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'Lean Into Discomfort' When Talking About Race

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., is closed due to the pandemic, but it’s opening a window to discuss the other major crisis gripping the country: police violence against black people.

Talking About Race is a new web portal from the museum that’s meant to spark discussion, community building and self-care after the horrifying death of George Floyd at the hands of police.

Almost a decade in the making, the portal is designed to help educators, families and others dedicated to equity have conversations about race and racism because "the conversations aren't happening," says Candra Flanagan, the museum's director of teaching and learning.

"Yes, we can learn about [racism]. We can get the intellectual understanding," she says. "But then we need to have that conversation to then foster the community in order to then move to that next step of action."

Anna Hindley, director of early childhood education at the museum, acknowledges that talking about race and racism can be difficult for many people — but it has to start somewhere.

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"I think it always starts with your own personal journey and interrogating your own racialized identity, and then building on that and knowing that it’s a process and a practice," she says. "So it’s something that’s done every day."

Many people express a fear around broaching these subjects because they don't want to make a mistake, Hindley says. That's part of the reason why these conversations aren't happening.

"By not speaking, there’s a louder message that’s being put out there," she says. "That’s why we encourage people to lean into discomfort and know that it’s in the discomfort where the learning and the growing can happen."

Robin DiAngelo, author of "White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism," recently told The Washington Post that she doesn't think "most white people care about racial justice."

Flanagan says part of the goal of the museum's project is to get people, especially white people, to care. By providing the tools to help people learn how talk about race with their families, Flanagan hopes people will move "from being non-racist or not thinking about race, to making steps towards being anti-racist in this society."

Interview Highlights

On the formation of racial identity

Candra Flanagan: "Race ... does not exist, scientifically from a biological perspective. However, race and the categorization of people by races is a social construct, and that’s what we call that racialized identity, and that is very real. It has real-world consequences, and it’s the impacts and dangers sometimes that can go along with racialized identity are something that we do need to recognize and unpack and really think about. And so that’s why we really hone in as one of our main topics for this portal on racialized identity. There’s a lot of conversation, ‘Well, race doesn’t exist. It’s not biological, so then we don’t have to think about it.’ And that just isn’t true. That racialized identity is real. And that’s the part where we have to dig in and get an understanding of people’s lived experiences and how we can then start to build a more equitable society.

"We often talk about the need for conversations to be layered. And if you are doing this work in a sustained and long game sort of view with your children, there’s a solid foundation that you want to establish with your children of understanding and joy, to use my colleague Anna’s words, in the range of skin colors, in the range of skin tones and how beautiful the various shades of brown are.

"But then to layer that on with the concept and notion that then we as a society, as a culture, have grown up and live in this space and where we give labels to certain groups of people — the labels of white and black and other labels — and then how those labels of white and black, are those racialized identities? Then you can begin to talk about the different privileges and disadvantages that are attributed to various labels and that come with that. And that helps to build that layered conversation because as our children are out in the world and engaging in media, engaging in literature, they are also taking in messages. And so we want to know and get an understanding of where they are and what they’re thinking and then help guide and help interrogate the thinking with them."

On the importance of caring for oneself while learning about race and racism

Anna Hindley: "It’s something that Candra and I identified from the very start of this work because we know that this work is heavy and it’s hard. It’s ongoing as a practice. And what we don’t want is the burnout that can happen. And it looks different depending on your racialized identity. But we were inspired also by the words of [black writer and activist Audre Lorde], that self-care is part of the revolution."

On how unpacking racism on an individual level is a lifelong process

Hindley: "Many folks are responding to this moment and that is important. We need to be responding to what’s happening currently. And it is a lifelong journey. It’s not something you get to check off. It’s not like you wake up one morning and are like, ‘That’s it. I’ve made it. I’m anti-racist.’ But it’s truly ongoing work that is practice, and you get an opportunity with every choice you make to be anti-racist or not.

"It’s the choices of books you read. It’s the conversations you have with the children. It’s the behavior you model for your children. Where do you choose to spend your money? Where do you buy your books? For example, looking for black-owned businesses and investing in the community. So that should, I hope, be empowering and inspiring for some people to know that they can make daily choices that make a difference in these small, what can feel like seemingly small changes can add up to have really big change and impact."


Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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