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Why Calls For Racial Dialogue So Rarely Lead To It

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is under fire for a racial photo that appeared in his college yearbook. [Steve Helber / AP]
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is under fire for a racial photo that appeared in his college yearbook.

In Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam's press conference this weekend, regarding a racist photo from his yearbook, hesaid that he hoped the uproar over his yearbook photo would present an opportunity.

An opportunity for productive dialogue where we could address the difficult issues that "contribute to the greater racism and discrimination that defines so much of our history."

Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch sat down with All Things Considered to discuss why calls for these conversations are so frequent yet remain so unproductive.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Ari Shapiro: Let's start with that press conference. Gov. Northam's apology seemed to make things worse for him.

Gene Demby: Yes, it was kind of a mess — but it was instructive! Gov. Northam acknowledged that the picture that appeared on his yearbook page was racist while arguing that it was not, in fact, him in the picture. Then he pointed to another instance where he did, actually, wear blackface. So he's doing this very familiar thing where he's both saying racism is bad, he understands that the racist imagery is bad — while also very pointedly denying that he is responsible in any way for it or that he could be implicated in it.

From there, he filled out the rest of the Race Apology bingo card. He referenced having black friends. "This is not who I am." And then he said that this situation could lead to more productive conversations about race, that common reference to the "healing powers of dialogue."

What's wrong with that? Isn't dialogue about hard things, like race, valuable and important?

Yes, it can be. With qualifiers!

But, we should look at the way Gov. Northam specifically called for this conversation to take place.

You almost hear him getting the point where he's acknowledging that our experiences and the consequences for our experiences are not symmetrical. But then he ends with this "vice versa" — as though his take on what is offensive are at all important in the aftermath of this blackface controversy. And that is one of the pitfalls of these "hard conversations around race." 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 know these conversations can't be productive because they're not dealing with this larger context.

The larger context being that there's a perpetrator and a victim and the dialogue focuses on the experience of the perpetrator rather than what the victim has suffered?

Right. What was mostly glossed over in this conversation is about all the stuff around this blackface picture that's bigger than him. He's the governor of Virginia — the capital of the Confederacy. Its schools and neighborhoods are segregated like everywhere in the country and as governor of this state with this very specific history, he's implicated in all of it.

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 is the center of the dialogue.

Right. We come to these conversations with very different understandings of what the facts are and what the stakes are.

There have been a lot of these high-profile efforts at "racial dialogue." 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 in a Starbucks, that companytried to have healing conversations about race. Have these efforts gotten us anywhere?

These conversations are both important and insufficient 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. Our spaces are segregated so there's not a lot of spaces in which people have vested interest in the same institution, in spaces where they're invested in making these conversations continue. We're not working these things out in PTA meetings or our neighborhoods because we live in different neighborhoods and we send our kids to different schools. It seems like people are hoping that with dialogue, we can reverse-engineer inclusion into spaces that have been 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 that dialogue without these spaces to hold the dialogue and where people are vested in staying in the dialogue, to begin with. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.