Race Story? What Are You Talking About?

Written by Phyllis.

When I began practicing my elevator speech, it became clear that “race story” was not a meaningful concept for everyone. So let me tell you a little about what it means to me.

We all have stories about actual events and experiences that involve race. Let's say I go to a grocery store in a Black neighborhood and discover I'm the only White person in the store. I'm hyper-aware of how people are reacting to my presence and that no one goes out of her way to acknowledge me or make me feel comfortable. I share my story over and over, any time the topic of race comes up in a conversation.

Out of our anecdotes we create another, bigger story about what those events mean. This becomes our individual race story – the things we tell ourselves about the meaning of race. Maybe I decide that Black folks are resentful of Whites who venture into their neighborhood or suspicious of their reasons for being there. You can find your personal race story by becoming aware of your self-talk in a racial situation.

A collective race story is a composite of our individual stories and at the same time is the force that shapes them – a collage of the things we tell each other about the meaning of race. It shapes institutional policies and culture-wide attitudes. You can find our collective race stories by listening to the public discourse.

What’s included in our story of race?
Historical events and their repercussions
The things we tell our children and the things our parents told us
The beliefs we proclaim boldly and the things we think but don’t say
What we’re attracted to and what we fear
Our AHAs and our taboos, our bumper stickers and our secrets
The thoughts and behaviors that we’re proud of and those that we’re ashamed of
Our online debates and our intimate conversations
The words we shout out and the ones we whisper
Our challenges and setbacks, our victories and progress

How do we learn our story of race?
We learn it from our textbooks, music videos, nightly newscasts and social media
        our family members, neighbors, golf buddies and hairdressers
                our police officers, playmates, advertisers and movie makers
                        our teachers, politicians, and cultural icons.

 What do “they” say about race?

  There are sources that tell us some deserve while others don’t; some are too victimized and others are too violent; some can’t change and others don’t want to; we’ll never figure it out or get beyond it because it’s too hard, too sensitive, too deeply ingrained; and it’s unrealistic to expect that we’ll ever know unity.

And then there are other sources that tell us exactly the opposite; they say that the issue is behind us, that we should stop talking about race and just get on with our lives.

The problem is that those who are telling these stories might have an agenda or be interested in only one part of the narrative; they might be functioning out of fear, malice, greed or a hunger for power. Or they might simply be unconscious of what they’re saying.

And any one of these messages can infiltrate our mind. We need to be vigilant and discerning about what the message is, what it means, and if we want to accept it. If we’re not mindful, we run the risk of unconsciously accepting the story as truth and allowing it to influence how we relate to others. And in doing that, we’re giving away our freedom.

 Image courtesy of  Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net