Race Conversations . . . Taboo?

I recently read Beverly Tatum’s, Ph. D., book titled “Why Are the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race, and found it both illuminating and hard to digest. The book covers a variety of issues pertaining to race; however, I found that the most interesting section was talking about race.

I remember when I was little, around the age of 4, and first started noticing that everybody was not alike. We are different colors. I even pondered why this was and came to the conclusion that it had to be dietary. I thought it had to do with how much coffee or tea someone drank, and that in turn determined what skin tone any given person would have. For a 4 year old, it’s not a bad hypothesis; however, I distinctly remember never voicing my opinion on the matter. Why?

A 4 year old should be curious about their surroundings and ask questions, and in my case I usually did. It could have been that I thought I was right and it was a done deal, I may have started a question about noticing these differences and got shushed by my parent(s), or considering my family, race is never talked about, so I in turn did the same. Tatum touches on this and she says what most likely happens is the child will be shushed or they won’t ask the question because children do notice patterns of not talking about certain things; racial differences being one of those things.

Now, I understand not wanting to talk to a young child about race because it can feel overwhelming. Afraid of confusing the child or saying the wrong the thing can be valid if the child all of a sudden asks a race orientated question catching the person off guard. An instinctive reaction can be to shush the child. Tatum says, after this incident:

“Children who have been silenced often enough learn not to talk about race publicly. Their questions don’t go away, they just go unasked.”

But, let us say that we are no longer talking about children and instead talking about high school students, college students, or even adults. There is still a tendency not to talk about race. Once again, why? The topic of race causes tension. Race is difficult to talk about because no one wants to say something wrong and/or have their own words be misconstrued as racism. There is this constant elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.

So the last question is: should we talk about this elephant in the room? I think we should. Don’t get me wrong, it will be a challenge. First an atmosphere needs to be created in which nobody feels threatened both physical and verbally, and secondly we need to get over this hump of being afraid to talk about race. Have some sort of conversation starter whether it is a historical event, a poem, or Beverly Tatum’s book. As long as it involves discussing race, it can get the ball rolling. And if you are having trouble with talking about race, just remember that simply talking about race does not in any way make someone racist.


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