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How can white people talk about race?

Forty-two people were arrested in New York earlier this week in a march to end police brutality. While the focus is on police brutality, the conversation is about race.

In the past, many white people have found these conversations difficult, often avoiding them altogether. But now, from New Orleans to New York, white people, young and old, are steeling themselves to talk about race. Joe Sykes reports.


Dixon White, which isn’t his real name, is a self proclaimed redneck. He released a YouTube video last week, filming himself close up in his pickup truck.

Dixon: For many years I was a racist, I didn’t like blacks, I used to call them the N word and what not.

But he says he’s changed, and other white people need to, too

Dixon: Stop being defensive, Don’t ever, ever ignore racism. If you hear something racist, stand up as a white American.

It’s gone viral. Over a million people have watched Dixon’s video on Youtube. Dixon seems an unlikely person to lead a new conversation about race.

Robin Diangelo is author of the book, What does it mean to be white?

Diangelo: White fragility is the concept that when it comes to challenges to our racial world view, white people, we don’t cope well, we don’t respond well.

She coined the term white fragility to describe the way whites often react when race comes up in conversation. What that looks like is

Diangelo: Anger, rebuttal, argument, withdrawal, mean spiritedness, crying. All you have to do is read any comments to anything published by me in a mainstream forum.

In New York there are a couple of groups who are taking on the conversation for themselves.

Dan Zanes is in his early 50s and a long time rock n roller. He use to be in the band the Del Fuegos but most of his gigs these days are for the under 10 set.   He’s no redneck.  but…according to him he is still a racist.

Zanes: I think it’s hard to be white in America and not absorb that.

But Zanes is not going to just leave it at that. So he and a bunch of other white people meet once a month in a harshly lit conference room just off Times Square.

It’s a support group of sorts – and everyone being white helps.

Zanes: If we gather as white people and talk about these things, we can just let it out. In Multi-racial settings, I think sometimes if we’re not up to speed as white people, we can drag the conversation down or we can just be generally frustrating.

Part of the goal is to create a safe space – so no recording. A chance for people to share their worst and best thoughts. Things about privilege and white guilt – stuff they couldn’t talk about with their white – or black – friends.

It’s a movement that seems to be  growing. Since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson MO in August , Zanrs says the group has seen its numbers rise from about 10 people to five times that.

Zanes: All hell’s breaking loose. I think it’s a time but there are very few mechanisms for white folks to talk about race.

Zanes says part of what makes it hard – he never learnt this stuff as a kid.

But at the Little Red School House in the West Village, these conversations start early.

Chap: This is the lobby,this is where the action happens.

Sandra Chapman, or “Chap,” is the diversity director at Little Red.

She’s pointing to  a series of social justice posters, made by 8th graders.

Chap: Here’s one poster that says black males are 21 times more likely to be shot by a police officer than their white counterparts.

Chap then leads me to a classroom of fidgety third graders.

Child: Hello

Me: Hi, how are you?

Child: Good, how are you?

Today, they’re talking social justice.

Chap: So I see lots of hands…

Child 2: They stand up for other people

Child 3: They basically don’t use violence, they just use their words.

Little Red is an  independent school – tuition’s up to $40,000 dollars a year and is about 70% white.Most of these kids are pretty privileged. So Chap teaches her students from a very early age that talking about race is only a first step. They break into groups by activist.

Chap: Cesar Chavez can you please stand and go next door, Nelson Mandela join Miles.

At table Mandela, Crosbie and Violet are sharing notes on who the South African leader  was.

Crosbie: Nelson Mandela let black African people go to the beach instead of just European people.

Violet: Nelson Mandela led the African Americans to freedom.

They’re testing things out. They might get it wrong, but this is only just the beginning.

And they’re doing what Dan Zanes and Dixon White never did growing up… they’re talking. Talking about justice and fairness and… race.

Joe Sykes, Columbia Radio News.


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