Race

Honesty In Interracial Relationships

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Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice explores the nuances of talking about race — among friends and among couples with differing racial backgrounds.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Sometimes, something happens that evokes feelings of betrayal, lack of understanding and frustration about the other. Remember the miniseries "Roots," the Rodney King beating, the O.J. Simpson verdict, or more recently, the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in Cambridge. These moments triggered racial tension on a national scale. People with friends of other races might have talked with them about that divide, but maybe not.

At such moments, we turn to Dawn Turner Trice, who writes the "Exploring Race" column for the Chicago Tribune.

She says nobody wants to be perceived as prejudiced or racist, so we tend to ignore the elephant in the room when friends of other races are in there with us, also.

We want to know what incident triggered tension in your interracial relationships. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you could join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dawn Turner Trice joins us from Chicago Public Radio in Chicago. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. DAWN TURNER TRICE (Chicago Tribune): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And there was - was there a rough moment for you?

Ms. TRICE: Well, you know, what's interesting is - and I'll back up a little bit.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. TRICE: We did for our "Exploring Race" Web site last year, a Chicago attorney named Michelle Hughes wrote an essay during the presidential election. And she was explaining the difference between people who identify as being biracial and those who consider themselves black with a white mom, as the president does.

And Michelle's father is black and her mother is white. And she said that when she's with her black relatives, everything's about race. And so she can, you know, she can navigate the crowds, and people are talking about race.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. TRICE: But when she's with her white relatives, nothing is about race. And they don't even want to talk about it. And her feeling is that where we are as a country, the reality is that at the moment, whether it's the Henry Louis Gates moment or the O.J. Simpson moment, when you look at - and you try to have a racial barometer, that it lies somewhere in the middle.

But when we talk about interracial relationships, I think that in order to have an open and honest one, you have to recognize that many of us start at different places and our perspectives can, at times, be quite skewed.

But at the foundation of any relationship - and this is what I try to - this is how I try to live, is you have to - there has to be this basis of trust and understanding that when a person of a different race - whether that person is asking a question or you're discussing the Gates affair or any of these really high-profile intense racial situation - that when a question is asked, that it's out of a sincere desire to know something and not out of malice.

The other thing is that when a person - your friend who has a different - of a different race asks a question, the person answering really is speaking for that person and not on behalf of the race, whether…

CONAN: On behalf of the race.

Ms. TRICE: Yes. (unintelligible).

CONAN: But there's also situations where it's very positive. When Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize, for example, when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, people of different races can look across the table saying, isn't this great? Isn't it wonderful to be an American? Isn't this - say great things about us? It's a little more difficult when it's the O.J. verdict or the Henry Louis Gates thing.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely, because it's easy to circle around or to gather around the happy moment. And, I mean, if you looked at Chicago Grant Park - and, I mean, these things played out all over the country on election night. But there were people of various races gathered together and hugging and holding hands. And it really was - I mean, the snapshot of that moment was pretty incredible.

But there are other times - and we can just look, you know, last week at the whole Gates issue, where you have people who might be - who may be very good friends, a black person and white person, but that becomes an opportunity or that is a time when it's a little more difficult to - I mean, that's not one of those happy moments where, I mean - and this moment was something where it's a trying moment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And the reaction is, well, you know, to say, how about those Cubs? Or something like that as opposed to…

Ms. TRICE: Let's change the subject.

CONAN: …let's change the subject, you know?

Ms. TRICE: Yeah. Because, again, I mean, it's - it depends really on what type of relationship you want to have. I'll give you a short anecdote. Twenty years ago, I became friends with this white guy who grew up in rural Missouri.

I grew up on the south side of Chicago. We met while we were working at a newspaper in Florida. In fact, our families just spent the Fourth of July weekend together. And we've talked about race, and there are some things that we've - you know, that we may disagree on, and we've kind of butted heads. But, I mean, the times when we - the few times when we've had a falling out had nothing to do with race.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TRICE: In fact, over something completely different. But at the foundation of that relationship is that that we are going to be open, we're going to be honest about various questions or issues, and we just put out there but we're going to remain friends. And we've done for over 20 years.

CONAN: And the differences are differences of - it's not personal.

Ms. TRICE: No. It's not personal. And we - and it's interesting because we are much more alike than we are different. But we have, you know, the histories - the history. We are rooted in different places, but we do have this bond and this togetherness that we've decided to maintain a friendship. But we do - you're right. We do acknowledge those differences, and sometimes we just don't agree.

CONAN: Now, earlier you said, you know, you have to understand when you're dealing with your friends of other races that they're not spokesmen for their race. But nevertheless, is it okay to use them as a cultural interpreter?

