Commentary: Talking About Race Certainly Isn’t Pointless

Commentary: Talking About Race Certainly Isn’t Pointless

An essay supporting an old and toxic stance — that we should stop talking about race — is a paradoxical reminder to keep talking about race.

Published September 8, 2011

John McWhorter, conservative columnist for The Root, has gone on another one of his characteristic rants, this one about America’s ever-expanding conversation about race. As you might imagine, McWhorther finds discussions about race “pointless”:


“In Ralph Banks' new book, Is Marriage for White People? a Black interviewee says that she is uncomfortable when her white partner doesn't understand the racism behind experiences such as store clerks asking, "May I help you?" The idea is that these clerks wish you weren't in the store. 


“Now, in my experience, clerks often say "May I help you?" on orders to be solicitous, or even because they want to get you to buy more to up their commission. In New York, quite often I get "May I help you?" from black Caribbean and African clerks. I suspect that people like Banks' interviewee are interpreting the clerks' question inaccurately — at least usually.”


You can read McWhother’s entire argument here, but the gist is this: Talking about race is useless because Black activists don’t approach the discussion fairly, forcing whites to cower in fear.


It’s a fair argument, but it’s also a bogus one.


At least since 1989, when the Chicago Tribune published a piece detailing Chicagoans' differing views on America’s racial dialogue, people have been complaining that we talk too much about race. “Sure, black people used to have a tough time getting a job or getting into colleges, but nowadays, if they're qualified, all they have to do is just show up and they`re going to receive preferential treatment,” said one person. Another added, “We could solve these racial problems if the media would just stop making such a big deal about it all the time.”


The “just ignore it and it will go away” mentality is certainly older than McWhorter himself, and to anyone who supports it I have one question: How’s that working out for us, a nation that continues to be mired in racial inequity in most respects?


If we’re going to be fair, we need to admit that there are some Black Americans — or many, perhaps — who don’t come to the racial bargaining table to chat reasonably about race. Indeed, some people have chips on their shoulders that make them irresponsive to good arguments and unwilling to abandon bad ones. That being said, calling talks about race “pointless” is easily one of the most dangerous proclamations put forth about the race debate.


The irony of McWhorther’s piece, of course, is that, just by writing it, he’s contributing even more to the “pointless” discussion on race, meaning it stands to reason that he doesn’t actually believe that talking about race is a meaningless pursuit. Rather, it looks like he just disagrees with the way talks about race are framed. That’s totally fine, but what’s not fine is imploring people to ignore race because there’s no way to approach the issue fairly. All that does is add fuel to the fire, saying that Blacks are whiners complaining about nothing, which compels Blacks to complain that whites are calloused and deaf to all the problems of African-Americans. Neither of those are realities, and to propagate them is what’s truly "pointless."


The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

(Photo: REUTERS/Mike Segar)

Written by Cord Jefferson


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