Why Can't We Talk? Five Roadblocks to Real Conversation
By Skot Welch, Rick Wilson, and Andi Cumbo-Floyd
We've all had those conversations: the ones about racism in which we feel that we don't know what to say, we don't feel heard, and we get our feelings hurt. These feelings are often more extreme for those of us who are white, because our society does not require us to engage with questions about race and ethnicity on a daily basis. Our society sees whiteness as the norm, and thus those of us who are white can operate as if race and ethnicity—and the challenges America faces around these issues—are not our problem. Then, when we are brought into conversations about these topics—or when we begin those conversations ourselves—we often flounder and sometimes get defensive. Maybe for the first time we are being confronted with truths that are hard for us to see, not to mention take responsibility for.
Conversations about race and ethnicity can be complex, painful, and difficult. But it's essential that we all join the dialogue. As we have walked into this arena, we have been called race-baiters, cowards, loudmouths, divisive, factless, and failures who don't understand the great commission. While it's hard for us to handle baseless and banal charges like these, we actually have come to think that they're not the worst responses we've gotten.
The worst response we've received is silence. Trying to start a conversation on race and being confronted by white people's silence is frustrating and demeaning, and it can feel as if people think our points and our experiences aren't even worthy of being addressed. We know that sometimes people are silent because they are afraid they will say the wrong thing. But being afraid to say something wrong cannot excuse saying nothing.
Sometimes in these conversations, we resort to or are confronted with statements that arise out of defensiveness and fear. We have found that identifying these statements so we can be prepared to confront them is wise. What follows here are five statements that are similar to the "get over it" line we've heard time and time again. We've gathered them from interpersonal conversations, calls to our radio show, and articles and talking points on various radio and TV programs sent to us by friends. These statements cause conversations to crash because, while they appear to be authoritative, there are no facts behind them. Thus, the dialogue is over before it begins.
Have you ever heard—or made—any of these claims? Let's examine these statements carefully.
1. "Race has nothing to do with me"
One night, we were involved in a diversity training class at a local college. In the beginning of such classes, we use icebreakers that include asking participants what they know about their ethnicity and if their name means something. That night, we were getting somewhat typical responses—Irish, Dutch, German, Italian, Polish—until we came to an older gentleman whose demeanor spoke volumes.
With furrowed brow, clenched fists, and squared shoulders, this white man stared directly at Rick. "I'm an American!" he said.
Pausing for a moment, we attempted to pursue the question. "Well, sir, I think we could all say that," one of us said. "What we're looking for is your ancestry. Do you know how your parents or grandparents got here? Where did their ancestors come from?"
His body language and response did not change. "I'm an American!" he said, as forcefully as before.
Clearly, this man was not willing to engage the question of ethnicity. That question was, for him as a white man, already answered. In his mind, being American was equivalent to being white.
Seeing the conversational impasse, we went on to the next person. But we never forgot his statement, which is built upon both denial and cognitive dissonance.
With profound frustration, many people of color have expressed that race is something they are forced to deal with all the time while white people can choose to ignore any kind of racial dynamics in their "normal" white world. Sadly, the vast majority of European Americans pick that path: the classic line of least resistance. This deep denial was on full display in our diversity class that day.
With profound frustration, many people of color have expressed that race is something they are forced to deal with all the time while white people can choose to ignore any kind of racial dynamics in their "normal" white world.
This man's defiant, confrontational body language and tone of voice—he was an American, and no one was going to tell him any different—demonstrates cognitive dissonance, which is best defined as two conflicting beliefs coexisting within the same person. As America increasingly becomes more black and brown, and as the definition of what it means to be an American changes, European Americans often experience deeply rooted distress that something is being lost, something that they must find again. Statements which suggest that the United States needs to return to its roots of greatness imply that the greatness of America resides within white, wealthy men, because they are the only Americans who have consistently been treated well in our nation.
This kind of belief is both wrong and dangerous. America has never been a land of solely white people. From the Native Americans who lived in this land before European colonists arrived to the Spanish Indian inhabitants of the American Southwest to the Africans who were brought to these shores as slaves, America has never been a nation made up of only white faces. To glorify a limited and exclusive vision of historic America is to deny our true, rich, complex history and to reinforce racial hierarchies that lead to discrimination, oppression, and violence.
Race, ethnicity, history, and culture have everything to do with all of us. The more we discover our history, both nationally and personally, the better off we all are.
2. "I never owned a slave"
This statement surfaced during a meeting we had with a potential sponsor for our radio show. As our conversation drifted toward the legacy of slavery in America, a history portrayed powerfully by films such as 12 Years a Slave, our client offered up the oft-heard familial disclaimer: "But I never owned a slave. No one in my family did."
