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Is how we talk about race worth talking about?

Barnaby Wasson

Browsing the comments on Facebook in response to Dustin Dwyer’s piece on race makes it clear we are all over the map on how we talk about race. Some tread lightly around these issues and things like privilege and oppression. Others believe racism doesn’t exist anymore. And some people don’t like talking about it at all.

How much of this depends on how we are taught to talk about race?

Some social work programs, including mine, do try to teach people how to talk about race. Many are using a framework called cultural humility.

Cultural humility is an upgraded “cultural competence," which most academics seem to agree is outdated.  

What’s wrong with cultural competence?

Cultural competence says that by learning about someone’s culture – what they like to eat, what language they speak, what they look like, etc. – you can relate to them. You understand them. You can have successful interactions with them. Cultural competence says: “I have a black friend, so I know what black people are like, and I’m not racist.”

Of course, the assumption at the core of this is that one person’s race is something that can be fully understood or mastered by somebody else. Cultural humility says it can’t.

Cultural humility

The cultural humility approach would go something like this: “I’m not black, so I have no idea what it means to be black – regardless of how many black friends I have.”

Cultural humility isn’t exactly mainstream yet. But within the communities that talk about race a lot, it’s a big thing with ideas like this at its core: 

  • Your identities influence how you think of other identities
  • Evaluating what you believe about race is a lifelong process
  • You can’t possibly know what it’s like to be a different ethnicity
  • Race is just the tip of the iceberg that makes up who a person is

If another person's race can’t be mastered, can it be taught?

I don’t really know the answer to this, but it’s clear people are trying to figure out how to learn something from events in Ferguson, for example. That includes trying to figure out how to teach these subjects. Teachers across the nation are trying to find ways to bring Ferguson into the classroom. There is even a hashtag on Twitter called#FergusonSyllabusfull of resources to help teach the subject. This conversation is especially important as public schools are highly segregated by race because they reflect the neighborhoods we live in.  

What methods have you seen that are useful when talking or teaching about race? Is this all just a bunch of nonsense? We want to hear your thoughts.  

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