Race and Politics

I was having a good week this week. After some busy travel weeks, I was back in the office getting stuff done. Writing some good blog posts. Facilitating conversations. Mapping out future crazy travel weeks. The usual. Then I ran into a couple of conversations online with some friends of mine about politics and race. It was like a punch to the gut. It always is with me. It depresses me, and I find myself reeling from it, trying to figure out what to say or how to say it. I hate that feeling. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about the topics. I desperately want (all of us) to talk about them, actually. But here’s the problem.

We suck at talking about both race and politics.

I mean we REALLY suck. We’re horrible. There are literally very few things in this country that we could possibly do worse than the way we engage in dialogue about race and/or politics. That depresses me. I know that’s a generalization, and there are definitely exceptions, but here’s what I notice when race or politics come up in a conversation:

  • Nobody asks any questions, people only make statements.
  • People are angry. It is often disguised, but I feel like it’s almost always there.
  • People get impatient. Why is this conversation taking so long?!
  • Nothing anybody says EVER causes someone to reconsider what they already think or believe.
And I’m not just blaming the specific people who engage in these conversations. These are good, smart people. These are people who would normally work through tough issues WITHOUT behaving like that, but suddenly they are behaving like that. And that last one bugs me the most (and honestly, I’m guilty of it sometimes). When the dialogue hits this miserably low level, it just doesn’t matter what the other person is saying, does it? Your mind’s made up.

I think the problem has to do with the fact that human beings count on the world being the world. By that, I mean we can handle a certain amount of ambiguity and complexity in our world, but only up to a point. At some point, we have to be able to know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and if you start giving me a story implying that’s not true, I will actually jump up to defend my world. Sure you may think sunrises aren’t as pretty as I do, and we may argue about what time the sun set yesterday–those are easy conversations to have. But don’t sit there and tell me that the sun does not rise in the east. I’ll lay out all my facts to support it, and if you keep telling me that it doesn’t, I’m bound to get mad at you. I will become incensed by your stubbornness. I’ll end up repeating myself over and over and then stop talking to you.

Sounds like race and politics discussions, doesn’t it? So the sun rising is one thing, but how do race and politics qualify as “rocking my world” conversations? With race, I get it. To some extent, people of different racial and ethnic groups in this country do live in very different worlds. I can give you a white person’s perspective. As a white person, I was given a fairly simple story about race. I grew up with the idea that race was not that important, at least not in the present. Historically, of course, it was important. In the past. That’s when those bad people did those bad things like being racist and enslaving people. But thank goodness we’re past that. Race just isn’t important any more. We’re better than that now.

But I’ve been fortunate enough to develop some close relationships with people of color over the years–so close that they have shared with me a sometimes painful and VERY different experience around race in this country. I was able to hear a different story about race. One where race matters every day, one where they are dealing with things and responding to things that I simply don’t see in my “world.” It has been very eye opening for me, helping me to better understand my privilege. I am thankful that they trusted me enough to open up like that and share their world with me. There were times when I didn’t quite buy what they were saying at first. But I stuck with it. Eventually I got that the sun doesn’t really rise in the east, at least not in the way I thought it did.

But most of us have not had that shift. And with race, I can see why. We’ve got centuries of oppression and slavery at the start of this world-conflict, and it’s understandably hard to move through all that. And it kind of makes sense that a dominant group would be conditioned NOT to see its own dominance (it makes it easier to maintain). So this one’s going to be a long road, I think.

But how on earth did we get to this place in American Politics? Sure, politics is by definition adversarial, but how did we get to the point where liberals and conservatives simply can’t talk to each other any more? Where we are angry all the time? Where what the other side is saying simply doesn’t matter to my thought processes? Where each side continuously hurls simplistic cause-and-effect chains at each other that never connect?

That’s a big question, I guess. And I’m not an expert on politics. I’ve been cynical about politics for some time now, actually, so I’ve disengaged. I definitely don’t know how we got to this place. Maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe more of us need to get together in order to start some genuinely new conversations about politics. Conversations that are NOT about defending our worlds. Maybe more of us need some forums where there is enough trust and compassion and calmness to actually open up to the possibility that our respective “worlds” may not be 100% complete or accurate. Where being right isn’t the issue. Where we actually want to spend some time learning more about positions that don’t initially make sense to us.

I guess that’s setting the bar pretty high. I hope we’re up to it.




  1. 06.04.2012 at 9:17 am

    It’d a great question Jamie: how did we get to this place? And perhaps there is a real correlation between what’s happening in our political discourse and how we often think of race and ethnicity … the notion of “other.”

    When we think of other people as objects, as nameless components of a group (and one with which we have little experience and may think of pejoratively), it lets us off the hook of doing the hard work of relating.. When someone’s worldview offends or concerns me, I still have to work so hard to not automatically dismiss it, but instead to accept their convictions as respectfully as I want them to accept mind, and to then try and engage in a manner that leads us to some mutual discovery instead of mutual defensiveness.

    If there’s an app that can help me do that better, I’d love to download it.

  2. 06.04.2012 at 9:39 am

    Oh gosh, I wonder if I know the conversation you’re talking about. I love politics, I hate politics. I hate it because it divides us. I guess I should say, I hate judgmental partisan politics. I have my views, they’ve changed over time, in my mind, changing political views is not a bad thing. But I hate being judged, the *entire* me being judged, classified, and dismissed because of those views, and I get that from both sides because I’m one of those people in the middle, taking some of This from one side, taking some of That from the other.

    Sadly, I’m tired of the fighting over the race issue. That’s as cynical as it gets, and it feels heartless to write that. I understand, as much as I can being who I am, that it’s still an issue in this country, and that just kills me. A lot of folks just don’t get it because all they see is difference, whether it’s a different skin color (god, isn’t that stupid!), culture (that’s the tough one, the real challenge for most), religion, or whatever. I don’t know why difference scares so many people or makes them feel uncomfortable, it’s the lizard brain, I guess. But I do hate it when issues having to do with race are used to divide us for political purposes, and my cynical brain sees that happening again now. Issues needing thoughtful conversations become political and divisive. Ugh, but it’s always been that way throughout history. This is why so many people don’t vote. I will always vote because I’m hopeful and I love my country, warts and all. But I can see why you get depressed.

  3. 06.04.2012 at 10:59 am

    If we’re looking for process to do this kind of long and painful work better, the folks and resources at the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation—ncdd.org—are a good place to start.

  4. 06.04.2012 at 11:50 am

    A great post, Jamie. Although it’s curious to me that even though most white people want to believe that racism against people of color is largely a thing of the past, many of them are more than happy to engage in a conversation about modern-day racism if they can cast themselves as the victim of anti-white sentiment. And y’know what, I’m sure that some white people have been hurt, and unfairly so, by anti-white sentiments. It just seems as though we’re all too willing to feel our pain, but unwilling to acknowledge our privileges. And it makes sense; if someone is giving your left hand a manicure, it can be hard to focus on that when someone else is stabbing your right hand with a rusty fork. But it is possible to acknowledge both – it just takes work, on the part of those of us called to teach, and especially on those who desperately need to learn and might not even know it.

  5. 06.04.2012 at 12:51 pm

    Jamie, thanks for having the courage to post this. What subject are you going to tackle next? Religion? Hint –> you can’t have an honest conversation about race and politics without talking about that, too. That’s why they’re the three subjects you’re not supposed to talk about in polite society. They’re all connected in people’s heads and frequently form that worldview you speak of that no one has the courage to have challenged.