Unpacking Racism: “Noble” Sentiments that Keep Us from Talking About Race


This is the lead post in a series of articles based on “Unpacking Racism,” the theme of the 2020 Laity Convocation of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, held on February 8, 2020.  I and three other panelist—Rebecca Fraley, Judy Siaba, Chris Pierson—plus moderator Rev. Alka Lyall, spoke and answered questions on race.  See end of post for links to other articles in this series.


For years I have written and said that Americans would rather talk about anything—absolutely anything—but race.  So when Mark Manzi was coordinating the panel discussion for the 2020 Laity Convocation and suggested topics each one of us might speak to, I immediately chose the questions: Can we even talk about race?  Isn’t that racist in itself?  Such questions, I said at the event, are classic ones we use to avoid talking about race and imply that race isn’t very serious or important and, finally, that racism is so easy to solve it will just go away if we ignore it.  But we talk about everything…unless we’re too scared to face it.  Let’s just think about physical ailments, I said.  Will not talking about cancer make it go away?  If our grand child gets a tiny cut or scrape don’t we at least try say something comforting?  We rarely remain silent, but it’s one of our deepest American wishes that silence will make racism go away.  That simple.

There’s a naivete to these questions.  Other things we say to avoid talking about race, however, don’t sound naïve.  In fact, they sound noble.  Two of the noblest statements came up during the panel and in the questions asked afterwards.  One attendee suggested we were being dismissive to criticize them.  They are:  “I don’t see color” and “We’re all human.”  First, I want to say that in many cases I know these statements are said with good will.  For years I’ve taught graduate courses on race and ethnicity to teachers who earnestly—and, again, with good will—say they only see students who need good teaching and affirmation and grounding in our common humanity. They don’t see color, they just see human beings.

DifferencesThese two statements, taught to them by other professors—mostly of good will—are the legacy of modernism, a complex system of thought that, among other things, sought to find something solid to stand on amid the chaos and carnage of Western wars starting in the late 1800′s, leading through the horrors of the Holocaust and Vietnam, and hundreds of other conflicts, many continuing to this present moment.  People wanted universal principles of good conduct that would eradicate our differences.  The thought was: we perpetuate horrors upon each other because we focus too much on differences, not on our common humanity.  That’s true to some degree, but the emphasis is almost backwards. We’re terrible to each other not mainly because we’ve forgotten our common humanity, but mainly because we don’t accept—even embrace—our differences.

Our strongest human bonds are made with those whose differences we’ve accepted, not with those we affirm our common humanity with.  Doing the latter is easier because it presupposes you already recognize their humanity, which usually means you think they’re already enough like you.  Jesus asked (Matthew 5:46), “If you only love those who love you, what reward will you get?”  This principle works out in everyday life all the time.  How many times (a lot!) has a young man come into my office deliriously happy because he’s found the girl of his dreams.  “We’re so much alike! It’s like we’ve known each other forever! I don’t even have to finish my sentence; she already knows what I’m thinking!” etc. etc.  And two months later he comes back, dejected, saying, “I thought I knew her.”  It’s over because he found out she was actually a different person, not a clone of him, and couldn’t handle it.  I say to those teachers who don’t see color: My goal is to make you see it.  However, when I’ve tried to make people see color, whether in class, or in other arenas—like when I led in writing the Diversity Plan for Naperville School District 203—I’ve gotten hit over and over and over with the “I-don’t-see-color” bat.  If we’re ever going to deal seriously with racism, the swinging of that bat has to stop.

The evidence is absolutely overwhelming: color matters.  There’s no way I could italicize or bold that statement enough.  Color—”whiteness” in particular—gives astounding privilege to some, but places absolutely enormous, untold disadvantage on “people of color” in virtually every aspect of their lives.  And saying “I don’t see color” or “We’re all human” are, finally, noble-sounding versions of “Isn’t talking about race racist?”  It means, “I myself don’t have to talk about racism, I’m innocent.  (And my family didn’t own slaves.)  We’re all human.  All the same.”  But we’re not all the same.  We’re different—sometimes really different.  Deal with that first, and maybe someday we can embrace our common humanity, a humanity that’s precious not because we’re all alike, but because “being human” means being able to embrace human diversity.

*  For more on being “hit by the bat of color-blindness” see articles like “Race aside…” (partly about the killing of Trayvon Martin), and “Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack.” Also go to the Teaching Diversity page on this site.

  Articles in this series:

  • ‘Noble’ Sentiments…” (the Lead Post above)
  • “Defining White Privilege”
  • “‘Welcoming Communities’ and Race”
  • “A Spectrum of Practical Actions”
  • “The Heartbeat of Racism”
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OFW’s: Anthony Bourdain’s “Manila”

Bourdain at a Jollibees in Manila.

