Why Some White Americans Are Afraid to Talk about Race

Article excerpt

A COLLEAGUE came to me the other day and told me he'd decided to be quiet.

"I ain't saying anything," he told me.

His comments came on the heels of President Bill Clinton's announcement that he wants to establish a national dialogue on race. My colleague, who is white, said he's decided to keep his thoughts on race to himself. He thinks many whites are doing the same. Why? He doesn't want to be branded a racist, he told me. I don't think my colleague is a racist. He and I occasionally differ on issues, but I don't think it's because of racism. It's that he and I sometimes view things out of different lenses. The good part about it, though, is that we can talk about them. But he says he doesn't envision expressing his thoughts on a wide-scale basis. "The minute I say something that someone thinks I shouldn't, I'll be called a racist," he said. "And that's a hurtful word." It is a hurtful word. It should be a hurtful word. But I view it as a weapon, one that you use sparingly because you want it to have maximum impact. If a person cries racism every time he feels any slight, he's unlikely to win over many believers when there's a clear and obvious case of real racism. What's unfortunate about what my colleague had to say is that I'm sure he's not alone. I'd guess that many whites will have nothing to do with the president's efforts to get conversations going on race because they fear that they will turn into monologues, not dialogues. They fear that blacks will freely express their opinions and criticize whites, and that the minute whites express their opinions or criticisms of blacks, they'll be called racists. That's not a dialogue. It's a breakdown in communication. There's something to be said for listening. Much learning takes place when you listen to what others have to say. I've found that sometimes I learn a great deal by keeping my ears open and my mouth shut. Am I saying that blacks should just listen to criticism and say nothing about it? Not at all. But I do suggest that all of us can learn when we listen to one another. …

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