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Why Calls For Racial Dialogue Rarely Lead To Actual Conversations


In Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's press conference this weekend, he said he hoped the uproar over his yearbook photo would present an opportunity.


RALPH NORTHAM: I believe this moment can be the first small step to open a discussion about these difficult issues and how they contribute to the greater racism and discrimination that defines so much of our history.

SHAPIRO: An opportunity for discussion. NPR's Gene Demby of our Code Switch team has been thinking a lot about these calls for racial dialogue. They seem to happen often around these kinds of controversies.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Don't they, though? Don't they?

SHAPIRO: They sure do, Gene. Welcome to the studio.

DEMBY: How's it going, Ari?

SHAPIRO: Good. Let's start with that press conference. Governor Northam's apology seemed to make things worse, not better for him.

DEMBY: Yeah. It was kind of a mess, right? And it was also instructive in a few ways. So Governor Northam acknowledged that the picture that appeared in his yearbook page was racist while arguing that it was not in fact him in that picture. Then he pointed to another instance in which he did actually wear blackface. So he's doing this very familiar thing where he's both saying that racism is bad, he understands that the racist imagery is bad but also very pointedly denying that he was responsible in any way for it, that he could be implicated in it. And from there, he filled out just the rest of the race apology bingo card, right?

SHAPIRO: The race apology bingo card - what are those squares?

DEMBY: He referenced having black friends.

SHAPIRO: Oh, right.

DEMBY: He said this is not who I am.


DEMBY: And then he said this situation could lead to more productive conversations about race - you know, that common reference to the healing powers of dialogue.

SHAPIRO: The healing powers of dialogue - what's wrong with that? Isn't dialogue about hard things like race valuable, important and good?

DEMBY: Yes and - it can be sometimes, you know, with qualifiers. We should look at the way that Governor Northam specifically called for this conversation to take place.


NORTHAM: I'm not a person of color, and people of color experience different things. It affects them different ways. And for us to have a dialogue - for example, me with you to you let me know what's offensive to you and vice versa.

DEMBY: Ugh, vice versa - you almost hear him getting to the point - right? - where he's acknowledging that our experiences and the consequences for our experiences are not symmetrical. But then he ends with that vice versa as though his take on what's offensive is important in the aftermath of this blackface controversy.

SHAPIRO: As though it's 50/50 equal experience, mine and yours.

DEMBY: Everyone is valid. All these opinions are valid. And the first step into this dialogue is centered on his experience - right? - that I am equally valid here, too, right? And that's one of the pitfalls of these conversations around race is that we spend a lot of time thinking about the white person and whether they're innocent in their hearts or not and whether their opinions are valid. And just from that, you already know that these conversations can't be productive because they're not dealing with this larger context.

SHAPIRO: The larger context meaning there's a perpetrator and a victim, and you're saying the dialogue focuses on the experience of the perpetrator rather than what the victim has suffered.

DEMBY: Right. Like, what we don't hear in this conversation is about all the stuff around this picture that's bigger than him, right? Like, he's the governor of Virginia. Virginia was the capital of the Confederacy, obviously. Its schools and neighborhoods are segregated just like they are everywhere else in the country. And as governor of this state with this very specific history, he's implicated in all of it.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying a successful racial dialogue can't just be here's how I feel, here's how you feel. It has to be grounded in the historical, factual realities of the systems surrounding the event that's the center of the dialogue.

DEMBY: Right. And that's the problem. We come to these conversations with a very different understanding of what the facts are and also then what the stakes are.

SHAPIRO: There have been a lot of these high-profile efforts at racial dialogue.


SHAPIRO: I mean, just a few weeks ago, the controversy involving the Covington High School students and a Native American activist prompted calls for racial dialogue. After two African-American men got arrested at a Starbucks, that company tried to have healing conversations about race. Have these efforts gotten us anywhere?

DEMBY: So these conversations are both important and kind of insufficient. And part of that is because I think we're starting in the wrong place. We need to have these conversations, but there aren't really spaces where we can do that because of this long history of white supremacy. Like, our spaces are segregated. So there's not a lot of spaces in which people have vested interests in the same sort of institutions, in the same sorts spaces where they're vested in making sure these conversations continue, right? We're not working these things out in our PTA meetings or in our neighborhoods because we live in different neighborhoods and we send our kids to different schools, right?

And it seems like people are hoping that with dialogue we can sort of reverse engineer inclusion into spaces that were designed to be separate. We can talk and then come together. That's the way the thinking goes. But it doesn't work like that. We can't have the dialogue without these spaces to hold the dialogue and where people are vested in staying in the dialogue to begin with.

SHAPIRO: That's Gene Demby from our Code Switch team. Thanks, Gene.

DEMBY: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.