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Conversations on race require clarity

Let’s not let misunderstandings divide us

By Alex Berends | Contributor

Is racial tension a rash we shouldn’t scratch or a failing organ urgently demanding attention? That depends on how we answer the question, “Does (or should) race matter?”

One complicating factor in collective efforts to answer that question is ambiguity of the phrase — we’re not even speaking the same language in this crucial discussion. Here are two meanings of “Race doesn’t matter” that I hear commonly employed:
(1) Race doesn’t make you fit a stereotype. Therefore, race shouldn’t automate my attitude toward, and subsequent treatment of, you.
(2) Race doesn’t meaningfully contribute to deep identity. Therefore, race shouldn’t affect life much, and I shouldn’t take race into account when I contemplate who you are.

While most of us agree with (1), we’re divided on (2). Does or doesn’t race contribute to deep identity?

I suggest yet another language ambiguity as the culprit: what do we mean by “race”? To some, typically, those of us who don’t have daily experiences that remind us what race we are, race equates roughly to physical appearance, maybe with some expiring historical weight attached. To others, race has many more identity-relevant implications: it writes culture and tradition; it affects daily experience and interactions; it signifies inherited history that still is relevant today; it is roots that encompass both beauty and struggle. Try reading (2) again replacing the word “race” with “physical appearance.” Now read it replacing “race” with “my roots.” See how differently it reads.

I happen to accept the latter definition of “race”; I believe race is much more than physical appearance. This makes me agree with statement (1) above but disagree with (2). In brief, I believe that while (1) describes a dehumanizing acknowledgement of race, (2) describes a humanizing acknowledgement of race, a type of acknowledgement that should be happening. We mustn’t conflate the two with sloppy communication.

Clarity in language can eliminate a lot of unnecessary tension right off the bat. If you say, “Race doesn’t matter” to someone who has experienced race-related hurt, that may translate as, “Your struggle is fake,” or, “Your pain is self-imposed.” If you say, “Race does matter” to someone who has hardly considered what color they are before and has been taught that seeing color is prejudice, that may translate as, “I can’t see past your color to your heart.” No need to kick off this important conversation with apparent insults. Unintended insults yield not only difficult emotions but inefficient communication. A clearer way to debate whether race matters is to start with, “Why does (or doesn’t) race matter to you?” See what “matter” means to them. See what “race” means to them. Language clarity won’t make us agree on everything — the problems we discuss are so much bigger than mere linguistic misunderstanding — but at the very least it can help us achieve genuine communication.

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