Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Is it time for Post-Post-Racial America yet?

I was living in DC in 2008 when President Obama was elected. I was working only a few miles away from the inauguration (though I didn't get to go because my employer decided to take away a holiday and a weekend in order to force us to work because they were afraid the city would implode or something, yeah, still bitter).

So I've heard a lot of talk about "post-racial America." I think most people realize it's a bunch of hooey by now, but I'm tired of it on so many levels, and I really want even the idea to just go away. Race is a part of who we are, it's a part of each person's history and culture. And to make open, honest discussions about racial differences into something taboo is hurting us more than it could ever help.

I would like to take a second to acknowledge that I'm a member of the racial majority in America. I understand that I do come from a place of privilege. I hope that if I say anything offensive in this post, that you'll see it in your heart to gently correct me and share your point of view so that I can correct myself and try to look at things from another perspective.

Now, the reason this has come up for me is that I've seen two people that I know suffer over the last week over racial tension in the workplace (and in one case, open discrimination). I believe that both of these problems could have been prevented if the management involved would have been open, honest, and interested in what all parties had to say rather than seeing that race relations were involved and deciding to CYA and hide.

A friend of mine was working for an upper-class summer camp program here in D.C. this summer, a place called Head First Camps. She was one of the most experienced teachers in the camp where she was working.

One day, she noticed that a book being used in the curriculum for camp could be considered racially offensive towards Hispanics. There were no Hispanic children in her class, and in fact there was only one Hispanic employee at that particular camp: her.

She raised a concern about the book, and was told to discuss it with her supervisor. The supervisor became immediately defensive, and chose to respond to the concern with her own volley of racist language and insults. Upper management told to my friend go on leave while they investigated the situation.

My friend was fired.

This whole situation would have been ridiculously easy to deal with if they hadn't immediately jumped to a kneejerk reaction in order to avoid a real discussion. All the original supervisor had to do was resist the urge to be defensive, say, "I'll take the book to the board and we'll talk about it. But we don't like to rush decisions on this kind of matter, and it may not be resolved immediately. If you'd like to write down what you find objectionable, I'll deliver that with my report." Then they could have just waited for the summer to be over and decide if they cared enough to take the book out of their curriculum or not. Instead, they chose to do something that borders on illegal discrimination.

If a member of a minority group is standing in front of you saying that they feel offended or discriminated against, you should resist the urge to be defensive and admit that as a member of the majority you don't get to decide if they can be offended. I've seen a lot of privileged white guys talk lately about their "freedom" to use racist and sexist language, and they seem to keep falling back on the idea of "it's not my fault if you're so easily offended, I didn't mean it offensively." It doesn't really matter, does it? The person talking can't decide how the person listening gets to feel.

This defensive reaction is partially rooted in the conviction of superiority that happens because of the false allegations. I know that for every false allegation of racism that is made, there are probably dozens of cases of real discrimination. But I think we all know of at least one story (true or not) of someone using an accusation of racism to protect themselves from punishment. It happened to someone I know recently, despite documentation that proved he had done nothing discriminatory.

Knowing these stories (again, true or not), people in power feel like, "Oh, I can't be racist, this is just another situation like that one time I heard about..." This bolsters their false belief that the only people who talk about racism are troublesome minorities with an ax to grind.

Where am I even going with this rant? I guess to sum it up pretty simply: race is still a major concern in the way we deal with each other as Americans and as human beings. We should be open to the concerns and feelings of others. Everyone also needs to be able to admit their own faults and accept the blame for their own actions and behaviors.

Especially when they decide to fire somebody for voicing a minority opinion.