Bourdain at a Jollibees in Manila.

The VIDEO below stiches together about 10 minutes of clips available on YouTube from one of the best episodes the late Anthony Bourdain ever did: his show on Manila, the first episode of Season Seven of his Parts Unknown series.  Being Filipino, I know I’m biased in thinking it’s the greatest show he ever did.  The video below focuses on the insane fast-food franchise Jollibees, on OFW’s—Overseas Filipino Workers—on cover bands (a significant segment of OFW’s), and on one particular OFW: Aurora, a woman who lived overseas for over 30 years, and as a nanny for many of those years raised one of Bourdain’s directors.

RockStars2What’s left out?  A segment on Sisig, a classic Filipino street food (a hash of pig ears and jowls—Bourdain just calls it “pig face”—garlic, and a raw egg on top) that started trending world-wide after this show; a segment on Halo Halo, a crazy mix of milk, beans, fruits, gelatin, etc. (the name just means “mix-mix”); and segments on Christmas, and Christmas parties—because the Philippines is absolutely the most Christmas-crazy country on earth. Celebrations begin September 1st, when everybody starts saying “Merry Christmas” to each another, and stores rev up, as do actual Christmas parties.  Most of all you won’t see all of the last segment with Aurora, her family, and Bourdain (about which, more soon).  So everyone—I mean it!—should just buy this episode on Amazon Prime, or Netflix, or wherever, and start a family tradition: watch it at least every Christmas, starting September 1st, if not more.  It will probably cost only $1.99 for HD.

BalikbayanOne of the first things Bourdain says is, “Filipinos are, for reasons I have yet to fathom, the most giving people on earth.  Think I’m talking shit.  Keep watching.”  On first viewing, what you’ll watch seems to be a jumble of weird images: postal workers struggling with huge boxes; crazy office Christmas party games; kids swimming in the Bay and playing street basketball; a traffic cop in a Santa suit directing traffic with sensational dance moves while a typhoon pours down rain;  priests wildly sprinkling holy water on people pouring out of churches.  Yet the show has a wonderful, well-crafted arc.  Those huge boxes you see near the very beginning are the famous Filipino Christmas boxes, Balikbayans, tens of thousands of them, stuffed full of items by OFW’s and sent home to those left behind to say, as Bourdain says, “I’m still out here.”  They’re stuffed with mostly day-to-day items that, again as Bourdain says, “You’d just give to loved ones as a matter of course if you weren’t half way around the world.”  These boxes show up big at the end as Aurora and her family exult over a Balikbayan from Albert.  My first cousin Rhoda and husband Roldan Rosas: they’re only a couple thousand miles away in Hayward, CA, where I did most of my growing up, but every Christmas a box shows up stuffed with lots of chocolates and pistachios, and every year I think: It’s our own little Balikbayan tradition.

The cover bands?  That’s there ambition: to go abroad, hopefully hitting it big by playing, say, Las Vegas.  For most OFW’s it’s not an ambition, but a hard, often bitter, only option.  Which brings us back to Aurora.  “I’m 100% the man I am today because of Aurora,” writes Bourdain’s director.  “She’s influenced literally thousands of people around the world with her joy.”

OFWsAnthony Bourdain always gave us great TV.  Well written, well shot, well crafted, often important.  As in the Jollibee scene you’ll see in the video below, his outsized personality was at the center. Funny, irreverent, snarky and snobbish, he was also the prototypical wise guy, tough but with a heart of gold, sometimes a tender heart of gold.  And never so tender as in this episode about Manila, which shows him at probably his widest range of feelings of any of his shows.  Early in the Aurora segment, Aurora sings snippets of “Of Holy Night” and just made up stuff about how she hopes everybody’s going to love the kari kari stew she’s cooking.  But as the program comes to a close she’s singing “Edelweiss,” with that line particularly pertinent for OFW’s: “Bless my homeland forever.”  After a lifetime away, “Her children,” says Bourdain, “now middle-aged, are finally getting to know there mother.”  Her solo voice makes her children cry and serves, too, as sound track to scenes of OFW’s leaving their families.  And when the camera closes in on Bourdain’s face you see he’s smiling, but on the verge of tears, just barely this side of holding it together.  You’ll never see the wise guy that close in any other episode.  It’s one of the great moments of his legacy, him realizing that he really wasn’t talking shit after all.

  Go to Reviews on this site, to a post listing my Writing About the Philippines, and to the Teaching Diversity main page.  * Go HERE for more on the Filipino’s talent for Western Music.

