The Need for a Genuine Conversation about Race

Just Reflecting by Associate Colette Parker, OPA – Co-Director

It sounds so simple, but is it?

It sounds so simple: “We are all a part of one race – the human race.”

Yet the reality of that statement – declared more than a century ago by pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas and again in 1950 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) – is complicated in our nation, where the undercurrent of systematic racism pulls us down. Living daily in an environment where racism abounds makes it difficult to accept that “race” is not a biological reality but a myth.

When we consider racism (a form of oppression in which one racial group dominates others), which can lead to discrimination – the unfair and unequal treatment of a group based on prejudice – a natural progression is to apply the attitudes that lead to the mistreatment of Native-Americans and African-Americans to other “isms” (sex-ism, age-ism, class-ism, weight-ism, etc.) and phobias, like Islamophobia and homophobia.

It is difficult for me to believe that any of the phobias or “isms” can be resolved until we deal with the elephant in the room – racism.

Racism – the elephant in the room

For the past 500 years, we have been taught that things like intelligence, sexual behavior, birth-rates, child care, abilities, work ethics, personal restraint, law-abidingness, aggression, altruism, and even brain size are related to race. We have been told that some races are better than others.

The truth is, we live in a racist society – a society where your job or profession, where you live, where you go to school, who you interact with, how people interact with you, how you are treated in the healthcare and justice systems are all affected by your race. This racial structure persists, despite the fact that scientists have shown for decades that there is no evidence of “racial” characteristics.

Still, what we have been taught has led to major injustices to Jews and non-Christians during the Spanish Inquisition; to Native Americans and others during colonial times; to African-Americans during slavery and reconstruction; to Jews and other Europeans during the reign of the Nazis in Germany; and to groups from Latin America and the Middle East; African-Americans; Native-Americans; and others, during modern political times.

How do we dismantle centuries-old attitudes and beliefs that race or skin color makes some groups inferior to others in humanity? I suggest that it will be a long, slow process that must begin with building trust via conversations that can lead to the development of relationships and to bridge-building over the racial divide that exists in our country.

It’s time for a genuine conversation about race

As uncomfortable as it might be, we have to discuss race and get beyond the notion that by talking about it, we somehow perpetuate it. The truth is that, collectively, we have NEVER had a genuine conversation about race.

We must start with the conversation to begin building trust. We need to take a look at our personal social networks and ask ourselves, “does everyone in this circle look like me?” Then, we need to answer the question: “why or why not?” From there, we can begin to face our own reality of how race has shaped us and make an honest decision about who we are; who we are meant to be; and how we can reconcile the two.

In other words, (borrowing the title of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last book): “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” Standing on his commitment to nonviolence, King continually pleaded for a coalition of blacks and whites to work toward building community.

Starting the conversation in Akron, OH

For the past year, the Dominican Sisters of Peace and Associates in the greater Akron, OH, area have been working to build community via a series called “Building Racial Harmony.” The goal of the initiative is twofold – to be a host of conversations and to be a center of prayer. To that end, the Racial Justice Committee has organized and planned events at the Dominican Sisters of Peace Akron Motherhouse that include speakers, panel discussions, and prayer services.

Our hope in Northeast Ohio is that participants will share their divergent life histories, stories, and worldviews and become more appreciative and understanding of each other as human beings.

Racism springs from the lie that certain human beings are less than fully human. It’s a self-centered falsehood that corrupts our minds into believing we are right to treat others as we would not want to be treated… ~ Alveda King

Posted in Just Reflecting, News

9 responses to “The Need for a Genuine Conversation about Race

  1. Colette asks some very challenging questions. I am aware that I do live in a very white world and I’m not quite sure how to answer Dr. King’s question: where do we go from here? I find it hard to see how I might broaden my circle to include people of color. I want to, but I don’t know how to. How do I avoid simply talking to other white people about this elephant in the living room? The sisters and associates in Akron have really begun to open up a path for us and I hope perhaps we might replicate their efforts in other places like Columbus where I live.

  2. I’d love to have you lead a discussion with the Dominican Sisters and Associates of Peace on this topic.
    Thanks for your insights.

  3. Your comments are thought-provoking and very well done. Prejudice isn’t just about race, however. Most of us find seeing somebody we perceive as not just like ourselves–street people, “good old boys,” druggies, prostitutes, and so forth–brings out the same kind of “I don’t want to associate with those folks!” feelings.

    Does God want us to accept and love EVERYBODY, or just other practicing Christians? It’s difficult sometimes to love people who don’t seem to make good choices relative to staying in school, getting and keeping a job, staying clear of an excess of gambling, drugs, and even food/exercise (thus the bad feelings toward fat people).

    How do we not unconsciously judge (and often avoid) those others who clearly are not just like us? Are we to love even those leading lives of which we do not approve due to what we’ve been taught, or are they “children of the evil one,” as the Bible alludes to from time to time?

    1. Karen, thank you for your comment. I think Colette’s point is that so much of preducise IS about race and we need to find ways to talk about it, face it, and maybe live in the shoes of black people for a while to really appreciate what it is like to move through the world as a person of color.

      I don’t think Colette’s blog was about the bad behavior you mentioned, but about an inherent American problem of looking on another child of God as less than equal because their skin is different than mine.

    1. Renee, thank you for posting this info about the March 11 program. I am out of town that day, unfortunately. I hope we can keep the conversation opportunities alive and not just see this as a passing idea.

  4. Powerful and challenging message! May we learn truly to practice racial justice and harmony. Thank you, Colette!

    Peace!
    Pat, OP

  5. Thank you Colette for your reflection – many of us who are white find it hard to admit we lack relationships with people of color and in lacking relationships we may be lacking in awareness and we need to perhaps seek out more multi-racial opportunities.

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