Over break I went to my roommate Alex’s house for the week. One night, Alex and I were watching TV and stumbled upon MTV’s show, The Real World Road Rules Challenge. About five minutes in, we witnessed two cast mates attempting to “poke fun” at their friends’ interracial relationship by using black face, which they did by covering their faces with nutella. While the two of us stared at each other in disbelief, her mom asked us why that was inappropriate, “black people make fun of white people all the time and no one points the finger at them.”
I quickly thought about the exercise we did a few weeks ago in class about explaining what we are learning to others. I started off telling her about the racism is historically rooted within the practice of black face; how black face was used usually as propaganda to perpetuate the sambo image and to derogate blacks. While she nodded her head, she jumped to her next idea and said, “But you know I just read something about Tracy Morgan tracing his family tree and finding that his ancestors owned slaves. Really how are we the only ones to blame?” I knew what I wanted to say, but similarly to class I was fumbling for the words. In my head I immediately thought about how overall, whites still grossly profited over the few blacks that did own slaves and how slavery developed into a racial hierarchy, where whites experience privilege at the expense of disadvantaging blacks.
I started by explaining how slavery began and the economic gains that whites developed into an economic and social advantage, which was passed on through generations. The next step was the hardest to explain; while I made the jump in my head and explained it by chalking it up to how racism developed historically, I had trouble breaking down what “the dominant culture” means and “white privilege.” I couldn’t articulate what the terms meant; I’ve used them so frequently over the past few years that I sometimes can’t think of how to explain them. I tried explaining to Alex’s mom about these concepts, but I found it impossible to explain the terms I’d been using in my head. Despite having a class dealing with how to explain racism, I felt anxious about having a sensitive conversation with someone who had graciously hosted me in her house for a week, and in the moment I lacked the clarity to articulate my thoughts—which turned into frustration. While my explanation wasn’t completely useless, she left the room disinterested with the conversation soon after. I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of disappointment and guilt when the conversation ended. Why, when I had the perfect opportunity to put our class work to good use, was I unable to apply it successfully to a real life situation? What strategies can I use to feel more prepared to explain myself in situations where I feel uncomfortable?
Here’s the link to the MTV clip in case you haven’t seen it