Talking about race is difficult. Emotions can run really high and people can so easily get stuck in an endless cycle of combat-ready talking points, feeling attacked, getting defensive, and pretty soon people are slapping each-other across the face with labels: “Ignorant”, “race-obsessed”, “sheltered”, “snowflake”…you know the drill.
And then like a loveless marriage – we get so sick of fighting
we go back to not talking. But not talking doesn’t do much to solve the problem.
So here are a few metaphors that we have used in actual conversations, and have found them to be helpful ways to respond to common talking points and make some space from new perspectives.
And just as a note – none of these metaphors are perfect…because they short metaphors – not exhaustive 300 page treatises.
When People Say “I’m Not a Racist.”
Metaphor: Being a Racist is less like a Movie Review and more like having Cancer.
In our rating crazed world it is easy to also think of Racism in terms of a rating system. Like a Rotten Tomato score for people. With People of Color on Twitter giving John one score and white people at the office giving John another score.
This is not helpful. Because it equates being racist with how someone is perceived. This is the definition we see most operative in discussions where people seek to defend themselves by citing positive relationships with co-workers of color. They want to get their score up.
A better metaphor is see racism like cancer.
People can get cancer from smoking and tanning, but a lot of people get cancer from the environment or products they were told were safe. Getting cancer is not their fault, and sometimes people aren’t even aware that they have cancer until it’s very advanced.
We can’t blame the Navy ship workers for getting cancer from Asbestos in the ships. They were just working there.
This is similar to people who develop racist attitudes from living in a racist society.
We have seen this type of racism form in people who work in downtown areas with a high population of homeless people of color. And people who watch the nightly news and see stories about criminals of color. Their brain sees negative images of people of color and so it associates being a person of color with racist stereotypes. This is not always their fault, and they are often unaware that they have gradually adopted these perspectives (hence the term “unconscious bias”).
Sure there are known cancer causing activities like smoking and tanning. Likewise there are known racist causing behaviors like shooting Arabs in a video game or watching Cops.
But not everyone who has cancer got it from known carcinogenic substances or behaviors, and not everyone who is racist became that way from deliberately partaking of racist media.
In fact, just like people may have cancer even though they don’t want it, people can be racist even though they don’t intend to be. They may not knowingly hate or purposefully discriminate against people of color, but that doesn’t mean their thoughts and actions are completely free of racial prejudices.
And just like saying “But I never meant to get cancer!” doesn’t make a tumor evaporate, not intending to be racist doesn’t mean racism ceases to exist.
This racist cancer is not always visible. For some people you will see a huge tumor and everyone will see you have cancer. But for others you may not show it. But whether or not you or others are aware of it, it is still inside you. Eating away at your body.
And whether or not your racist cancer is showing – the treatment is the same – you need to acknowledge you have been affected by your surroundings and make some lifestyle changes.
When People point out successful People of Color as evidence that America is not racist.
Metaphor: Smaller city Baseball teams sometimes win but big city teams win A LOT MORE.
Major League Baseball has tried to implement some rules to make teams from smaller less well financed cities like the Minnesota Twins able to compete with the richer teams like New York Yankees. They let the worst teams pick first in next years draft, and they have a luxury tax team have to pay after they their players pay hits a certain amount.
But despite these rules the Minnesota Twins almost always lose to the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. This is because the Yankees have SO MUCH MORE MONEY AND PRESTIGE that their team budget is twice the Minnesota Twins.
Now sometimes smaller and less well financed teams like Kansas City Royals win the World Series.
But the New York Yankees win A LOT MORE.
And while you can see that the rule changes over time have helped slow the dominance of the New York Yankees over the last 100 years. They are still very dominant. And in order to change this – there would probably need to be some more rules put in place to equal the playing field.
This is similar to how there are high profile people of color who accomplish great things. Like celebrity African American Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
Part of the reason why we celebrate Neil DeGrasse Tyson (top of his amazing wit and charm) is that black scientists are actually quite rare.
Census data from 2011 reported only 6% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics were African Americans. And there are A LOT of reasons for this – from poorly equipped STEM programs in schools with high minority populations to a lack or role-models of Color to hiring biases in workplaces.
When people cite Minorities for “Reverse Racism”
Metaphor: Think of America as a Family. Racism the Difference between a Child saying I Hate you to a Parent and a Parent Saying I Hate you to their Child.
Now before we dive into this one – it is important to say that this metaphor is not meant to imply that minorities are in anyway inferior or ignorant or “child-like.” It is meant to show the power dynamics involved.
It is also important to say that this metaphor is not meant to invalidate the anger of people of color. Sometimes children express upset or throw tantrums for no reason, but we do not mean to imply that the anger of people of color lacks a legitimate basis.
On the contrary, anger at White privilege and power is well-founded, based on historical and often personal experiences of racial oppression. To call it “reverse racism” is actually a mischaracterization because most often, these people of color don’t hate White people. They just hate being treated inequitably by White people.
Okay, back to the metaphor. When a child says “I hate you” to a parent it is really hurtful. But there isn’t really much that the child can do to enforce that hatred. They just don’t have the social power.
But when a parent says “I hate you” to a child, that is a serious situation. Because a parent who hates their child can deprive them of their basic necessities. Just ask any homeless teenager who was thrown out of their house. Adults have the access to the money, food, housing… That’s why parent’s can get charged with neglect – but kids can’t.
Similarly, racism requires the power to enforce your views. Power to make rules and laws that specifically make life harder for white people. Now people of color can be very can be judgmental and prejudiced against white people. And these words – like the child’s words – can really really hurt. But they don’t count as racism – just like the child’s words don’t count as neglect.
And remember these metaphors are meant to help us have better CONVERSATIONS!
People need to know you actually care about them enough to teach them something new. So please don’t use these metaphors as sludge hammers of truth to destroy the person you are talking to. And these are just a few metaphors and I’m curious if you know of some more helpful metaphors put them in the comments section!