Ms. TRICE: You know, I think that that's - I think that that's fine because there are - I mean to what degree that they represent the masses, I mean, that's - you know, that will vary. But I do think that the other person has to understand that they're asking an individual. And whether it's the black person asking the white person a question or - or Hispanic or Asian, it has to be that it is that they're getting one person's perspective, and how representative that is of the whole will vary. But I think that that's necessary, because we will not learn anything about one another if we don't ask those questions.

CONAN: Dawn Turner Trice writes the Exploring Race column for the Chicago Tribune, joins to talk race from time to time here on TALK OF THE NATION. 800-989-8255, email us: talk@npr.org. Jim is on the line from Boston.

JIM (Caller): Hi. I'm a white school teacher at a school in Boston. I have a lot of non-white students. And sometimes I have situations where students, you know, have a conflict based on race, and I even try to talk to them individually. And if I don't really know how to proceed or I'm afraid I'm going to say the wrong thing, I'll just tell them, like, this is tricky for me and I'm not sure, and I'm doing my best. And kind of putting that out there really helps…

CONAN: How old are these kids?

JIM: …with a difficult situation. These are high school students.

CONAN: High school students. So, this is - yeah. And we've already presumably learned that teachers are not always in command of every fact on every planet…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: …everything on the face of the Earth.

JIM: And I just - you know, say, I'm not sure exactly what the right terminology is…

Ms. TRICE: Right.

JIM: …and I'm not sure exactly where you're coming from, I would like to, and it will help me help you. And that tends to make a tough situation, you know, kind of laugh a little bit, and then we can have a real conversation.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. TRICE: So it's not exactly over a beer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: No.

Ms. TRICE: But it is an opportunity…

JIM: No, no.

Ms. TRICE: I know. But it's an opportunity for people to - I think everybody appreciates sincerity. And so to come in there and to pretend like you know something that, you know, that you don't, I think, would probably make the situation much more tense. And I think that you're handling it very well because young people - I mean, they can spot a phony a mile away. And it's helpful to just say I don't know but I want to help, and we need to get to the bottom of this and let's work at it.

CONAN: Jim, did the Gates situation come up?

JIM: Did - it has. I'm actually working at summer school and it has come up. In fact, the summer school program I'm in is at Cambridge itself. And the students have fallen on all different sides, and none strictly based on race or heavily based on race.

CONAN: Interesting. All right. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

JIM: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from John. I have a few black friends and generally my generation, I'm 22, default to the Dave Chappelle approach to racism, awareness without taking it too seriously. I don't use words or phrases that might make my black friends uncomfortable, but can discuss issues with them because of doorways opened by Mr. Chappelle. He truly broke down a lot of racial barriers and did it in a very positive way.

Ms. TRICE: Yes. And I've heard people say that quite a bit. And it's interesting because - and this may not be John's situation. But I know I've heard people say, you know, my black friend and I have a wonderful relationship and all is well. But I'd asked this: is it a relationship with boundaries where some discussions are just off limits? And maybe it's wonderful because, you know, people just don't go there and they don't talk about race. But I do think that when you can use comedy or some levity to kind of lighten the moment, then that allows people to go into territories that they may not, you know, go if it's such a serious and stoic moment.

CONAN: Let's go next to Nicole. Nicole with us from San Antonio.

NICOLE (Caller): Hi. I was just - I'm a multiethnic woman in an interracial relationship. What happened in my case was that my boyfriend is white. And when I brought him home, the first thing out of my dad's mouth was - he was surprised that I wasn't bringing home a brother, was how he put it…

CONAN: A-ha.

NICOLE: …even though my mother is white. So his struggle was, I think, in maybe diluting the blackness. He was afraid that, you know, he hopes that I would bring home another black guy to kind of continue on that bloodline. And when I brought home a white man, he was shocked, to say the least.

CONAN: Well, it sounds like he wasn't shy about talking about it though.

NICOLE: No. Not at all. He is very open. That's the thing. You know, my parents are very open. They're very liberal. They're very open-minded. I have to say, I was surprised at his surprise. And, you know, he's constantly just kind of making comments about how I like the white guys, or I don't know if it's - he doesn't intend to make me feel like a traitor or anything, but he certainly does have that attitude when he speaks about it.

CONAN: It sounds like…

Ms. TRICE: Well…

CONAN: …you might want to have - well, Dawn, go ahead.

Ms. TRICE: I'm sorry. I'm just - I'm a little taken aback because I would wonder what his parents said to him when he…

NICOLE: Well, I…

Ms. TRICE: …brought home your mother.

NICOLE: His parents are - his father is black and his mother is Korean. And so, there was a real problem there as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NICOLE: It's been like - it's like a cycle of interracial marriage in my family. But I'm - which is why it took me aback, his initial surprise.

Ms. TRICE: And you would think that it would make everybody a little bit more open because they've had to deal with, you know, various situations.

