Jay Smooth talks about how we talk about race and how we can improve upon these conversations. Does what we say always translate to who we are?

I’VE UNINTENTIONALLY said what could be construed as racist remarks. I’m willing to bet you have too. It’s a very tricky thing to navigate sometimes and despite our best intentions it almost seems inevitable that at some point, someone is going to perceive that a comment we made has racist connotations. Imagine you say something that someone takes as racist and they call you out on it. How do you receive that? Do you get defensive? “But I’m a good person, I’m not racist!”

What Jay is putting forth is how we can keep these types of conversations a “what you said” thing as opposed to a “what you are” thing. If I point out to someone that what they said is racist, I’m not saying to them, “Hey, you’re a racist.” But that is how it most commonly is construed. I’ve felt the same defensiveness myself. What is more constructive, as Jay notes, is taking that feedback for what it is and using it as a learning experience.

A great point he makes is that under different circumstances, when we make a mistake (which is what that “racist” comment very may well have been) we are able to accept it and tell ourselves that, “hey, I’m human. I make mistakes.” But when it comes to racism and prejudice we, as he puts it, consider it a binary proposition, where we’re either racist or not, a bad person or a good person (“if you’re not batting a thousand you’re striking out”).

The problem with that all-or-nothing binary is it causes us to look at racism and prejudice as if they are akin to having tonsils. You either have tonsils or you don’t, so if you’ve had your prejudice removed you never need to consider…if someone says, “I think you may have a little unconscious prejudice” you say, “no I don’t, my prejudice was removed in 2005. I went to see that movie Crash, it’s all good.

Furthermore, through social and mass media influences we build up “little pockets of prejudice” that take hold like plaque on our teeth. His final conclusion is that, when it comes to conversations about race, we need to move away from the tonsils paradigm and into the dental hygiene paradigm. We need to move toward the concept that being a good person is an ongoing practice, and not an immutable characteristic.

“We are not good despite our imperfections, it is the connection we maintain with our imperfections that allows us to be good.”