Speaking Difference

In today’s New York Times (Sunday, 25 July 2010), the Week in Review section is fronted by an article that hits with the incendiary claim, “RACE: Still Too Hot to Touch.” Citing a common pattern in American life, Matt Bai draws attention to the fact that people who attempt conversations around race “risk public outrage and humiliation” by way of the “familiar elements of racial dysfunction in the society: bigotry and hypersensitivity, gross distortions and moralizing.”  These tendencies are pitted against the hopeful future that Barack Obama’s presidential race seemed to offer, of a society where “you could talk about race–no matter what colour you were–without automatically being called a racist.”

The article serves to remind me that there is a significant distinction to make between my world and the world, between my social circle and society. As I contemplate the use-value of multiculturalism, for instance, I would do well to situate my theoretical considerations in the context of the society I have access to, but also to heed the fact that grappling with the social systems I know does not get me to the rest of the world.

Bai suggests that Obama is searching for a defining moment to take up the subject of race from his presidential position thereby challenging racial dysfunction in America. (A few page turns later in the Week in Review section, in “You’ll Never Believe What This White House Is Missing,” Maureen Dowd says, “The president appears completely comfortable in his own skin, but it seems he feels that he and Michelle are such a huge change for the nation to absorb that he can be overly cautious about pushing for other societal changes for blacks and gays. At some level, he acts like the election was enough; he shouldn’t have to deal with race further. But he does.”) Would a paradigm shift away from bigotry, hypersensitivity, gross distortions and moralizing require a figurehead? Certainly it can’t be a bad thing to have a recognizable public figure challenge assumptions about race and the conversations that are had around it, but what can I do? In my small sphere of living, how can I instigate productive discussions to bring about the future I want? How can we talk publicly and constructively about race?

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