So I throw it out there: Raise your hand if you're a racist.
As my students do that thing where they sort of just look at you, perplexed, I raise my own hand. I am deeply embarrassed, but I feel I have to be honest if I am asking them to be.
"You've never had a negative thought based on racial bias?" I ask.
Very slowly, arms begin to rise. I understand their confusion. Theirs is a generation in which we have elected a mixed-race president, but affirmative action has been struck down for being racist.
Today the same argument is made under the precious neologism that laws intended to redress racial inequity are themselves racist. "Racist is the new nigger," says Riz Rollins, the writer, DJ, and KEXP personality. "For white people, the only word that begins to approximate the emotional violence a person of color experiences being called a nigger from a white person is 'racist.' It's a trigger for white people that immediately conjures pain, anger, defensiveness—even for white people who are clearly racist. 'Racist' is now a conversation stopper almost like that device where you can skew a conversation by comparing someone to Hitler. It's an automatic slur. And only the sickest racists will own up to the description."
After the first meeting I go to, I describe to CARW member Esther Handy my sense that this is a conversion experience, that everything around me has begun in recent years to look different, with a totality that feels spiritual—waking up to white privilege. (For me, embarrassingly, the real awakening began late, with a 2008 story about transracial adoptees that I wrote in The Stranger, and it continues, propelled selfishly by the fact that I am marrying into a family of color. I come late, and I mean to come humbly.) Gently bringing me down to earth and shifting the focus away from me, Handy says, "Our coming around to figuring out that we should be thinking about and talking about and doing work around racial justice is great and it can be spiritual, as you mentioned. But it is in service and in honor to the awesome organizations and leaders of people of color who have been doing this work for decades... The truth is that communities of color are thinking about racial justice all the time. They're living it and breathing it, and there's a group of white folks supporting that work, but it's only a small fraction of the white community at this point."
I ask her how to talk about racism with people who don't want to see it. I'm not talking about Tea Partyers; I'm talking about people like some of my friends and family, lefties who care, people who are on my team. Attempts to bring up race in editorial meetings at The Stranger have been as klutzy as anywhere. Even for perfectly decent, well-meaning, progressive people, it can be hard to see the connection between unintended acts of racism and actual racial injustice.
"I start with the facts," Handy says. "It's clear these injustices exist. I say I'm trying to understand the systems that create these inequities, and what's my role in working to change things. Reaching out and sharing these concepts with families and friends is absolutely part of the work, it's just not all of the work. Getting our racist uncle to stop saying bigoted things is not going to change the system. But we're not going to change the system without talking to our friends and family about it. While it benefits us not to talk about race, let's look at these disparities that just don't seem right."
I ask how often she encounters resistance to conversations about race among white people in Seattle who consider themselves progressive.
"I'd say every day," she says. "We're confused about it and we've been taught to be defensive about it. I don't think we should be too surprised about that."