Often, when I write about race, I frame the word in quotation marks or italicize it to highlight it for the reader. I want the reader to pause over the word, and reflect on its complex meanings rather than gloss over it, or pass it by as though it were inconsequential. I want to engage the reader in meaning-making. I want the reader to know that I am saying something that requires reading between the lines, and looking for the unspoken, or implied meanings that this powerful word connotes.
Race. The word is powerful and scary. In most social settings, people dance around it, or kick it into a corner, or under a rug, or do anything to avoid confronting it in a direct way. Many presume think this is the polite thing to do because race can be the source of so much agony, pain, fear, misunderstanding and unexpressed shame; it’s easier to pretend to ignore it. The problem is that when race is in the room, it’s in the room. Even when we pretend that is invisible, it can be the source of discord or tension or the thick silence that separates people.
I remember an old song titled “Isn’t it Lonely Together?,” which was about a married couple who were suffocating because of the silences that enveloped them. I think the “silenced dialogue” about race is suffocating us. I think our refusal to talk openly and honestly about race keeps us marking time like wind-up toys that move in crazy circles until they stop, or fall helplessly on their sides. Not only are we afraid to talk about race, we are also unwilling to listen — really listen — to each other and open ourselves to being transformed by someone else’s perspective on what race is or means based on a life experience that is different from our own. Sadly, most of us are socialized to think and behave this way.
Socialization begins in infancy, and continues throughout our lives. According to experts, it is “…the process by which human infants begin to acquire the skills necessary to perform as a functioning member of their society, and is the most influential learning process one can experience. Unlike many other living species, whose behavior is biologically set, humans need social experiences to learn their culture and to survive.”
Not only are we afraid to talk about race, we are also unwilling to listen — really listen — to each other and open ourselves to being transformed by someone else’s perspective on what race is or means based on a life experience that is different from our own.
Socialization is both a lens through which see the world and a guide for how to navigate it. Racial socialization is another complex layer in this process. Racial socialization teaches you how to live in your own skin, whether it is white, black, brown or any shade in between.
During a workshop on race last year, we were divided into small diverse groups and asked to think about, and then discuss, our first awareness of race. One of the white participants shared the following story about her early experience of race as a pre-teen. Here is her story:
“I was born and grew up in the suburban Midwest, and was from a very affluent family. Race was never discussed, because it didn’t have to be. The town was virtually all white, with one exception. A black man named Wendell lived in the town. I never met Wendell, but he was the only Wendell in the town. No one ever said his last name; maybe no one knew it. He was just Wendell. Everyone knew him because he was a handyman who did odd jobs and carpentry throughout the community. Wendell was respectful and polite, and as far as I could tell, he lived on the periphery of the town’s life and was nearly invisible. On the occasions that I did see him, he seemed to move through the town, quiet as a shadow, with his head tucked down toward his chest. It seemed that although he was a tall willowy man, he was trying to make himself smaller so he would take up less space. He didn’t bother anyone, and they didn’t bother him. One day, a man in the town decided to ‘honor’ Wendell by naming his black dog Wendell. This became a source of amusement for the man and others in the town. Soon after, others followed that man’s lead, and eventually every black dog in the town was named Wendell. Thereafter, when the name Wendell was called aloud, it was difficult to know if it was for the man or a dog.”
Among other things, the story is an example of how not just one child, but an entire town was socialized to think about race. Although dehumanizing Wendell became a town sport over the years, there is no way to know the long-term impact this had on individuals, especially children and young people, as they moved through their lives. There is also no way to know whether this painfully slow symbolic lynching [EH1] of the town’s only black man was ever addressed in social gatherings or in schools, and whether some of the participating townspeople were town leaders who would normally be expected to model good behavior. However, research about white racial socialization patterns suggests that it is not inconceivable that a discussion that linked Wendell to race and racism never came up in formal ways. But this did not mean that what was happening to Wendell had no emotional impact on some of those who either witnessed or perpetrated this public emasculation. My colleague who shared this story indicated that then, as now, the memory of Wendell caused her sadness, confusion and shame, which is consistent with other research on white racial socialization.
Diversity educator Ali Michael used her own personal story about how she was socialized to think about race, and it is very revealing. She talks about the emotional impact of being white, growing up in an all-white community, in a country constructed around racial divisions, and among people who spent their lives trying to erase race. Although it was a long, and difficult process, she learned that you can’t erase “race,” and you can’t erase racism by pretending that they don’t exist.
“Growing up in the suburban Midwest, I never talked about race with my family. We were white, all of our neighbors were white, and it never occurred to us that there was anything to say about that. As a result, in later years, I developed a deep sense of shame whenever I talked about race — particularly in college, where I was expected to make mature personal and academic contributions to race dialogues,” Michael writes in her essay “What White Children Need to Know About Race.” “At a certain point, I realized that this shame came from the silence about race in my childhood. The silence had two functions. It was at the root of my lack of competency to even participate in conversations on race. But it had also inadvertently sent me the message that race was on a very short list of topics that polite people do not discuss. My parents did not intend for me to receive this message, but because we never talked about race, I learned to feel embarrassed whenever it came up. And so even when I wanted to participate in the conversation, I had to contend with deep feelings of shame and inadequacy first.”
Michael’s story about how she was socialized to think about, and respond to, race is revealing. It reconfirms how complex the issue of race is, and why ignoring it feeds the status quo, ensuring that there will be distance and sticky silences between the races — unless we are willing to engage in what Lisa Delpit calls a “special kind of listening…that requires not only open eyes and ears, but open hearts and minds.”
“We do not really see through our eyes or hear through our ears, but through our beliefs. To put our beliefs on hold is to cease to exist as ourselves for a moment — and that is not easy,” Delpit says. “It is painful as well, because it means turning yourself inside out, giving up your own sense of who you are, and being willing to see yourself in the unflattering light of another’s angry gaze. It is not easy, but it is the only way to learn what it might feel like to be someone else and the only way to start the dialogue.”
Dr. Gloria Holmes is a professor emeritus at the School of Education at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. Committed to promoting cultural literacy in schools and communities, she has worked as a diversity trainer for the Anti- Defamation League and has conducted anti-bias workshops for the Connecticut State Department of Education.