Awkward conversations are never easy to have. They’re not fun, they’re not exciting and we usually avoid them rather than diving in head first. However, as college students, awkward conversations are a part of our education and at times, prove necessary. Monday night, we held these truths in mind as we approached comedian W. Kamau Bell with a proposition.
“How would you like to spend an hour talking about race with two white girls?”
Bell was almost two hours over his contractual obligations and our professor had asked us not to approach him with our proposal. We didn’t expect a positive reaction, but to our surprise, he accepted — as long as it involved good Mexican food.
It was 10:30 at night and Tacos El Regio wouldn’t open for another 30 minutes, so we opted for a San Antonio staple: 24-hour cafe and bakery, Mi Tierra.
We had seen his stand-up comedy-meets-lecture presentation earlier that night and were excited to discuss the topics we had heard in a more personal setting and with Trinity in mind.
At first, the hostess seated us in a small booth in the back of the restaurant, but we quickly realized that a nearby table was better suited for his 6 foot 4 inch frame.
After a few minutes of small talk and perusing the menu, we were ready to start our first awkward conversation about how to start awkward conversations.
As two white women who go to a majority white university, we had never really been challenged to talk about racism, so we weren’t even sure how to start.
“I think the first year of college should be spent deprogramming you from the “isms” that you developed in the real world that we should try to get out of your system before we send you to the next stage of life,” Bell said. “It’s often put on the outside of your education instead of on the core of your education. It’s like, ‘Well I’m here to get a degree, I’m here to do pre-med. Also I have to sit through this seminar about racism.’ Clearly by doing that you’re not making it important.”
Nodding in agreement, we were eager to hear more. Still not sure where to start, we listened as he continued.
“We’re at a critical point where people want these discussions but people don’t feel comfortable having them unless they bring me or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Milo to speak on college campuses,” Bell said. “So it’s my job to be like, ‘Just start having them.’”
Simple as that. Just start having them. Naturally, the question as to who facilitates those conversations came to mind. Who holds the responsibility? Often we place it on the nearest person of color and expect patience, guidance and a good sense of humor. But that’s not realistic.
“It’s not a person of color’s job to educate this person. White people should get on the front lines of that,” Bell said.
Bell continued and said he wants to see more white people actively participating in the dialogue.
“For white people specifically there are organizations now that exist to help white people talk about their white privilege and white supremacy,” Bell said. “There is an organization called SURJ (showing up for racial justice), which is a white privilege organization founded by white people and run by white people so white people can have those awkward conversations with other white people. It’s a way for white people to own the space.”
And that’s not a bad thing. It may even make it easier to engage in these awkward conversations.
“Every white person has a better chance of talking to another white person about race and racism than a black person or a Latino person,” Bell said. “Just by nature of the fact that you can get closer to a white person and go, ‘Hey can I talk to you for a second?’ And just by nature of the fact that your skin colors gives you entry into that conversation.”
At a school where you can’t go a day without hearing the word “diversity,” it became clear that it is important to understand the difference between diversity and inclusion.
“Diversity can cover up a number of sins,” Bell said. “So when we talk about diversity, that doesn’t actually help us if it means that 8 out of 10 people in the room are white people. So for me, it’s like the goal is inclusion, and at the very least, an inclusive mentality. So that even if those people aren’t in the room, you respect their viewpoint and you make decisions based on how you think those people will be affected.”
At this point we were feeling pretty awkward. We were excited to have open, natural conversation, but it was clear we were out of our depth. Instead of quitting while we were ahead — or at least not too far behind — we decided to push a little more and call to question his call to action of gaining some white pride.
“White people seem to be able to divorce themselves from their race and ethnicity,” Bell said. “For A black person or a Latino person race and ethnicity is an intrinsic part of who you are. You can’t be a black person and say ‘I’m proud of who I am but I don’t consider myself black.’ Black people would be like, ‘Ah come here, we need to talk to you.’ You can’t talk about pride in who you are as a black person or as an Asian person or a Mexican person without including your race and ethnicity.”
And when it comes to racial pride, you don’t make it far without the name Colin Kaepernick invariably making it’s way into the conversation. Bell analyzed Kaepernick’s actions not from the perspective of a black American, but from the perspective of an American who is proud of his country and his freedom to challenge it when he feels injustice is present.
“Anyone who thinks Colin Kaepernick isn’t doing what he’s doing because he’s not a proud American … He’s doing what he’s doing because he is a proud American and he has a higher standard for his country than his country currently wants to live up to. When the runners in 1968 are standing at the Olympic Games in Mexico City with the Black Power fists in the air, that’s pride in America. That’s also saying, ‘America, you can do better and because I am an American I want my country to do better,’” Bell said.
Preparing to move forward with conversations — no matter how uncomfortable they may be — we were reminded to keep in mind the perspectives we bring and the privilege we posses.
“The way I think about this is — one, when you have privilege it’s important to learn the value of shutting up. If you have privilege, then you have benefits you don’t even see. So if a person who doesn’t have privilege says ‘I have a problem,’… if you tell them I don’t think you have a problem you’re just using your privilege against them,” Bell said. “So you really have to own your privilege and perspective.”
Excited, inspired and a little less uncomfortable, we are excited to introduce this ‘Trinitonian’ series, “Let’s Make It Awkward.” In the coming weeks, we will explore the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone and engaging in dialogue on topics such as diversity, inclusion, political correctness, safe spaces and the ways in which we can challenge and shape our perspectives. Even if it is hard to have these conversations, we think Bell said it best.
“The thing you should do in college is be actively and aggressively pushing your perspective as far and as wide as you can … because when you get out of college you’re not necessarily going to have time to do that work. We shouldn’t wait until shit hits the fan before we have these conversations.”