OPINION: Talking about racism should be uncomfortable

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Mya Cummins

What can be done about racism when white people decide it’s too uncomfortable to talk about?

Justin Farris

Racism should be uncomfortable. A simple reason why might be that racism being viewed as uncomfortable means it is not openly accepted, but that is disputable, and a shallower interpretation than what I intend to discuss. I mean to say that we, we being white Americans, cannot afford to only talk about racism when it is comfortable.

This is a problem that I have seen many times when the topic of race and racism comes up in discussion. Often, especially with white Americans, we try to avoid conversations about racism whenever we can. It’s not fun to talk about. It’s messy, complicated, and it can wind up really hurting your relationships if you disagree with someone. So why am I saying that we need to have these conversations?

There are many reasons, but one central one would be that racism isn’t about us. I don’t mean that many white Americans, like me, don’t indirectly, often even unintentionally, contribute to a racist societal structure. We do. Rather, that the discussion of racism in America should not be dominated by the feelings of middle class white Americans, or in other words, the people least directly impacted by racism. 

I was first made aware of this through conversations with some of my friends, but the one I’d like to talk about is my friend Shawn Tumboken-Flowers (11, MST). I met him setting up Dungeons and Dragons games at the games club after school on Wednesdays in my freshman year. After a while we ended up in the same game, and over quarantine I got to know him better due to spending time playing Dungeons and Dragons and other similar games online with him and other friends.

The conversation in particular that inspired this piece happened on November 4, 2020. The election was on everyone’s minds, and I got into a discussion with Shawn and a few others about it, and that eventually led into the topic of racism. The specifics of the conversation elude me now, but it’s what Shawn told me afterward that stuck with me the most. I was venting about how one of our friends had blown off the conversation and comparing it to how many Americans refuse to challenge their political beliefs, and Shawn responded with this.

“Well Justin, its because most cis white men get to just walk away from these discussions without consequence. Too many of them, the stripping of other people’s rights, is merely an inconvenience in the long run. Everyone else on the other hand, it matters because that’s our livelihoods.”

It really got me thinking. I believe that Shawn is right. Many white people are permitted to just ignore the topic of race if they feel like it. We can back out of those conversations, or shut them down before they really get started. For one, many minorities don’t have that privilege. Not knowing about racism if you’re a young black man for instance, can leave you with a substantially higher chance of ending up dead at the hands of a police officer, or an “officer involved shooting” as the news likes to put it. 

This in turn made me realize something else. Whether we realize it or not, by enacting this strange social structure where white people are allowed to dodge racial conversations, we’re essentially prioritizing our own comfort, over many more important things. For example, potentially saving the lives of people around us, our African-American friends and family who are constantly at more risk than almost any other group in America due to the color of their skin. Or perhaps the still very present problem that the United States has with handicapping the minorities and the poor at almost every turn. Better yet, try actually taking a chance to discuss a problem with someone who has direct experience with the fallout of the system’s failings. Try having a serious discussion that might cause that oh-so-scary positive change in your worldview.

My point is this. Combatting racism is too important for us to ignore when we feel like it. Talking about a problem is the only way you’re ever going to find a solution, or at least something that makes the situation more bearable for those who are suffering or living in fear. We need to learn to suck up a little discomfort sometimes, because it’s the cost of acknowledging that we live in a nation built on the back of slaves, lynchings, native genocides, and all sorts of heinous acts. We need to suck it up and talk it out, because every time we chicken out of a race conversation because we feel squeamish, it brings the avoidable death of another person, guilty of nothing but darker colored skin, that much closer.