"Neither did anyone in my family," Rick replied to our client, who was also a personal friend. "But the journey I'm on now is to find out just what my ancestors did in this country to directly or indirectly empower the slave trade. That not only includes ownership but also trading, financing, communication, and marketing."
After a somewhat awkward pause, our conversation moved on to other things. But the point was made. Only by going honestly into the past can we understand what we're dealing with in the present and what we will continue to deal with in the future.
Slavery was not an unfortunate, brief, tragic left turn in American history. Slave systems were foundational to the United States—morally, spiritually, sociologically, culturally, and economically. Wealthy planters like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison owned hundreds of slaves during their lifetimes and were involved in the mundane business affairs of bondage. Ordinary Americans—including clergypersons, bankers, insurance executives, and tradespeople—owned smaller numbers of human chattel within the same system.
So, no, we did not start the system of slavery, and we may not have directly participated in it. Yet across history, the slave system still reverberates, and benefits still accrue on the basis of history's divided spoils. As renowned educator and author Joy DeGruy says, "246 years of protracted slavery guaranteed the prosperity and privilege of the South's white progeny while correspondingly relegating its black progeny to a legacy of debt and suffering." It is this horrific legacy of trauma that forms the basis of disparities we're dealing with now. Saying "I never owned a slave" is a disingenuous and ineffective attempt at dodging responsibility for the suffering around us. We have to own the ways we've benefited from its legacy. Only then can we deconstruct what our ancestors constructed.
3. "Slavery is in the Bible"
Upon this false foundation, Plantation Jesus builds his elaborate system of race-based bondage. The European Americans who make this statement are sometimes unaware that the Bible does not actually support them or their slave-trading ancestors. They latch onto verses like 1 Peter 2:18-20 and suggest that since slavery appears in the pages of Scripture, it must not have been so bad.
But the enslavement of humans runs counter to the desires of God's heart. This truth is clear from the very beginning of Scripture, when God says, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness" (Genesis 1:26). Paul's letter to the Galatians includes one of the texts that speaks directly against the idea that God supports slavery. In Galatians 4:6-7, Paul says, "And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God." All believers in Christ are given the title "children of God." In other words, we are siblings. No one enslaves one's own brother or sister.
Further investigation of the Bible also brings us to passages that challenge the system in other ways. For hundreds of years, Africans were kidnapped and shipped to slave markets throughout the Americas. The United States was one of the largest markets in the world, and slavery made this country very rich in a short amount of time. Kidnapping is never justified in Scripture: "Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death" (Exodus 21:16).
Or consider how slaves were treated. In America, the treatment of enslaved Africans was horrific and unconscionably cruel. Rape, torture, and murder were a normal way of life for millions caught in what has been called this "peculiar institution." This kind of inhumanity is never seen as appropriate behavior in the Bible; it is never something to be admired and emulated.
Additionally, slaves lived in bondage forever. Since many white people believed that slavery was the "accursed" condition for Africans, once people entered that institution, they could not leave it. (White Christians sometimes referenced the "curse of Ham" or the "mark of Cain," misreadings of Genesis 9:20-27 and Genesis 4:11-16, as explanations.) The poorly translated Greek word doulos, which is sometimes taken to mean "slave," really means "bond servant." In the first century, this word meant that service had a beginning and end. Nothing in the Bible defines or endorses slavery by ethnicity or race in perpetuity.
Finally, masters saw enslaved people as property, not human beings. They were viewed as chattel, property, exactly the same way that horses, cows, and chickens were seen. They were investments that had to produce to earn their keep. In practical terms, human beings were used as collateral for debts, put on a sliding scale of depreciation as they aged, and were insured against loss.
Reflecting on an experience from when he was eleven years old, Frederick Douglass described the process of "valuation" and division of property when a planter died without a will:
We were all ranked together [in a field] at the valuation…There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children all holding the same rank in the scale of being, all subjected to the same narrow examination…At this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon slave and slaveholder.
In no way does the Bible condone the valuing of human beings as property. That very notion belies the central tenets of Christianity. This kind of brutality finds no support in Scripture, where again and again we are reminded that God loves human beings as God's children. Instead, this system is an American brand of bondage. American slavery was unique in its cruelty. It was a giant crime against humanity.
4. "Some people were nice to their slaves"
This seemingly innocuous statement is deceptively layered in what sociologist James Loewen calls "the magnolia myth." This myth maintains that "slavery was a social structure of harmony and grace that did no real harm to anyone, white or black." The prevailing narrative that makes this believable is the well-worn picture of slavery as benevolent paternalism: happy slaves being cared for by humane plantation patriarchs in the bucolic grandeur of rolling hills and soaring antebellum architecture.
