O’Brien says she was chagrined by the criticism of Starbucks but not completely surprised.
“The people on Twitter who have responded….I don’t think they even realize the luxury of their position,” says O’Brien, a married mother of four, and daughter of a black Cuban woman and a white Australian man of Irish descent. “They say ‘I don’t want to have these conversations about race when I’m getting my cappuccino.’ … Well, I don’t want to have these conversations about race either. … But I have this conversation all the time. I have it when someone says to me, ‘You’re not really black’, or ‘You speak so well for being black’ or ‘If you’re Latino, you can’t be black.’ Black and Latino people have these conversations all the time.”
O’Brien sides with Starbucks in its effort to bring more Americans into the fray. “I think for Starbucks there was something — well, brave isn’t quite the right word — but there was something aggressively interested in challenging people to have a conversation who were not the kind of people who generally have these conversations.”
In an interview, O’Brien talked about what she learned about Americans’ attitudes about race on her tour, what life as a person of color has taught her, and how people might best go about launching conversations about race in their daily lives. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. In listening to people on your tour last month, what surprised you most?
A. I was happily surprised by the number of young people who were willing to enter into this conversation. Young people, my own children included, have a very different perspective on race than people of my generation and certainly than that of my parent’s generation. I think the best thing about the tour is that we had these really diverse audiences who were really interested in this questions of how do you move the conversation from’ I’m complaining and then they’re complaining’ to being a really good, productive conversation.
One conclusion that the group came to is that there is a need for more people to take classes in what we commonly call ‘African-American Studies’ but is actually the history of America that just happens to be about black people. … There were a number of white and Asian students who when we talked about the lynching study [an examination of the details of nearly 4,000 lynching in 12 states from 1877 to 1950 conducted by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala.], really had no idea that America had this long and bloody history of lynching. It was absolutely stunning to them. They were hearing it for the first time ever as relatively well-educated college students … that lynching wasn’t just this fringe thing but part of the history of America.
Q. What do you consider the biggest obstacles to talking about race in the United States?
A. I think first of all, if you’re black, you become whiny and annoying and, if you’re white, you become The Oppressor, as in what could you possibly know? I think you go into this conversation and it’s fraught with problems. There’s a risk to anyone involved, so the first thing you need to do is remove the risk to really open up a genuine conversation. (Here, O’Brien describes doing so at her events by first acknowledging the fact that no one likes to talk about race, and by relying on facts and data rather than emotion in discussing racial disparities in employment, blacks’ treatment by law enforcement and other issues.)
Q. Your dialogues took place in a controlled setting in which you have an audience that might have been self-selected to some degree, younger and more open. … Many would despair that the challenge of talking about race seems insurmountable on a one-on-one level in the course of our daily lives.
A. I don’t think it’s insurmountable. … I think those who criticize Starbucks are mistaken and think: Keep race in this little box and don’t take it out. (To illustrate her point about the importance of being willing to raise the issue of race in one-on-one conversations, O’Brien talked about a reporting trip to Thailand after the 2004 Southeast Asia earthquake and tsunami in which she was criticized by a guide, who told her her practice of touching Thai children affectionately on their heads was considered disrespectful. Suddenly, she found she was the one committing a cultural offense.)
If someone hadn’t told me then it never would have occurred to me that what I was doing was incredibly disrespectful. It took someone to say ‘Let me explain to you.’ … I didn’t want to do it, it was completely unintentional. Frankly, I was grateful. … So, do I want to be the person who is educating people that you can be black and Latino? Not really. But I do it. I take the moment.
Q. How do you encourage people to talk about race who aren’t comfortable with the topic?
A. You’re never going to drag anybody into a conversation if they don’t want to be in the conversation, but a lot of people do want to be in the conversation. … Most of the people I have conversations with will say ‘Thanks for telling me. I never looked at it that way.’… I’ve had black people say to me ‘You’re not really black’ and then you stop them and say ‘I’m so curious. What does ‘really black’ mean to you?’ And they’re forced to re-think — ‘ You know, you’re right. Some of my concepts of what is black are kind of screwed up.’
Most people want to be involved in doing the right thing. I think sometimes asking people for a little self-reflection, for those who are really trying to figure it out, that’s what you do. … And if you’re a white person trying to find a way into the conversation, you find someone to ask.
“That’s what I liked about the Starbucks thing. It’s okay to ask and it’s okay to answer. How can you move forward if you don’t want to ask, and how can you move forward if you don’t want to answer” You have to say: It’s OK.
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