Ever since large numbers of white folks collectively decided to acknowledge the existence of racism in 2020, there has been a prevalence of “The Conversation”.
You know the conversation I’m talking about, the race conversation, also known in some spaces as the diversity/inclusion/awareness conversation that many companies, academic institutions and media outlets have seemingly decided to prioritize in the past year.
I’m all in favor of The Conversation… in theory. In fact, I’ve spent much of my career facilitating these kinds of discussions with college students, faculty and staff. Yet, as time goes on, I realize that not all of these types of conversations are useful and that’s partially because not all people who facilitate them are well-equipped to do so.
Earlier this week, I saw a few clips from the The Bachelor: After the Final Rose finale in which guest host, author and media personality, Emmanuel Acho, talked to Bachelor finalist, Rachael Kirkconnell, about the controversy surrounding pictures of her at an antebellum plantation party in 2018. Kirkconnell attended the party as a part of Kappa Alpha’s (a college fraternity) “Old South Week”, a tradition in which they participate in various forms of Confederate nostalgia.
In the conversation with Kirkconnell, in an attempt analyzing her actions, Acho made some interesting comments:
“There’s a difference between being racist and racially insensitive, or racially ignorant… What you did was racially insensitive, it was racially ignorant and it plays itself out at racism. But that doesn’t necessarily classify someone as a racist. You have to pull back the curtains and look at their intentions… Was their intention malicious?”
Hearing these comments, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What the f*** is he talking about? And why is he trying so hard to make this Daughter of the Confederacy feel better about herself?”
Racism is not just about intent, the impact of racist actions matter too. That’s “race conversation 101” level knowledge, how’d he fumble that? Also, what exactly does “racially insensitive” and “racially ignorant” mean? If a person does something racist, it’s racist.
But what this made me realize is that many of these conversations fail not only because understanding whiteness and white supremacy can be a lifelong process, but also because the hosts/facilitators center white feelings and emotions.
You cannot have an honest conversation about race while simultaneously seeking to validate and protect white feelings, I’ve never seen it work. You can’t even fully talk about race or racism without examining whiteness and white supremacy as concepts.
However, I also had to understand that there are some people who build their whole brands around addressing white folk’s comfort. I mean, Acho’s New York Times best-selling book is literally titled “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man”.
Whose comfort are we talking about?
My suggestion is for these companies and media outlets to definitely continue to hire Black people and other folks from marginalized racial identities to facilitate these conversations, but more importantly, hire people who are actually doing the work. There are countless professors, activists, community organizers, writers, historians and sociologists who teach and talk about these subjects for a living and have been doing it for years. Hire them.
And if you’re a Black person who’s called upon to lead these conversations, first, ask yourself the following: How much have I really studied race/racism? What books have I read? How does my work prioritize the experiences of the marginalized? Do I interact with any other Black people on a daily basis? What is my understanding of white supremacy on a systemic, institutional and global level? Is there someone more well-versed than me whose work or voice I can highlight?
So, to the Emmanuel Acho’s, the Van Joneses, and Kevin Frazier’s of the world. I’m sure you mean well. But trust me, it is not your job to clean up white folk’s messes and make them feel better for racism. It’s damn sure not your job to make sure other people are comfortable in your Blackness.
I know the check might be lucrative, but consider your values for a minute. Maybe take a step back to do some homework and give someone with more experience the floor.