NICOLE: Right. And it's - he's never been cruel. There's never been any sort of…

Ms. TRICE: Sure.

NICOLE: …meanness, but it's always just a shock that this was my preference -you know, really? Are you sure do you want to - well, you know, it's not going to interfere with life.

CONAN: Bring home the old Spencer Tracy…

Ms. TRICE: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: …movie, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

NICOLE: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NICOLE: Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Nicole. Bye-bye.

NICOLE: Bye.

CONAN: We're talking with Dawn Turner - Dawn Turner Trice.

Ms. TRICE: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And we're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an email from Catherine in North Carolina. I'm an African-American woman. I've found that only a very few of my white friends ever want to talk about race. There is one. Additionally, around my office, white people did not talk to black people about O.J., President Obama or the Gates issue, but they talked to one another. Since it has been going on for years here, I don't approach racial subjects with any of them.

And when you don't do it, I guess it gets toxic a little bit.

Ms. TRICE: Yeah. You know, last fall, Jennifer Richeson, who is a professor at Northwestern University, conducted a study that looked at white people who avoid racial conversations and even interracial interactions because they are so afraid they will say something that's not politically correct and it will make them appear prejudiced.

And that someone might avoid a situation like that is not surprising. But what was striking about the study was that the participants were so incredibly unnerved by these seemingly minor interactions that their responses mimicked those of people who felt anxious about weightier things, such as chronic pain. So I mean, there are people who - and it kind of goes back to Michelle Hughes's - the woman who the wrote the essay for us, the feeling that, you know, she can go - one circle of relatives will talk about race almost until there's nothing else to talk about.

And then the other relatives don't want to have any - won't touch it at all, very consistent with what you're - what the person who emailed just that.

CONAN: Lindsay is with us from Providence, Rhode Island.

LINDSAY (Caller): Hi. I'm actually a black woman who - my partner is a white male, and I love his family dearly. They are the best. And they have such great, strong opinions that oppose my own. But recently at a barbecue we were talking about the Gates situation, and I work with Cambridge - in Cambridge, and so they were asking me a lot about it. And then all of a sudden they came out with - I don't understand why everybody is like making such a fuss in it. We now live in a post-racial society.

And they just looked at me as if I had a rebuttal. And I was just completely shocked and had no idea how to respond. And in fact, some of the people that were, like, sitting there in the conversation kind of just got up and left. And it was just very unnerving, and I had to really try to kind of explain but not knowing exactly what I was saying on why it's not a post-racial society.

CONAN: Yeah.

LINDSAY: And they didn't - they really couldn't comprehend, because the word is out there and everybody is biting down on that word and is not letting go.

CONAN: Hmm.

Ms. TRICE: I always say to my readers whenever they say that we live in - or I thought we live in a post-racial society, I always say that we had a post-racial election, which does not necessarily translate…

CONAN: To a post-racial society.

Ms. TRICE: …to a post-racial society.

CONAN: Interesting. Lindsay, thanks very much.

LINDSAY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

And let's see if we can get one more caller in. Maria. Maria with us from San Antonio.

MARIA (Caller): Hi. Yes. My best friend is African-American and I'm an Hispanic female. And I think that our friendship has a lot to do with the fact that we are both of a significant, you know, ethnic group. But what has happened in our conversations in the past is that we got in arguments over - you know, for example she made a comment to me that, oh, we live in San Antonio, it's little Mexico, and all the Hispanics get everything free. And I took that comment personally because, you know, I listen to the program regularly and I heard about, you know, the beating, the murder that happened in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania to the immigrant…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MARIA: …Mexican immigrant. And, you know - and we often, we get in, like, arguments about it because I'll say, you know, well, look, we have a black president, you know, there's restitution for slavery. I said but there's so much going on to Mexican people that's no one's paying attention to. And you know, we love each other dearly, and I think that that sort of adds to our relationship, that we both have pain and we can share that pain with each other.

And I think we both learned from that, you know, because she sees things from a African-American perspective and I see things - because my husband is a Mexican immigrant, and I can see things from his perspective.

CONAN: Dawn?

Ms. TRICE: Yes. I think that - what I liked - what was just said is that - it sounds like you guys do - you are very open and you are very honest. And even though sometimes it's not - it doesn't tickle all the time to hear some of those comments. But as long as they aren't allowed to just be swept under the rug, where they can just kind of fester, I think it's important to get them out and to talk about them, and then to, you know, to kind of go back to being friends, because it's important to air all of that stuff.

MARIA: Right, exactly.

Ms. TRICE: And then…

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. TRICE: …circle back around.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Maria.

MARIA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

And Dawn, as always, thank you for your time today.

Ms. TRICE: Thank you.

CONAN: Dawn Turner Trice writes the Exploring Race column for the Chicago Tribune, with us from the studios of Chicago Public Radio.

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