Commentaries: No throwing babies!
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 21, 2010 - A string of recent news stories have been fodder for those who cannot tolerate ambiguity in relation to race. Often in our country people are criticized for being too sensitive about the topic and making something out of nothing. Yet those ambiguous events matter, and perceptions matter. It is not only unfair but also dismissive to push an issue aside simply because it does not land clearly in one camp or another in our own thinking.
If clients came into my office and said they were depressed, I would be a poor clinician if I told them they were making something out of nothing as I sent them toward an exit. It is my job to understand their experience and then help them. I cannot help them if I cannot push myself to honestly listen to, thereby validating, their experience. Once I have honestly heard their statements, and only then, might there be room for me to suggest that maybe they were being overly sensitive. Or I might come to the conclusion that there was good reason for them to feel hurt.
When events happen such as the police beating in Dallas, it is not beyond reason to question the role of race despite the assertions by Chief Brown that no racial slurs were audible. The history of excessive force and Black males is well documented. Of course, it might solely be that the cops were angry that someone teased them on a motorcycle. But to wonder whether the fact that the man was Black played a role in the cops feeling able to not only beat him but also openly remark about it and move the camera is not unreasonable.
Similarly, the woman who claimed a Black woman threw acid in her face comes to mind. Did our stereotypes of Black women make the story more plausible? We do not know whether the woman was intentionally malicious in her decision to conjure up a Black woman, or whether her story was unconsciously influenced by racial baggage. We might never know, but that does not preclude the question.
Acknowledging the role of race does not mean that it will explain all the dynamics of a situation. Yet, refusing to even consider race as a factor might actually obscure our understanding.
Too often, when ambiguous racially charged stories come through the news cycle, people pick camps, refuse to entertain an alternative perspective and fail to explore gray areas. A perfect example is the recent photo controversy surrounding South Carolina Senate President Glenn McConnell, dressed in Confederate garb, being pictured with two African American re-enactors at a Southern themed event . Sides were immediately chosen, one asserting he was absolutely insensitive, another arguing it was a non-issue. What was missing was a real discussion about everything in between. What about overlapping issues such as the culture of re-enactments or the history of Gullah people (those the re-enactors were to have portrayed) and their land? We missed an opportunity to educate more broadly and promote respectful criticism and understanding.
Conversations sparked by the Drug Enforcement Administration's call for Ebonics translators were a decent example of pushing beyond the traditional racist/not racist paradigm. It is not as simple as deeming an event, comment or interaction as racist or not. An event can be racially tinged but not necessarily racist. Take for example, the coining of the phrase Teabonics. I discuss the play on words in depth , but generally I think the role of race and related connotations matter when discussing how this term was derived from, the controversial, Ebonics.
When it comes to issues of race, too often we are tempted to throw the baby out with the bath water . No audible racial slurs? No need to discuss the pressing issue of Black males and law enforcement. The acid wounds were self-inflicted? No need to ponder the repeated use of Black offenders in false reports.
I recognize the fact that some people on multiple sides of the issue use race as a way to stir up anger, division and resentment. But that fact alone, does not mean race is irrelevant or is to be avoided. The reality is that race continues to affect our individual, cultural and institutional lives. We need to be willing to dig into those complexities rather than run from them.
Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.