When we refuse to talk about race, bad things happen

Tuesday , March 06, 2018 - 5:00 AM3 comments

ADRIENNE ANDREWS, special to the Standard-Examiner

I am a native Utahn, yet every time I encounter new people, they ask, “Where are you from?” This question may seem neutral; however, there is a subtle implication that I cannot be from this place. When I share that I am a second-generation Utahn, the responses are usually shock – how did that happen? I explain how my grandfather came to Utah from Mississippi in 1942 with the U.S. Army Air Corps and then stayed, working as a civilian at the Ogden Defense Depot, where he completed 42 years of federal service. I explain that he married my grandmother, Marquita Bradshaw, who attended Ogden High School and spent all but the first few days of her life in Utah.

That should be enough to root me in Utah. But many times, it is not. The questions continue: “Why did your grandparents stay here?” “Why do you stay here?” “Was it hard to grow up black and non-LDS in Utah?” “How about now?” “Do people outside Utah question your black credentials?” (“Just joking,” they laugh, and tell me not to be so serious.) “Who does your hair? Can I touch it?” (That’s if they don’t just reach over and touch it without asking at all.) Then, they say, “You’re not like other black people I know.”

When I ask about the other black people they know, the responses are cagey. “You know what I mean,” or eyes are rolled. If I ask for more detail, I am suddenly pushy and defensive. I’m asked, “Why do we have to talk about this race stuff?” or “Don’t be so sensitive.”

Well, gentle reader, at this point, we have to talk about race. Because when we don’t, things happen. Things that do not match who we say we are. For example, when we don’t talk about race, teenagers in Southern Utah feel it is appropriate to post a photo with their eyes crossed out while pretending to hang themselves with the caption “Happy national n----- day” on Martin Luther King Day. Or, we have students in Central Utah who hurl racial epithets at opposing team players during athletic events. Or in Northern Utah, students make a video using similar racial slurs while singing and laughing.

If these things seem extreme, it is only because they are true. And they happened here, in this place, where I was born and raised. Conversation after these events and many others like them are filled with responses about kids being kids, or black kids using the same language, or they were just joking — why does everyone have to be so sensitive?

It’s not being too sensitive or even sensitive. It is about wanting to be seen, heard and recognized as a full person. It is about wanting to be respected. It is about being seen as more than a joke. It’s about being able to wear your hair in its natural state and not having it count against you – even though the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that refusing to hire someone because of their dreadlocks is legal. It’s about people not making fun of your name because it sounds “too ethnic” or saying that if you wanted to be respected, you should have just chosen a “better” name.

This is why it is critical we talk about race. It’s not only the big things. Don’t get me wrong, the structural and institutional frameworks that keep racism in place must be dismantled.

Yet we cannot complete this work when we have not managed to recognize even the daily microaggressions we commit in the name of levity. So the next time you ask a black person where they are from, or make a joke about black people, or hear someone drop the N-word, understand that I’m not being sensitive, I’m just hoping for the same respect you want for yourself.

Adrienne G. Andrews is the assistant vice president for diversity at Weber State University. Twitter” @AdieAndrewsCDO.

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