Not talking about it...A pretty wide-spread approach I see among white people is to treat the question of race as a no man's land, a territory of such prickly feelings that we're better off not going there. I've seen white kids go to great lengths to describe the lone black person in a group by everything but skin color, which can turn the process of relating routine events of a school day into a Byzantine exercise.--"The one in the red shirt--the tall one, the short one..." Red shirt? Tall? Who?
The impulse is good--we don't want to offend. We breathe the same air that our grandparents exhaled at the height of Jim Crow, that our great-great grandparents breathed during slave times. Those molecules affect our awareness. We don't want to come across as "racist", which is laudable, but what we are is confused. We don't know what to do with our common and agonized racial history, and this being America, where knowledge of our own history is less emphasized than what's over the next rise on Route 95, we can get away with pretending that racial differences don't exist. Most of the time. The other times, we're not prepared for.
The result is a passive segregation...because, of course, we know the differences are as real as the facts of our history. We tend to avoid more than workplace acquaintance with people of color, sensing that more involvement would make us uncomfortable...and we might inadvertently say the wrong thing. We may avoid offending, but we also fail to challenge our own stereotypes, because avoidance doesn't humanize the person we view as "other."
When I felt the pull to deal with the question of race in my own life, I made a fool of myself a few times. I got over it. Certainly the people of color I was worried about "offending" didn't need me to stand up for them. Next post, I'll talk about some of the benefits of looking at race and asking oneself some hard questions.