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White people find it hard to talk about race

Jul 26, 2016

 A Washington Post-ABC News poll shows the majority of Americans think race relations are getting worse. Concern about race relations spiked shortly after the reports of white police officers killing black men. Since the poll, two black men have targeted and killed police.

Kwasi Akwamu.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

If you’re white, you might be surprised by increased racial tensions. If you’re black, you know there’s been tension all along.

“Prior to the video phones and video taping of police murder, it had been happening continuously from one generation to the next,” noted Kwasi Akwamu, a small business owner in Detroit. 

He says the only difference is technology and the internet.

“There has never been a period when we’ve never been lynched, we’ve never been slain in the streets for the suspicion of an act. I mean, those things –it’s part of our history. It hasn’t changed. It’s just changed form,” Akwamu said. 

Police data bear that out. Police are not killing any more or any fewer black people than they have in the past. Cell phone video and the internet have just made us all more aware with sometimes-gruesome scenes.

“For people of color, we always knew that happened,” said Lauren Hood of Detroit. Companies hire her for diversity training.

“I’ve been stopped by the police for no reason. My mom referred to it as ‘Driving While Black,’ DWB. The media attention to those stories just brought it out to everyone who wasn’t a person of color. Like, welcome to our world. We’ve always known that that was a problem. Now, everybody else knows,” Hood said.

Lauren Hood.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

She says that for many white people, race is a very difficult thing to discuss. That’s true even if you think of yourself as enlightened, progressive, or liberal.

“It’s a place most people aren’t willing to go, particularly people that are liberal and think they’re doing the right thing all the time. So, if you think you’ve already arrived at some point of consciousness and someone tells you you’re not quite there yet, you’re not ready for it. You get defensive,” she explained.  

One of the tools to avoid that defensiveness is an online test. The Harvard implicit bias test takes about ten minutes and helps determine if you are subconsciously biased.

“When you present the data to people that way, it absolves them from responsibility. So, you say, ‘Ah, see what the data have shown: that you have an unconscious bias. It’s not you; you’re not choosing this way of thinking. It’s something unconscious that existed, operating in the background, that you might not be paying attention to when you’re making decisions. And it shapes how you see the world, but you’re not conscious of it all the time,’” Hood said.  

(You can take an unconscious bias test here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html )

But, only a fraction of the population is going to take that test. Others hold racial animosity and are not going to change. But for those interested in improving relationships between whites and people of color, a key is getting white people to better understand the plight of others.

“Especially right now with so much national news and conversation happening around these topics too, you’d think more people would be plugged in. But personally, my experience is that some of my closest friends, who I think are progressive, don’t necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about these issues,” said Claire Nelson.  

Claire Nelson
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Nelson runs an organization called Urban Consulate. It's housed in a historic house in Midtown Detroit, and brings together economic developers and investors with people who want to start new small businesses in Detroit.

Recently, it also began to invite the people who live in those neighborhoods to sit down and talk. Nelson calls the discussions “parlors.”

“Often times when you’re talking about development and investment, the people speaking about that are the people who are representing the banks or commercial interests,” Nelson explained. 

Most of those voices are white. 

“And so, we’re trying to flip that a little bit and have the voices leading conversations be more community based, or who are creative artists, or who’ve been around a little longer, can share some history and context,” Nelson said.

Nelson says hearing more diverse voices –people of color who live in the neighborhoods, and their concerns about economic development-  has been an eye-opener for some people, including her.

She says in the past, she saw segregation as a matter of the white suburbs versus the black city.

Now she says she can see segregation up close, at the neighborhood level, because of those talks.

Supporting new stores and other developments in this fast-changing area of Detroit has been her work for several years. She says she’d been blind to some of the issues that could cause the neighborhood problems, such as rising rents.

“I think it’s been a growing awareness and an ongoing conversation that’s helped me see things that I didn’t see five years ago. Examples, I guess, would be sources for stories or speakers that we’ve had, who’ve for whatever reason  had a lot of courage in order to call out some stuff...some BS, and some hypocrisy that I think I’ve been immune to, perhaps, before this,” Nelson said.  

Nelson says being closer to people of color, having private conversations about race, and noting their observations have helped her grow.

Longtime Detroit residents such as Kwasi Akwamu want to know whether the new white residents and business owners truly are going to be invested in the city.

“How many people are living in the neighborhoods where black people are going through it. I mean, are their children going to the schools, the same challenged schools that we are going to? Are they really experiencing what we experience, and ready to mobilize for real change because of that experience?" Akwamu asked. 

He wants the new white population to recognize the struggles of the current residents.

“It’s a frustration which sees the disparities, but doesn’t fully understand them,” he added.

Racism is about white attitudes toward people of color. It’s about bigotry, and it’s about unconscious bias.

Lauren Hood says the only way to fix any of that is to talk to people who are subject to it:

“In order to move forward, we just have to be fearless in having these conversations.” 

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.