Today at work, I was meeting and brainstorming with a couple of coworkers. Both are women. Both are black. One is Jamaican–we’ll call her B, the other we’ll call A. We were talking about another coworker, and whether I’d described A as a “little black girl,” which I told them I didn’t need to, since he’d known who I was talking about. I added that white people didn’t like talking about race, though, and A started to joke about hoodies, iced tea and skittles, referencing the recent events of Trayvon Martin’s murder. While some people are busy worrying about hoodies, it is interesting to have this conversation with people who are not white. B and A both immediately had stories where they had experienced some sort of clearly out of touch comments by white people–one where someone at a meeting claimed that on a federal report, blacks were identified as “negroid,” to which she (and to their credit, the rest of the meeting), collectively said, “huh???!” The woman quickly corrected herself. The other coworker had a story about reviewing charts at a different organization and finding documentation with race listed as “other: colored.” She brought this to the attention of a white director, who was astonished and shocked, so both situations, other people were clearly as disturbed as A and B, but it’s just further proof that racism is alive and well.
I told them that that was the reason, too, though that white people are afraid to talk about race. We’re afraid to say something that offends someone, and that we won’t even know it offends them. But we have to. Trayvon Martin is another reason why we must discuss race, however uncomfortable it may be. We have to be willing to be called racist, and know that in certain ways, we probably are, but that that doesn’t mean something about our character or intentions. I have tried to be brave and to not shy away from race, as a topic of conversation, as a part of a description of someone, etc. I do notice when someone is black, white or Hispanic or Asian, or anything else. I’m always curious about people. And sometimes, I will offend people. But if I’m not willing to be corrected, how can I ever learn what individual people are offended by? I won’t say it doesn’t still make me nervous–I still have a visceral reaction, and sense that before I describe someone as black, I should mention something else about them, or maybe that I shouldn’t mention their skin color at all. But I’m a lot more comfortable talking about race with people who are not white because I’ve practiced, especially with people who already knew me, with whom I had established a relationship, and who knew already that I thought of and respected them as people.
I feel lucky to work with people of different backgrounds–who are not like me, and yet who are. And I am so proud that for the first time, when a horrific tragedy like the one that happened in Florida happens, we have a president who is able to say, “if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” This shit is hard, but we have to keep talking.