Once again, we’re hearing calls for a heart-to-heart about race and racism.

In 1997, President Clinton began a discussion on the topic by appointing an advisory board. In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama urged citizens to move beyond treating race as a spectacle. Less than a year later, Attorney General Eric Holder called the United States “a nation of cowards” because we do not confront issues of race and racism openly and honestly.

Now, in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s subsequent trial, Associate Professor for the Division of Humanities and Communication John Berteaux offers his insights.

John BerteauxIs racism a phenomenon of individuals or institutions or both?

While individuals may recognize that racism exists, they disagree about what it is. For some, any differentiation between persons on the basis of race is racist; racism is just differential treatment. Or is it a matter of one individual not liking or mistreating another on the basis of race prejudice? To determine whether an act is racist or not, should we look at the intentions or the effects? Does racial discrimination always have to be intentional, or are there cases in which individuals or communities are unconscious of their racist perceptions and actions?

How one answers these questions makes a big difference. For example, if racism is simply personal bias, then we can help individuals see their racism and overcome it. Or I might, on a personal basis, want to deal with my own racism. But if racism is in fact a product of educational, legal, economic and other institutions, then addressing the problem at the level of the individual is likely to prove insufficient.

I’m not a racist – am I?

Given that our mental lives are not fully transparent to conscious thought – that it is impossible to look inward, critically reflect and grasp with complete accuracy all the grounds for our thoughts, words or actions – is it possible to possess the legitimacy or moral authority to determine what is impartial or just? Not only am I not fully transparent to myself, the minds of others are especially mysterious. Neuroscientist and philosopher Antonio Damasio notes accordingly that we cannot observe the minds of others and only observe our own minds through a very narrow window.

How do race and racism function?

I am reminded of a line from the movie “Death and the Maiden.” You may remember the scene in which Sigourney Weaver’s husband interrogates her. Again and again he insists that she explain why she didn’t tell him she was raped while in custody in Argentina’s “dirty war.” Finally, in frustration, she blurts out, “There is a difference between hearing the facts and knowing the details.”

I took her to mean that while she could give him the facts, it was details that rendered what happened to her real and he could never absorb the depth of her experiences – the details. I think race, gender, disability and sexuality all work in this way. They can injure the individual in a myriad of ways (i.e., psychologically, socially and economically). But cognitive awareness of these facts falls far
short of deep personal understanding, either of the roots, the nature, or the consequences of the individual’s experience.

So is any conversation about race and racism a waste of time?

Maybe before we start talking about race and racism, what is needed is a heart-to-heart about the underlying assumptions and beliefs that frame our interactions. We assume a lot any time we engage with one another, but especially when we get involved in difficult conversations about controversial topics. Are we all talking about the same thing? Often, we find we aren’t.