In this narrative, "Big Daddy," the slaveholder, always knew best. His relationship with his slaves is something like that of a parent with a child. This is the image of slavery that celebrity chef Paula Deen was calling forth when she made her painful comments about wanting a "really Southern plantation wedding," complete with black waiters playing the part of slaves.
It is not hard to break down this idea—that slavery was a mostly humane institution—as misguided, inaccurate, and dangerous. First, while it is true that slave owners exhibited varying degrees of brutality against the people they enslaved, the vast system of slavery was unimaginably cruel by nature. When bondage is practiced by its main players, no matter how "good" life may have seemed relatively, slavery was still a system that denied people basic human freedoms and dignity, and there was nothing "good" about that practice. Enslaved people are caught in a world of forced labor in perpetuity. You can't leave. It's hard for us to imagine a slave's world, in which you were not allowed to step foot from a particular area without written permission from a person who could buy and sell you at his or her whim. But that was the truth of slavery, even when there was nary a whip in sight.
When bondage was practiced, no matter how "good" life may have seemed relatively, slavery was still a system that denied people basic human freedoms and dignity, and there was nothing "good" about that practice.
For this reason, many, many enslaved people were determined to leave or to fight for their freedom. People who are content and happy do not try to leave or plan revolt. In the prime years of slavery in the 1800s, more than one hundred thousand people used the Underground Railroad as a means of escape. Additionally, enslaved people often planned uprisings. No less than fourteen armed insurrections occurred in the Americas between 1663 and 1859.
Put simply: slavery is never nice, no matter how it is practiced or who is driving the business of bondage. The more we research, the more we realize how inhumane American chattel slavery was on a personal level. Our friend Sharon Morgan, a genealogist and the founder of Our Black Ancestry, has examined her own family extensively. "I share the pathos of generations of people—my people—kidnapped, chained, whipped, crippled, violated, and traumatized in every possible way," she says. "Slave masters reduced themselves and their prey to a level of barbarity that defies imagination, unleashing a vicious cycle of violence that informs our society unto this very day. I cannot fathom the cognitive dissonance of these men (and their consort wives) who did what they did and justified it with the word of a god I do not know."
There he is again: Plantation Jesus. No, nothing about the system of enslavement was benevolent or good. Not a thing.
5. "I don't see color; only people"
Have you ever known someone who is truly colorblind? We had a friend who struggled with colorblindness; to compensate, he asked his wife to help him pick out his color combinations as he dressed for work. But we always knew those rare occasions when she was out of town. On those days our friend would come to church in some of the most wildly out-of-sync colors you could imagine. Though we would tell him how his outfit looked to us, and then laugh with him, we knew that he had a challenging condition.
How, then, have we come to lift up "colorblindness" with regard to race as an asset and not a liability? As something to strive for rather than a disability? White people like the way the idea—being blind to someone else's skin color—makes them feel about themselves, as if they've "risen above" such categories. But in reality, colorblindness with regard to race is a lie. Children as young as six months old identify differences in people's skin color.
People of color see through this metaphor whenever white people use it, and they don't buy what's being sold: a high-minded ideal that overlooks both the painful parts and the rich cultural experiences of people who are not white. Moreover, such a claim—"I'm colorblind"—is based on the idea of white normalcy and is dismissive of the very real experiences of people of diverse ethnic identities. As more than one person of color has said, "If you don't see my ethnicity, you don't see me."
In August 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "I have a dream that my four young children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character." For more than fifty years, debate has centered on the meaning of these words. Unfortunately, the idea that has won the day is that King was holding out the "ideal" of being racially colorblind. In actual practice, this idea is untenable and deceptive. Racial disparities tell us that such colorblindness is not a fact. We all see color!
As an example, let's consider our criminal justice system. By the time black men reach the age of twenty-three, 49 percent of them have been arrested. The United States currently imprisons more people than any other country in the world. Although we represent just 5 percent of the world's population, we incarcerate 21% more people than any other country in the world, and of those people incarcerated, 56% of them are African American or Latino (as compared to the 32% of the general population that is made up of African American or Latino people). Consider the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, and the dozens of other unarmed African Americans who have been killed at the hands of police officers or who have died in police custody. Does this evidence give you the impression that those managing the criminal justice system are truly colorblind?
Or think about the banking industry, where small business, home improvement, and mortgage loans originate. According to the Urban Institute, "For every $6 white people have in wealth, black people have $1." The banking system favors white people in every decision, and thus contributes to a great disparity in wealth in our nation.
Racial disparities like these tell all of us that, in practice, we all see color. We're not colorblind. Instead, we're blind when we think that we don't see color.
Excerpted from Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, and a New Way Forward, Herald Press, 2018. All rights reserved. Used with permission.