We need to, but how do we talk about race?

Racism is still an issue in this country. How can we have constructive conversations to move forward and heal?

I’ve covered a variety of topics in this column: immigration, religion, LGBTQ+ issues, #MeToo, people with disabilities, neurodiversity and mental health, just to name a few.

I’ve also covered issues around race.

Now I will be the first to admit that I talk about race a lot in this column — whether it’s a race-adjacent piece about English language learners or different cultural holidays, or a piece specifically about the subject.

But it’s a topic that still needs to be discussed.

First, I’d like to acknowledge that yes, this country has come a long way from its early days of genocide and slavery. I mean, we’ve even had a black president.

But we can’t pat ourselves on the back quite yet.

It’s 2020 and we continue to see people of color — especially black people — treated as less than and criminalized simply for the color of their skin. And just this week at the Super Bowl, the team from Kansas City posted a video on its Twitter page featuring fans doing the “Tomahawk chop” in preparation of the big game — once again raising the discussion regarding sports teams’ uses of Native Americans as their mascots and how this perpetuates offensive (read: racist) and harmful stereotypes of Native Americans.

But as much as we need to talk race in this country, it is probably one of the most difficult social issues for us to discuss. People can get so worried about offending others and being perceived as racist that they just don’t talk about it. Others can get so defensive over past events they weren’t present for (I think it’s safe to say no one alive today was around when slavery was still a thing) that it can make it difficult to even attempt a conversation. And then there are those who ask why we have to bring up such an unpleasant topic and basically bring everyone down.

Unfortunately, nothing gets solved when people decide it’s more important to be nice than to address real issues.

Anxious for different reasons

So how can we talk about race and racism in our communities and country and actually move forward from just saying everyone should be treated equally?

In the last few weeks, a number of groups and organizations have held events with the sole purpose of training people how to do just that.

On Jan. 21 — which was the National Day of Racial Healing — the Welcoming Kirkland Initiative kicked off its community learning series with an event at Lake Washington Institute of Technology (LWTech). The event, Preparing to Be Color Conscious and Color Brave, was exactly what the title implied. It was a training for attendees to learn how to talk about race in a way that would push the conversation forward toward real progress and healing.

The event was followed by two community dialogue events on Feb. 1 and 3 that gave people the opportunity to put what they learned into practice.

Debbie Lacy, founder and CEO of Eastside for All (a race and social justice advocacy organization based in East King County), led the training event in Kirkland. She said different people want different things out of these types of conversations. White people show up because they want to grow and be better, while people of color show up because they want things to change.

Lacy said most people also feel anxiety when it comes to conversations about race.

“We don’t want to mess up,” she said, adding that just as people show up for different reasons, they also worry for different reasons. White people don’t want to be called racist. People of color don’t want to experience racism.

Lacy said the people who feel the least amount of anxiety are those who hold the highest amount of white-supremacist views. When you stop to think about it, this makes sense. Most people who have these types of views tend to not care what others think or who they might offend.

Don’t tell me how to feel

I attended the training event in January and there my fellow attendees and I practiced speaking with each other. We were prompted to share some of the fears and concerns we have when it comes to talking about race.

I can’t remember exactly what I brought up at the time, but I know one concern I do have when it comes to talking about race is being gaslit and having anything I say be dismissed or brushed aside because “things aren’t really that bad.”

My experiences are my experiences. Just as your experiences are your experiences.

You may not be offended or hurt by a certain word, phrase or action, but that doesn’t mean others will feel the same.

For example, while I find it offensive, I am not personally hurt by the previously mentioned “Tomahawk chop.” But for many Native Americans, the action is extremely hurtful and offensive.

It has always bothered me when someone tells someone else they are too easily offended and that they should “get over it,” whatever “it” is. Who are we to tell someone else how to feel when we don’t know what they’ve been through and what they’ve experienced?

Societal needs

Samantha Pak/staff photo                                Clyde Ford speaks at Bellevue First United Methodist Church. One of the things he spoke about was how other countries have approached the topic of race and racism.

Samantha Pak/staff photo Clyde Ford speaks at Bellevue First United Methodist Church. One of the things he spoke about was how other countries have approached the topic of race and racism.

Bellevue First United Methodist Church hosted a similar event on Jan. 26 called Let’s Talk About Race.

The event was through Humanities Washington and led by Clyde Ford, a former instructor at Western Washington University where he taught an introductory class on the African American experience.

In conversations about race, Ford pointed to South Africa and how that country’s society has made it a point to discuss its racist past through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He said through the commission, perpetrators and victims of violence would come together to talk about the country’s past. The perpetrators would report what they did during apartheid and then listen to understand what effect their actions had on the victims. Ford also shared how people in Germany make it a point to really talk about issues until they have nothing left to say as to not repeat earlier generations’ mistakes during the Third Reich.

“This is something we need,” Ford said about the United States.

He said racism in this country is not going away just because we don’t talk about it, noting the violence in recent years in Charlottesville, Virginia, Charleston, South Carolina and at the Mexican border in El Paso, Texas.

“What kind of society is that?” he asked.

Prejudice plus power

Ford also took the time to define some terms during his presentation. These definitions were according to the Kerner Commission, which was formed to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots in this country.

According to the commission, prejudice is making a judgment without complete information. Power is the ability to affect someone’s life in a number of ways including physically, emotionally, economically and politically. And finally, racism is prejudice plus power.

Based on this definition, Ford said a person can be prejudice but not necessarily racist.

So a person can be prejudiced against people from other races but unless they are in a position of power to affect change in others’ lives, it is not racism. And by this definition, the now commonly used concept of “reverse racism” against white people is eliminated because typically, people from marginalized communities do not have the power (financial, political, societal etc.) to affect that kind of change.

‘Sometimes, we’re all we got’

And at Bellevue College (BC), the school held a number events on the topic of race in January — the week leading up to and after Martin Luther King Jr. Day and in honor of the holiday’s namesake.

Events on campus included presentations and screenings of the film “Selma,” which chronicles King’s life and others during part of the Civil Rights Movement.

Erin Jones, a teacher who has taught throughout Washington and has been recognized nationally as a “Champion of Change,” was a keynote speaker at BC on Jan. 23.

Nicole Beattie, associate director of communications at BC, said Jones challenged people to live out King’s legacy, not just attend events. Jones noted that King dreamed of something bigger than himself, invested in becoming a better version of himself and loved courageously across difference, in response to hate.

On Jan. 22, a group of students held a rally — enduring the rainy Pacific Northwest winter day — to raise awareness on the importance of racial equality and equity. A number of students spoke.

Maria Gutierrez encouraged people to love — even if they are on the receiving end of hate.

“Hating is not a key…to peace and to loving other people,” she said.

A number of speakers also encouraged their peers — some of whom joined the rally as it went on — to get out of their comfort zone and get to know people who are different from them. They also spoke on the importance of coming together and marginalized people standing together and supporting each other.

“We really need to just hold each other because sometimes, we’re all we got,” Amanda Chamba said.

Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at spak@soundpublishing.com.

Bellevue College student Vanessa Lora-Garibay speaks on prejudice and discrimination during a rally on campus on Jan. 22. Samantha Pak/staff photo

Bellevue College student Vanessa Lora-Garibay speaks on prejudice and discrimination during a rally on campus on Jan. 22. Samantha Pak/staff photo