How to engage in interracial dialogue when you have no friends of color

George Shuffleton Writing Seminar Class

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As you might know from our previous blog posts and from just knowing us, you know that we are supporters of interracial dialogue. We have been a part of our college’s Critical Conversations program for a few years now–Critical Conversation is Carleton’s version of Intergroup Dialogue. A key principle of intergroup dialogue is that there is a diverse set of participants in these sustained and structured dialogue about identity, power, and privilege. If a dialogue group is focused on race, for example, it is ideal to have half of the participants who identify as White and half who identify as people of color. At Carleton, our groups do not focus on race solely but the general idea is to have groups that are diverse along various identity groups. We believe that, in order to understand differences in experiences and identities, it’s important to have people in the room with a range of experiences and understandings of how their identities matter in the world.

However, these kinds of interracial settings for dialogue about race often have to be intentionally organized because of the high levels of racial segregation that continues to exist in the U.S. As one study found, 75% of White Americans have no friends of color. How then are these White folx supposed to engage in interracial dialogue?

One way that some folx have tried to do so is to reach out to people who are visible in the public eye for speaking about race. We want to highlight today two discussions about what happens when the only people of color a White person knows is a celebrity and how these folx of color feel about engaging in conversations about race with people they don’t know. Hmm, given the topic of our last post, we’re seeing a theme here, right? Shall we call it incidents of “Random Racial Interrogative Accosting”? RRIA, for short. Rhymes with diarrhea. [Shoutout to our buddy, Kevin Wolfe, for helping us come up with that! Thank you, brother!]

Both of these discussions feature one of our favorite media person who speaks about race–Gene Demby who co-hosts the podcast, NPR’s Code Switch.

First is a conversation published on Slate that starts with a particular incident of RRIA that happened to Gene Demby and the second discussion is on the podcast, About Race, where Demby talks more about this incident.

Check these out and let us know if you’ve ever had a RRIA experience yourself as a person of color!

P.S. Given the current racial demographics of the country and residential segregation patterns, it can be hard for White folx to figure out how to get started on these kinds of conversations. Here are a few resources and local organizations:

Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism–from Ferguson to Charleston

Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) MN

Workshops by YWCA Minneapolis’s racial justice department

Oh, Tilda.

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Dear Emma,

You don’t know us, but you’ve been in our heads for years. We’re fans. We’ve enjoyed seeing you on the screen in many a movie, including the one where you’re playing a hapa character. Oh wait, we didn’t see that one. Because Whitewashing. Which leads us to why we are writing to you. We want to ask you some questions about a truly important social conversation that we hear is happening on social media. No, we lie. We don’t just hear about it. We read about and engage in those conversations all the time because it is important to us. Mostly, though, we have these conversations with other people of color and we decided that perhaps we needed a White perspective on this issue, especially from someone who has a recent role in perpetuating this longstanding phenomenon in American popular culture.

We hope that you will be willing to answer these questions even though you have no idea who we are. Tell us to fuck off if you want, but you’re probably aware that we’re only two of many folx who are invested in these questions and in getting answers.

What gave you the confidence to feel like you could portray well a hapa character? Were there questions for you as you read the script about “Could I authentically the experience of someone whose multiracial identity might have subjected them to discrimination, self-doubts, exclusion, and bonds of community?” If all you thought was “I can portray that person because she’s a person, and well, so am I. Color does not matter,” what gave you the confidence not to think about how racial identities are built, established, and reproduced through histories and social circumstances? What kinds of experiences have you had in your life that “Color don’t matter”? When you say, “The character was not supposed to look like her background which was a quarter Hawaiian and a quarter Chinese,” what do you imagine it means to “look like” one’s background?  

As scholars of race, while we are deeply suspicious of any statement that suggests race is written on the body in meaningful (consistent) ways, we also recognize that much of racism and racialized experiences are based on the fact that we assume we can accurately place people into racial categories and we act on those assumptions. As Omi and Winant put it, “Race is ocular in an irreducible way. Human bodies are visually read, understood, and narrated by means of symbolic meanings and associations.” Because this is all so complex, we want to know what kind of conversations you have had and are having about the complexities of racial identities and experiences and what exactly you feel you have learned from the debate about “Aloha.” [And we don’t want to get too much into racial theory right now since this email is already getting long, but see our P.S. for some suggestions on what to read.]

We thank you for taking time to read this letter and for answering our questions.

Your fans,

Adriana & Anita

P.S.

Michael Omi & Howard Winant, 2015, Racial formation in the United States, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge)

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, 2013, Racism without racists, 4th ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers)

Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, 1996. (New York: The New Press)

Yen Le Espiritu, 1992, Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press).

Note to our blog readers

Happy new year, y’all!

If somehow in the excitement of making and possibly already breaking your New Year’s resolutions, you missed the email exchange between Tilda Swinton and Margaret Cho on the whitewashing of Hollywood movies, (a) check it out here and (b) check out the fabulous analysis by Tracy Clayton, Heben Nigatu, and Gene Demby about the email exchange on this episode of Another Round, starting at 3:50.

Inspired by our take on Tilda Swinton–i.e. she’s someone who thought she wanted to listen, decided to reach out to someone she did not know personally, and sent this email as “kindly” as she thought possible–we decided that we should write to a White actress we don’t know to ask her our questions about why she chose to participate in an instance of Whitewashing in Hollywood. And we imagine that the letter above might have been the kind of letter Margaret Cho might have written back to Swinton if she hadn’t been so kind in her first response, and if she had been as salty as we felt reading Swinton’s first email.