Race

FARAI CHIDEYA, host: The issues we face are not just about friendship though. We're constantly sharing moments with coworkers, people in our religious and social circles, and strangers. How much racial baggage do we carry and how does it affect these relationships? With us today, we've got Carmen Van Kerckhove, co-founder and president of the anti-racism training company, New Demographic. She also blogs at Racelicious. Also, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. He's a contributing editor for the Atlantic Magazine and author of "A Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and the unlikely Road to Manhood." Welcome to you both.

Ms. CARMEN VAN KERCKHOVE (Co-founder and President, New Demographic): Thanks for having us.

Mr. TA-NEHISI COATES (Contributing Editor, Atlantic Magazine and Author, "A Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and the unlikely Road to Manhood."): Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So, let's go back to where I started this conversation. It's a statement from Rodney King. He's the man, of course, who said, can't we all just get along? And he is the person who was beaten by LAPD officers. And last month, I spoke with King, who had just gotten out of rehab for severe alcoholism, and despite the literal and metaphorical scars from his brush with police violence, he still has hope about American race relations.

Mr. RODNEY KING: People have - all nationalities can get together and make things happen, you know? It takes a many-cultured peoples to make things happen sometimes, you know?

CHIDEYA: Ta-Nehisi, how do you make sense of this man whose led a very brutal life. He himself fell into a situation where he just couldn't even work because he was so drunk all the time, went on a reality show, all that stuff. But to sum it up, his life has always been defined in the past decade and a half by this idea that he was the man who was beaten by the LAPD and caught on video. And yet, he seems to have this will to make peace with it. Do you think that's possible?

Mr. COATES: I don't know if it's possible for him, having never met him, but I think the statement that he makes about different cultures getting along, you know, I've in the past and probably in the future, I've been very willing to take this country to task for how it deal with race and particularly how it deals with African-Americans. But I think if you look at the long sweep of history, it's a history of progress. We do (unintelligible) backstabbing and some backsliding, but over the long term, as Martin Luther King said, you know, the arc of history bends towards justice. I think that's generally the case. I think that's generally the truth. I think one of the strengths of this country has always been the fact that it's so diverse, that's also one of our biggest challenges. It presents challenges in terms of education, in terms of healthcare, et cetera. But I think it definitely is one of our biggest strengths.

CHIDEYA: Carmen, your family includes Chinese and Belgian ancestry. And when you think about who your family is and where folks came from, did you have a narrative where you felt you need to change or did you think, well, it's not such a big idea to be who we are?

Ms. KERCKHOVE: Well, I think in my experience, my personal experience and what I've also witnessed professionally, it's very clear to me that forming intimate relationships with people of other races is not a get out of jail free card when it comes to racism. Certainly, my own parents had a lot of struggles that definitely had to do with, you know, cultural understanding. And so it's very clear to me that even if you're in an intimate relationship with someone of a different race, it doesn't necessarily mean that you completely get it, or that you, you know, that suddenly transforms you into this fervent anti-racist.

So, I guess, you know, can we all get along? It really depends on what you mean. I think certainly we can coexist peacefully for the most part, but if you're looking at really maybe forming deeper relationships, then, you know, I think there can be barriers. Of course, it's absolutely possible. It happens all the time, but I think there are also some real barriers that we need to talk about.

CHIDEYA: Ta-Nehisi, what about, you know, we share a hometown, Baltimore. And there's a lot of different types of neighborhoods in Baltimore. But when you think about our city and the kinds of challenges it had been facing throughout the '70s, '80s and all the way to the present day. Do you think that Baltimore, for example, has gotten more open to really having interracial couples be just part of the landscape and not something where you're - you kind of check folks out and say how did that happen?

Mr. COATES: When I came up in Baltimore, it was this weird, weird place in the sense that - I guess, maybe not weird, but like much of the country. Ethnicity just didn't seem like an issue. Baltimore was a majority black city, and I'm not arguing that race wasn't an issue. But going from there to Washington, where you get Salvadorians, African-Americans, you know, whites of various ethnicities come ahead in New York where you got God knows how many different ethnic groups. I have to admit, it was kind of a shock for me. Baltimore was like blacks, some Jews and some poor white people. I mean, that was always my reading at that time, and so that, I think kind of...

CHIDEYA: Same to me.

Mr. COATES: Yeah. That kind of stilted any sort of understanding of what interracial relationships would be. I'm a huge proponent of people of different backgrounds being around each other and having experience with each other. I think Carmen made a good point. It doesn't necessarily guarantee that, you know, it's all going to be good. But I think the exposure, in and of itself, is a very good thing. You have to be able to see people who are different than you as human beings and as individuals. I think that's just - that's key.

