difficulty that many black folk have with this is that white epistemic ways of understanding race and racism is arguably limited.

His racial consciousness is consistent with what many white Americans feel about the subject altogether. One of the panelists, the conservative talk show host Ben Ferguson, reflected this same position as he articulated, from a white man’s point of view, how racism did not exist, at least on some larger conspiracy level as the other panelist seemed to intimate. As we tried to explain to Ben, to no avail, many in the lay public continue to define racism as a verb, an action or doing word. This notion is grounded in biblical lore of the “golden rule” maxim. Doing well or extending a modest hand to the less fortunate (someone black, in this case) is enough to assuage centuries-old racism, which symbolically, for many whites, is akin to being non-racist. During the height of Ferguson’s platitudes and merit-based pleas of how he could not possibility be racist because he was nice to black people, it hit me. We don’t even have the same definition of “racism” and, further, the same idea of what this “conversation about race” should entail, which is what was supposed to be occurring.

It became apparent to me that one reason it is so difficult to have a frank “race talk” with whites (and they seem to feel the same way in return) is because our understandings of race are completely different from one another. And perhaps we are asking the wrong questions about this complex history. Perhaps when these discussions arise, we should start with a simple question, “How do you define racism?” And “What does this ‘discussion on race’ mean to you?”

What occurred on this panel is so typical of how most discussions on race and racism transpire. I came in to the conversation hoping to talk about ways to address racism and to begin to broach transformative solutions in hopes of disrupting those systems of power and privilege that continue to define the inequality of the American experience. Instead, the “discussion” turned into a “debate” on racism. Our idea of the “conversation” was completely different. From there, we attempted to back up and define “racism,” but at this point it was too late. We lost each other in the conversation.

The problem with our prior approach is the assumption that we all have a universal understanding of race in America, and the social sciences have not been especially helpful in this effort. Racism is a structural and institutional reality rooted in centuries-old oppression, and most blacks come at the discussion from this historical vantage point. But most whites view race through the prism of individualism. Hence, the debate begins. Racism, as blacks are discussing it, is much more than micro-level instantiations of individual acts of meanness against another. Because one does not publicly name-call or cross-burn, does not mean one is free from the clutches of racism, which is manifested in a number of ways. The other panelist, the men of color in particular, were speaking about the ending of institutional and systemic forms of racism, which Ferguson could not comprehend, and I believe that is because we started the conversation off with the wrong questions. So, I propose that we start a new conversation. My first question being “How do you define racism and what do you intend to gain from this conversation?”

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