What Happened When I Jumped into a Public Discussion of Race Relations

Here’s how it went…

By Johnathan Thompson

That’s me on the right with the mic.

To round out the final week of Black History Month, 1010 WINS, New York City’s CBS news radio affiliate, hosted a panel titled Race 101: What Young People Think About Race Relations last Friday. News anchor Larry Mullins and legendary Harlem pastor Dr. Calvin O. Butts III co-moderated the panel with seven college students, including me. Our mixed race group shared our unique perspectives, which ended up not being that unique. Even as we selected our seats on either side of Mullins and Dr. Butts, with the powerful stage lights beaming on our faces, we made sure NOT to segregate by race; I sat near two white City College students, and across from our black, female classmate. And within moments, panelist Iqra Hussain, who is Muslim, began with a sweeping, open-minded statement when she said, “We’re all human beings at the end of the day, and I don’t think that race exists.”

I totally understand where Hussain is coming from; in 2017, the age of Trump, we should not let a social construct hold us back from relating to one another. Still, even as we celebrate our diversity, we shouldn’t “whitewash” or dismiss our differences. (Our enemies understand them; otherwise, we wouldn’t be dealing with a Muslim travel ban!) Most of the comments on this well-meaning panel would apply perfectly in an idealist’s world, but sadly that is not the world that we live in.

(Credit: 1010 WINS)

Our world reminds me every day that I am Black, and although I am a very proud Black man, and I have met amazing people throughout my life that celebrate my culture with me as I celebrate theirs, some encounters have not been so amicable. I had “friends” repeatedly and jokingly refer to me as “slave” back in high school as if it were an endearing nickname. Humor can ease the tensions of racism, but reducing my humanity and attacking my identity isn’t remotely funny. These kinds of aggressions, macro, not micro, caused me to police myself in the past to avoid sounding “too Black.” In my mind I would say things like, “don’t get too loud Johnathan” or “avoid eye contact when they start talking about kool-aid Johnathan.” Now, I am proud of who I am, and I understand that being Black makes me Black, not any kind of behavior or habit. I am me and it’s as simple as that.

Inevitably, the panel arrived at the topic of privilege. Mullins noted that a newly empowered so-called “alt-right” movement has begun to complain about “black privilege,” the recycled idea that Black people have been given advantages that whites don’t have — a notion that became more popular during the Obama presidency. Hearing that, I had to stomp out the fire as quickly as possible; even my White CCNY peers on the panel said, “that’s not a thing.” I broke it down this way: First off, privilege refers to certain earned and un-earned advantages that someone has. For example, my access to the NAACP simply because I’m Black. However, without generations of the cultural reduction of Black people in America following the erasure of our history by means of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, associations for the advancement of colored people would not be necessary. If opportunity had not been taken from us in the first place, there would be no need to return it in the form of HBCUs and organizations like the NAACP.

Toward the end of the discussion, the use of the “N” word came up. Dr. Butts referred to the origin of the word and how it was used to dehumanize Black people. He also directly related the dehumanizing character of the word to other derogatory terms like the “B” word for women. He argued that words like these strip humanity from the targeted individual. At this point, the discussion got more interesting, almost heated for the first time. Several panelists disagreed with Dr. Butts’ contention that no one should ever use the “N” word. Two made the point the you cannot censor an entire country. Grisha whom is of Russian descent and Jewish faith grew up in Brooklyn and said that his friends used the word so commonly, as a term of “endearment,” that he saw no foul in using it. As the mic made its way from panelist to panelist and they responded with how they felt about the usage of the “N” word, I wrestled with mixed feelings: Why is the term which was created to dehumanize Black people, now used freely by many both White and people of color? At the same time, if we say the word freely and normalize it, does its dehumanizing quality diminish? Or if we continue to incorporate this word into our vocabulary, will its legacy of hatred follow us? In the end, I believe the shadow of cultural reduction and condescension will always be tied to the “N” word. I cringe every time someone amicably refers to me as “my n-gga.” I feel my own frustration as they explain that they mean “my brother,” but if that’s the case, just call me your brother. Why nurture the verbal torture of a group of people?

We cannot solve all race-related issues in an hour; Mullins made it a point to say that several times before and after we started filming. Still, conversations like the ones had during our panel are the first step. To view the entire discussion, click here: http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2017/02/20/black-history-month-race-101/

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