Talking About Race: Performativity

Two person icons with comment bubblesNorms prove to be incredibly strong motivating factors in dictating social interaction. Following norms is like following the rules, they give people a feeling that they’re acting acceptably. This lends especially helpful when one finds themselves in an ambiguous situation where they’re unsure of how to act. In white American culture three ground rules provide guidelines for normative social behavior. These three ground rules are the politeness protocol, the academic protocol, and the colorblind protocol (D. W. Sue, 2013).

The politeness protocol dictates people should be polite when engaging with others. Consequently, it discourages discussion of topics that are potentially offensive or uncomfortable. This restricts conversation about race, as conversations about race are often emotionally charged. The politeness protocol polices emotion, prescribing a polite and un-confrontational tone. The result is often a superficial conversation. When we table a conversation because it threatens to be uncomfortable or explosive, we preference politeness over racial equality.

The academic protocol attempts to simplify the classroom experience by providing one objective answer for things. The academic protocol dictates academia to be categorized by objectiveness, detachment, and values empirical reality is over experiential reality (Hooks, 1994). Race talk violates the academic protocol in a number of ways; race talk involves an exploration of lived experiences where the academic protocol preferences empirical research and facts. Talking about race for people of color involves discussing their experiences of racism, a conversation that proves impossible to detach from emotion. When a conversation abides by the academic protocol the embodiment of racism becomes ignored.

The colorblind protocol states that race does not and should not matter. The colorblind approach to a conversation deemphasizes individual experiences in favor of a universal experience. Recent research into colorblindness demonstrates the strategic nature of it, such that white people believe if they avoid talking about race they will seem less racist. Though colorblindness is activated to avoid seeming racist, research demonstrates it has the opposite effect. Those who employ color-blind racism are often perceived as less friendly and more biased (Apfelbaum & Sommers, 2008). An example given by researchers helps illustrate the way colorblind ideology impacts conversation: at a wedding reception two guests are in conversation when one brings up the uniqueness of the couple, as the bride is a Black woman from the south and her groom is a white man from New England. The other guest in the conversation replies saying he hadn’t even noticed the bride was Black until that very moment. His response follows colorblind protocol as he denies the presence of race, claiming not to have even noticed the race of the bride.

As my own understanding of racism in the United States expanded and I began to engage with the topic in both academic and social life, I began to notice the performativity of conversations about race. Because white people rarely engage in conversations about race they have little understanding of how to engage authentically. The privilege white people have in these conversations is to not have the conversation. Will you break the norms prescribed for you? Can you invite a new voice- your own voice- into your conversation?

2 thoughts on “Talking About Race: Performativity”

  1. I think your point that “The privilege white people have in these conversations is to not have the conversation.” is really interesting. Because we are living in a white dominant society, so white people are able to regared them as representative of normal human being. Unless they meet people of color they never need to care and talk about any racail stuff.

  2. Really insightful piece, Tovia. Going off of the last question, I would like to believe that an individual can invoke their own voice into the conversation, but the confines of these three protocols makes it difficult to invoke this voice in an everyday conversation. I am hopeful to find more opportunities to have discourse and more brave spaces, like that of our class this semester, in my everyday life by surrounding myself with mindful and openminded individuals.

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