What is the right way to talk about race?

December 5, 2013

“The idea that ‘The Help’ should be used as some kind of primary text for understanding the black experience in this country is ludicrously offensive,” Jessica Roake wrote this week in an article for Slate.

“Yes!” I thought when I first read that sentence. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that I could not agree with Roake.

“The Help” may not be the best way to get into a conversation about the civil rights era. But what is the right way? Is there a best way?

Talking about race does not come easy to most Americans, so for the most part we avoid talking about it altogether. If we aren’t sure of “the right way” to do it, we don’t want to take a chance of doing it the wrong way.

I encountered that in the late 1990s when I assisted in teaching a class at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. The class, Covering Race and Ethnicity in the New Urban America, was intended to teach journalism students how to tell the stories that make up the rich tapestry of this country.

As a first assignment, the lead professor, Sig Gissler, a former editor of the Milwaukee Journal, asked the students to write personal essays focusing on their memories of the first time they became conscious of race.

The essays were always very emotional and revealing, often heartbreaking. Even though each essay was so raw and deeply personal, Gissler noted, there were some general similarities.

Many African-Americans wrote about their first encounters with racism, often being called the N-word or seeing that word hurled at loved ones. White students often wrote about the shame they felt because of their actions, like using the N-word, sometimes without the full knowledge of what it meant. Jewish students focused on being excluded because of their religion/ethnicity or about family dynamics affected by repercussions from the Holocaust. Latinos felt separate because of culture and language. And Asians voiced the pressure and pain they felt because of high expectations place upon them as “the model minority.”

What this exercise revealed in a somewhat messy way is that we all come to the race conversation from different places, different experiences, different perspectives. There is no perfect place to start the discussion.

This was not an easy class. Many times arguments broke out, tears were shed and feelings were hurt. Some individuals walked out on occasion, but they always came back. In the end, everything that the students and professors learned in that course was a direct result of everyone pushing past those moments, continuing to talk and especially continuing to listen.

The class was far from perfect. One criticism was it was taught by two white professors. But it succeeded in motivating both students and professors to examine their beliefs about race and to confront their own biases and prejudices.

No one walked out of that classroom holding hands and singing about racial unity. Everyone left with greater awareness of racial and ethnic complexity and improved ease in dealing with race and ethnicity. I am confident that we all have continued to grow since then.

So if the Purcell Marian High School in Ohio assigned all its students to read “The Help” for its English classes, I don’t despair. This doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation on race. It is a starting place.

And I’m sure the students got more to think about and more to talk about than if they had read Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

She the People contributor Judy Howard Ellis argues that “The Help” is not the best place to start a lesson on civil rights.  

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