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Our “Green Book” fantasy, plus other Oscar winners that don’t hold up

GreenBook-Trib2This was front page, Arts & Entertainment section, of the February 3, 2019, Chicago Tribune.  Though the Christopher Borelli article focused on other things, my direct answer to the question about Green Book—which won 2018′s Oscar for Best Picture—is this: You’re not necessarily bad, but you are typically American.

In many ways, I am, too.  In fact, I enjoyed Green Book as a piece of simple entertainment. I’ve written many, many times that Americans would rather talk about anything—anything—but race in serious, informed ways.  Sometimes I even entertain the fantasy, like the typical American, that race and racism will just magically go away if we ignore it, don’t talk about it, and just be nice to one another.  But it’s not going away in the foreseeable future.  It’s woven into, not just stamped on to, the fabric of our national culture; and Green Book was just another in a long, long list of entertainments that helps us avoid this uncomfortable fact, feeding the fantasy we hold so dear.  The caption to the picture above (probably too small to read clearly here) says, in part:  “The film, to put it mildly, offers a very tidy view of race relations.”

Now that the Oscars approach again, I was reminded of this 2019 Green Book piece by the recent William Bibbiani piece in The Wrap (January 7, 2020), “Green Book and 13 Other Oscar Winners That Don’t Hold Up.”  Here’s his list:

1929′s Broadway Melody.  1931′s Cimmaron.  1933′s Cavalcade.  1936′s The Great Ziegfield, first biopic to win—which, in a phrase that could apply to all films that don’t hold up, Bibbiani calls, “sanitized, padded, and implausibly fawning.”  1947′s Gentleman’s Agreement.  1952′s The Greatest Show on Earth.  1956′s Around the World in 80 Days.  1989′s Driving Miss Daisy.  1999′s American Beauty, called “contrived and self-congratulatory.”  2001′s  A Beautiful Mind, which “hammers its way through one biopic cliché after another.” 2002′s  Chicago.  2005′s  Crash.  2010′s The King’s Speech, which beats Jennifer Lawrence’s first and best work, the bleak Winter’s Bone.  And 2018′s Green Book.

GreenBook-FoodIt would be fairly easy to show how each one of these films is racially coded in significant ways, depending on the suppression of race, or tacit enforcement of racial stereotyping, for their created worlds to work.  Directly or indirectly, each feeds the fantasy I mentioned earlier.  For now, though, it’s enough to note that three of these films directly address race and racism in comforting ways, becoming in essence comfort food for the American soul. 

Driving Miss Daisy feeds us “being nice” as comfort.   As Bibbiani writes, the bigoted main character, the Miss Daisy played by Jessica Tandy, “gradually learns to be less bigoted because her chauffer, played by Morgan Freeman, is nice.”  In 1989 Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing also comes out, but in a move that only emphasizes America’s desire not to talk about race seriously, it’s not even nominated!

Crash feeds us miraculous change as comfort.  Bibbiani calls the film “unbelievably phony and smug,” saying that, “every single story line relies so completely on forced irony,” the major one being that Officer Ryan (played by Matt Dillon) who feels up and disgraces Christine (Thandy Newton) in the beginning is the one who pulls her from a burning car at the end.  We’re led to believe there’s been changes of hearts: instead of feeling her up he saves her…and she lets him.  Racism solved.  And, as a bonus, his sexual assault of this very same woman at the beginning of the film can also be blotted out. This film beats out Capote and Brokeback Mountain, whose significance has well outlasted Crash.

Which brings us back to Green Book, which for comfort feeds us a version of “white saviorism,” a theme played over and over in film after film after film.  We’ll solve racism by actually saving, redeeming, uplifting these poor colored folk, raising them to white standards so they can finally begin to move towards equality, maybe even towards being loved. Or—in a clever, loaded twist—we’ll school them in their own culture to save them from being too white! Long before the film reached theaters, Dr. Don Shirley’s family protested the portrayal of Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) and the overplaying of his chauffer (Viggo Mortensen) in Shirley’s life.  Talk about a white savior: the chauffer literally feeds Shirley what appears to be his first taste of fried chicken, at least KFC style fried chicken.  The Don Shirley Trio played so-called Third Wave jazz, a fusion of jazz and classical music that had its day, and some of which I liked.  But funny that near the film’s end, Don Shirley does just fine playing straight out boogie-woogie blues.  Maybe he knows something about his own culture after all.  At least the chauffer’s wife (Linda Cardellini) knows that her husband needed lots of help writing her those love letters.  In this, and a few other things, Don Shirley civilizes his chauffer a little.  But he doesn’t save him.  The chauffer does most of that, even saving Dr. Shirley from a lonely Thanksgiving dinner at the end.  Talk about stuffing yourself with comfort food.

(I say two stars.)

  Go to a list of Reviews on this site.


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