The Washington Post

Has the ‘national conversation on race’ actually begun?

Poet Maya Angelou and Gloria Steinem join a march in Washington in 1983.

Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” may be the song of the summer, as some DJs have dubbed it, but what really resonates this season is not the latest pop tune that will come and go, but instead, an issue that has confounded the United States for centuries: race and racism.

It was part of the outrage that accompanied the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. It was at the heart of the scandal that exiled Paula Deen from the Food Network and cost her millions in business deals. It has been a theme running throughout the reality series “Big Brother” on CBS. It was central to the news reports on a sales clerk in Switzerland who wouldn’t let the billionaire Oprah Winfrey look at a designer handbag because the bag was “too expensive.” And this week it became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter when Mikki Kendall originated the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen.

In 140 or fewer characters, the tweets about the racial divide in the feminist movement unleashed waves of pain, anguish, anger and guilt. And to be completely clear, as a white woman my feelings veered more to the guilt area of the spectrum as I read the posts.

My parents always emphasized the importance of getting along with people of all races, ethnicities and religions.

When I read tweets like this one:

I do feel shame for failing to recognize the many ways in which the color of my skin has moved me ahead in life. At the same time, I get irritated at the suggestion that I’ve had an easy path. I know that I’ve encountered significant obstacles.

When I see this:


I’m reminded of the street in Memphis, Tenn., that my family lived on for three years, where white families, ours included, had black “maids,” who handled child care, housecleaning and cooking before going home to do the same things for their own families.

The women who held those jobs did not have a choice. They had to work to survive and those were among the few jobs available to them. I can also see that some of them had management skills that could rival any corporate executive. (One black woman took care of a white family’s seven children and all their friends who routinely showed up while she cleaned the house and prepared meals.)

I can never say I know what it feels like to be a black girl growing up in America. And I cannot say I know what other white people feel about race and white privilege. I can only speak for myself.

When people of color – both friends and colleagues – have been generous enough to share their feelings with me, even when they are angry, I have learned and grown. And I appreciate it when they can acknowledge that my ignorance is not hate.

My responsibility is to listen and to be honest, especially when revealing my own deficiencies. I may not spew hate speech but I am certainly capable of saying insensitive things. The one-to-one conversations can get emotional and even tense. Bridging divides can be a messy business.

As Shelby Knox put it so well in her tweet:


That’s why it’s important for the tweeting and blogging and crying and yelling and arguing on this issue to continue.

Perhaps the summer of 2013 will be looked back on some day as the time Americans stopped talking about having a conversation on race and actually started having it. But there’s a lot more to be said before the conversation will be over.



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