“Honest” conversation on race: why I think that it will never happen

Workout notes: easy 3 mile walk. That was it.

“Honest conversation on race”: my guess is that this will never happen. Here is why I think this:

1. When I hear someone say “honest conversation”, it appears to me that the person who wants the “conversation” really wants is others to stay silent while they go on and on.

2. Honestly expressing what one feels can lead to trouble: (example 1, example 2)

3. The truth is quite complicated; there are many pieces to the puzzle which include things like jobs, the legacy of legal racism, educational opportunities, criminal justice practices (profiling , bad law enforcement practices and the like), lack of economic mobility (and increasingly dire consequences of this) and pathological social behavior.

4. Humans appear to be hard wired to reason inductively. That is, we tend to form conclusions on “what we see” and “what we see” tends to be very limited and

5. Humans appear to be tribal.

And so it goes. We notice that the crime rates are higher in the neighborhoods where more blacks live. Perhaps a black person has behaved rudely toward us. So our lesser developed part of our brain draws a hasty conclusion.

But then what about things like this? If we mostly associate with white people (or our own race), we KNOW that most “aren’t like that” and we write those behaving badly as a few “bad apples.” But…how many friends and colleagues do we have from another race? So when we find ourselves thinking “well, my friend X, who happens to be black, well, he/she must be “one of the exceptions” instead of realizing that it is the jerk and criminal that are the exceptions!

Our brains play tricks on us; our brains evolved to help us survive in the world as it was 50,000 years ago, when letting “that other tribe” get to our watering hole might have meant the end for us.

And, sadly, when people speak honestly, we demonize them. Those who express fear of “getting off on the “wrong exit”” are denounced as racists, and those who speak of “structural racism” are denounced as being apologists for all sorts of socially pathological behavior.

Sadly, I have no solutions. What I can say that I was the most comfortable back in the days when I played team sports, especially in Japan. Why? Well, then I had lots of different friends of different races (rather than just internet friends). We visited each other’s houses, trained together. practiced together, socialized together and took the field together.

Oh, I got in fights with people of “other colors”…as in “other color uniforms”.

I really miss those days.

I wish that our university could somehow merge with a historically black university so I could work in a more racially diverse environment, or at least I wish there were more racial diversity in the running/walking community.

But, I feel that Americans are really too racially segregated for there ever to be much common ground.


May 29, 2015 - Posted by | racism, social/political, walking |


  1. Ollie, a couple of thoughts. I grew up in an all-white environment, so I feel really unprepared to talk about race. It makes me really uncomfortable and afraid of saying the wrong thing. One example, when I first was getting to know my boss at the migrant council, we were discussing our families; her family had been really poor growing up, had come from Mexico when she was five and had struggled. We both had alcoholic dads to bond over. In reference to that, I remember saying something like, “But my dad was a functioning alcoholic and always worked.” She responded that her dad had always worked, too.

    Honestly, at the time I was really naive and didn’t really know about the working poor. In my mind, I had assumed that they were poor because her dad couldn’t keep a job. I still feel awful about it, because I’m sure she thought I meant because he was Hispanic, he was lazy. I was much more careful about what I said after that.

    Your point about people being tribal applies to a lot of situations. I have heard my female co-workers say that “female bosses are the worst.” (And I’m female and the boss of some of them. 🙂 ) I’ve pointed out that they’ve probably had ten bosses that are male, and they think of their faults as individual faults. “Geoff was such a jerk.” But, they’ve had limited experience with female bosses, so they assign the bad characteristics of the one boss to all female bosses. I see people do this with their kids, too. If their kid is misbehaving (or a kid from “their tribe” is misbehaving) they often dismiss it as a “bad day,” but if someone else’s kid is misbehaving, it’s a sign of poor character on the part of that child.

    I also think of tribalism as “liking those like ourselves” and it’s really hard to get past. For example, if I am interviewing for a position at my library and a candidate has a similar background and we immediately connect upon that basis, it’s hard to remove that from the equation when debating who to hire. For me, that really equates to a white middle-class privilege problem, because my background is solely rooted in white culture and the middle class. Unfortunately, even with the best intentions, I can be a part of the problem.

    My husband is a Repub and he has such a hard time seeing these nuances. He thinks people are either racist or not racist and that if they are racist, it’s about hating another race. I think if we don’t acknowledge it, we can’t work on it and that most of the racism today is much more subtle and not something we might even identify as racism.

    Comment by jenjw4 | May 29, 2015 | Reply

    • I pretty much agree with what you said. It does get tough when it appears that one group of people always appear to be asking for help.

      Working poor: sure. I do know something about that. Your other comment about relating better to “people like ourselves” is why I am a fan of affirmative action. Example: many years ago, we had an unexpected opening for a 1-year math faculty position; so of course we advertised but we were asked “do you know of anyone?” And one of my grad school friends got the job …as I was just out of grad school and he happened to be looking. He had an advantage because we were friends to begin with and given that our work/social lives tend to be segregated…

      Comment by blueollie | May 29, 2015 | Reply

  2. […] just call these statement “racist”: well, I’ve heard that we need to have an “honest conversation on race” but we’ll never have that when someone’s honestly heart-felt “observations” […]

    Pingback by Free speech and social media: are we now overreacting to personal opinions? « blueollie | June 12, 2015 | Reply

  3. […] Yes, I’ve talked about this before. And yes, I remain pessimistic. […]

    Pingback by Talking past each other: Racism « blueollie | June 21, 2015 | Reply

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