It’s not easy to write a column about race relations, as they directly concern blacks and whites, even though the University audience consists of mostly white students. Any ongoing, forward-thinking conversation about racial taboos in society will uncover squeamish responses.

How comfortable are we with talking about race? How comfortable are we with the word “reparations” — let alone any real conversation about reparation policy — and with the word “slavery”? Would we honestly account for our personal opinions about race relations in a public space? The answers to these questions provide insight into the role race plays on the surface. But instead, racial dialogue is often watered-down or held in spaces where anonymity can be guaranteed (i.e., online comment forums).

I am certainly not always completely forward. I have strategically edited out certain emotional responses or “radical” suggestions for change. Some might think, for example, that a proposal for a $4 trillion stimulus package for black community rebuilding is a bit much, but often it takes dramatic efforts to account for dramatic disparities, like consistently lower-quality education at predominately black schools. But rather than trying to satisfy both sides — either those who ignore race-talk or those who, like me, bask in racial liberation glory — it’s more important that these conversations thrive.

An active attempt must be made to confront the challenges of speaking about racial issues in public. For the most part, it seems whites have a harder time talking about race. Whites are comparatively silent on racial issues. Though many blacks seem more vocal about race, there are blacks that are quiet about race or have deemed that racial barriers have been overcome. If we compare these groups in the context of life experience and privilege, some truths are made apparent.

Many blacks live with oppressive forces every day. Blacks sometimes face concern when driving in secluded white rural areas of America or fear racially motivated police brutality. And some blacks have to worry if a noose will be hung for them in a high school courtyard. It was fear that motivated the group of black teenagers called the Jena Six who were charged with beating Justin Baker. The Jena Six were angry after Baker and his friends hung a noose for black students after previous violent conflicts. In contrast to blacks, many whites can go a long time without considering what it’s like to be oppressed. It’s as if silence is a result of privilege.

Perhaps this can be applied to silent blacks as well. It seems there are two “types” of blacks that predominate the silent scene. However rare the population of ultra-conservative blacks is, they remain a dominant influence in politics and the media. Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly appropriately represent a white-endorsed force against progressive racial dialogue in their consistent opposition to affirmative action. But the fact that they are black provides them little support from blacks — rather, they are used as leverage for racial conservatives to cite “exceptional blacks”.

There are also blacks that choose to be silent in professional spaces. These are spaces where the consequences of speaking out on racial issues leads to being made an outcast by white co-workers who are less concerned with one’s racial struggles. When delving only briefly into the history of blacks that were or are racially outspoken, it becomes apparent that they were either killed off (like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X) or they were utterly discredited as racial radicals (like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson). Even President Barack Obama can’t actively speak out on these issues. He was given space for one “race speech” in response to growing racial concerns and criticisms.

While the above arguments are simple observations for me, I admit that they may not be objective. But one thing we can all see is that racial barriers still exist. And instead of confronting these issues, we often turn the other cheek. This is not to say that white people should suddenly spew racial opinions loosely to a predominately black audience. There are more practical solutions, but I understand they may not be easy.

If black people do complain in public space, begin by trying to understand their frustration rather than by discrediting them. Go to an educational forum on people of color and domestic violence or crime disparities in the black community. Go talk to an elderly black woman whose home has been Detroit for 60 years. Learn about a different racial perspective than your own. Let us not be a part of a post-racial era that has become comfortable with racial silence but rather an era that is fueled with conversations of greater racial understanding.

Matthew Hunter can be reached at majjam@umich.edu.

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