MONTERREY: Talking About Race--It's Supposed To Be Uncomfortable

Debbie Monterrey
March 11, 2018 - 6:59 pm

by Debbie Monterrey, [email protected]

"Race. Our national obsession..." 

A line from the one-act play, "Race," put on by the Civic Arts Company at the Missouri History Museum. It's written by Jamie Pachino, based on the book of the same name by Studs Terkel. I took my children to see it Sunday afternoon during our surprise March blizzard.

During the discussion period after the performance, one of the actors said, "Talking about race is uncomfortable. It's supposed to be uncomfortable. If it's comfortable, you're doing it wrong."

Ultimately, what we all need to agree upon, regardless of what color we are, is that we all have our own biases. We all have our own prejudices. Our willingness to recognize that in ourselves is the only way to move forward to talking about race, healing divisions and creating a healthier world for all of us. 

The Civic Arts Company, which put this performance together to coordinate with the History Museum's exhibit "#1 In Civil Rights," was born Post-Ferguson. Co-founder Terry Weiss told me it was formed as an attempt to do SOMETHING to move this conversation about race forward.

"We use the arts and education to address issues of social injustice in order to foster understanding and promote community development," says Weiss. "The language and the action of the play stimulates thought, but where we really get into the issues is (afterwards) when we have conversations with audience members."

Another Post-Ferguson organization is We Stories. Founders Laura Horwitz and Adelaide Lancaster wanted to DO something. The big elephant in the room in St. Louis is race. It's been that way for a long, long time--from the way our City was founded and grew, to our region being split half-free/half-slave, to restrictive covenants that forced black people into certain neighborhoods while barring them from others, to redlining by banks who refused to give loans to blacks and realtors who steered them away from white neighborhoods. In the St. Louis metropolitan area, African Americans are still 2.5 times more likely to be denied for a conventional mortgage loan, even controlling for income, neighborhood and loan amount. 

Post-Ferguson, many white families were shocked to see that not much had changed in St. Louis for many black families. We just hadn't noticed, because we didn't have to see it. In 2016, black drivers in Missouri were 75% more likely to be pulled over than white drivers, but less likely to be found with contraband, according to the 2016 Attorney General Vehicle Stop Report.  Numerous studies revealed the vicious cycle facing the poor/minorities by excessive ticketing of minor infractions that leads to financial hardship and jail time. Hearing stories about what black people in our own community face every day led some to excuse or deny it, but others realized how much they didn't know about the experiences and daily indignities of their black neighbors.

We Stories began with this basic premise: What would happen if white families from all across St. Louis decided to start talking to our young children about race and racism? Would it change how we see ourselves, our city and its people? Would it unlock the ability to contribute to a more hopeful future? And how do we start that conversation?

Horwitz says the best time to begin talking to your children about race is birth to age 7. That's a critical window when kids begin to notice race and form bias. But it doesn't happen in most white families.

"If you're of my generation and you're white, you were probably raised with this philosophy of 'color-blindess,' which is rooted in good intentions. But the idea is, if we don't talk about race, it's no longer a significant problem," says Horwitz. "The problem is, young children observe their social world all the time and when something isn't discussed, the main message that they get is that it's undiscussable."

So many white people avoid talking about race. Some for fear of saying the wrong thing or looking like a bad person. Some because they know their views would be frowned upon. But most white people can also get through a day without having to think about race, unless some minority happens to pop up in the news or in our space. Not so for minorities, especially black people. They go through the world every day being seen by others not as just a person, but first, as a black person.

Prejudice vs. Racism

We all have prejudice. All of us. Prejudice is negatively pre-judging someone without getting to know their thoughts or beliefs behind their actions. Any race can be prejudiced against another person or group. There's no power there, just feeling.

Racism on the other hand is prejudice, plus power. Racism is a structure or system that works to keep the race that's in power on top. It's a system that in this day and age can go completely unnoticed by many white people who think of racism as someone screaming the n-word on a street corner. 

Because many of us tend to avoid discussing race, and because many of us don't know people of color well enough to ever feel comfortable enough to ask them real questions about their experiences, we go about our lives thinking all is well. Until things blow up (like Ferguson) and we say, "I don't understand what everyone's so mad about!"

Truly, one of the best ways to increase understanding is simply getting to know people who are different than you. One of my favorite (true) stories told in "Race" was the KKK leader and the Civil Rights activist in Durham, North Carolina. Sworn enemies, the two were appointed to co-chair a commission on desegregating the public schools. No one would've predicted that the two would come to like and respect each other. How? They came to know each other as people. 

As a white person (or more specifically, a Eurasian-American) raising a black son, I have been shocked to hear the messages my son gets from the world, even in our very diverse neck of the woods. I remember wanting to cry when he asked out of the blue, "Mom, are brown people bad?" (he prefers saying brown instead of black). In our house filled with love and his school full of support and the impressive black people in our lives, that's still the message a young, black boy gets from the world. Brown skin is bad. 

We've come a long way...but we still have a long way to go.

(NOTE: The Civic Arts Company and We Stories are just two of many positive things to come out of the unrest in Ferguson. Both just happened to be on my radar this week).

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