In conversations over race, embrace discomfort


The Appalachian Online

Kevin Griffin


The situation at the University of Missouri has been the latest in a long line of incidents that have forced us to confront our twisted handling of racial issues.

This is always a difficult thing to talk about, and for that reason it is necessary to talk about it. Far too many white Americans have problematic blind spots when it comes to looking at the issues that people of color face in this country.

We can see that clearly in the reaction to Missouri and to the Black Lives Matter movement. Even some well-meaning white Americans might wonder “why the anger?”

Well, we need only to look at the last year to answer that. In June, there was one of the most prominent racial massacres we have seen in some time. Since, then black churches around the country have been the target of what is, frankly, domestic terrorism.

Combine that with weekly or even daily news stories of another person of color who has been abused or killed by law enforcement, and it’s easy to see why many people of color are on edge right now.

You don’t have to be black to understand that, but it goes to the multiple double standards at play. There are far too many instances of senseless white, typically right-winged rage to count, yet this never seems to stick to white people the way it does with people of color.

So, as we move forward in trying to make some progress on this issue, we should treat this anger and these protests with the degree of legitimacy they deserve.

Within that context, though, I still believe there are difficult questions that do not have easy answers.

On college campuses, one of the new target of efforts to combat racism involves looking into the everyday social interactions and how they reinforce racist, sexist or homophobic ideas.

This issue of microaggressions raises many questions. Of course, the structural level of racism in our society does include subtle manifestations, even by people who aren’t ardent racists.

Yet, what are the consequences of regulating behavior at this level?

Administrators and school officials have an absolute obligation to combat discrimination and harassment on their campuses, but is there really a just way to regulate what might be seemingly minor words or expressions?

Everyone should be more sensitive to racial dynamics, and I think it would be a good idea to have classes at all level of education that would explore issues of race in much more comprehensive terms.

Yet, another concern I have is that an emphasis on microaggressions could have a chilling effect on interaction. After all, it might lead to an sense of self-consciousness in interactions between people of difference races in which people are concerned about slipping up and being inadvertently offensive.

Of course, there is a strong response to that claim. People of color live not only in fear for their lives in many circumstances, but also deal with condescension in everyday interactions.

If anyone is uncomfortable about microaggressions, it is the people who are on the receiving end.

In both points, I see validity in both and navigating that tension is difficult.

If we are going to have these conversations, white Americans need to embrace that discomfort and that tension.

If anything is clear, it is that people of color have been shouldering more than their fair share of discomfort for far too long.

Griffin, a senior journalism major from Madison is an opinion writer.