CHIDEYA: Carmen, I'll start with you. Has there ever been a point where you felt a bit someone of another race, who was your friend, reflected badly on you, disrespected you, and then you were able to figure it out later?

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: You know, I can think of one instance where a former white co-worker, forwarded me this email and you've probably seen it. It's "The Ant and the Grasshopper" tale that's re-written as an Al Sharpton thing. It's basically this really pretty racist thing that ultimately really buys into this whole welfare queen stereotype. And she sent it to me thinking that it was really funny. And of course, I took massive offense at it.

So yeah, certainly, I've had those experiences. But then, I've also had experiences where people, friends of similar background to me, really completely didn't understand something I was going through even though I thought that they would given, you know, our shared background.

CHIDEYA: What I'm really interested in is how do you then address the situation? Do you just sort of let it go for a while? Do you address it head on? I mean, how do you make sense as a person with people who are close to you? How do you make sense of how to address it?

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: Well, for me personally, I have to say it depends a lot on how much I've invested in that relationship. In this particular case, I really didn't care about this person that much. She was just an acquaintance, and so I just, you know, emailed her back and said, you know, I actually find that kind of offensive, and left it at that and I didn't really care. And that's the thing. I thought - I think people should keep in mind is that when I really care about someone, that's when I will actually really call them out on something and have a real conversation about it.

When I don't care about someone and they do something that's kind of offensive, oftentimes, I just let it go because I don't really care enough to educate them and to engage them on that issue. So if you say something offensive and no one seems to take offense at it, it doesn't necessarily mean they're not offended. Maybe they just don't care about you to let you know.

CHIDEYA: Ta-Nehisi, are you tougher on people who you love or you want to keep in your life?

Mr. COATES: The thing you have to know about me is again, you know, as I was saying, I grew up in a very de facto, segregated situation and so, I didn't have white friends until I was like 20 or so. So we're talking in the last 10 years or, you know, whatever. I'm really being exposed to, you know, a world of different cultures. So having said that, I think the chances for me to be offended in the way that other African-Americans or you know, other people of different colors often are was severely limited, was severely curtailed. That's the first thing. The second thing is I tend to like think about that sort of thing differently, and I've said this many times before. It's not that I haven't had incidents like that.

I guess I have and if I, you know, went back into the files, I could probably find a couple. Even though, as I said, you know, it tended to be less likely for me. But I always think that racial ignorance, gender ignorance, sexual orientation ignorance is the burden of the person carrying the ignorance, not the burden of the person who's being disrespected. That's on them. The loss is for them. That's for them to deal with. I've never had much interest in correcting people or disabusing people of their racism. That's their job to do. It's not really my job to do.

CHIDEYA: All right. To close this out, do you think that the next generation will be able to cross lines more easily? Carmen?

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: You know, like Ta-Nehisi said, I agree with him that ultimately, the direction we're moving in is one that's progressive. And so I do think that the future looks brighter for our children. I think there is always, of course, the danger that people will be, you know, to wear rose-colored glasses and look at things too optimistically and really not want to see some of the problems that still exist. But then on the other hand, I also think that older generations - and I'm including myself in this - sometimes needs to learn how to let go a little and understand that, you know, living without the burden of racism is not necessarily a bad thing.

There's a different path that young people need to walk and find out for themselves. And so rather than, you know, wagging our finger and saying oh, you know, you just don't get it. Institutional racism is still all around us. I think there's ways that we can communicate that and yet not take away from them the fact that they are experiencing the world in a very different way than we are.

CHIDEYA: Ta-Nehisi, what do you want to transmit as a...

Mr. COATES: You know, I only have one. And if I could give anything to my son, it would be the ability to see beauty in all places and in all things. And I don't mean that in a stereotypical, you know, sort of way. Although I do mean it in that way, but I mean it in a broad sort of way to, you know, be able to see beauty in Harlem where we live, to be able to see beauty if we're out in Oakland, if we're in China, if we're in France, wherever we are. And I think folks of this generation will have more opportunities to see that and I think people of our generation. I'm certainly hopeful. I think that there are tremendous class barriers towards making sure that that happens. But I think in general, over the long term, I do believe that it will be better.

CHIDEYA: All right. Ta-Nehisi, Carmen, thank you.

Ms. VAN KERCKHOVE: Thank you.

Mr. COATES: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We were talking to writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, contributing editor at the Atlantic magazine. He's also the author of "The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and the Unlikely Road to Manhood." We also heard from Carmen Van Kerckhove. She heads the anti-racism training company, New Demographic and blogs at Racialicious. Both were at our New York studios.

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