STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In our year-end conversation with President Obama, the president told us the country is less racially divided than when he took office. That was his view. It may not feel that way, he said, because issues of race have been so prominent in the news. Our colleague David Greene asked author Roxane Gay what she thinks.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Roxane Gay focuses on race, gender and identity, so 2014 gave her plenty to write about. I asked her about what the president said, and she agreed that the country is not more divided. Americans are just being forced to confront a difficult reality.
ROXANE GAY: We've been able to look away in the past, and we can no longer look away. We're just seeing just how deep the racial divide is, and it's uncomfortable to look at.
GREENE: When Michael Brown, an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, was killed by a white police officer, Gay says she was surprised at first by the outpouring of anger. The incident was far from isolated, she thought. Looking back now, she understands the reaction.
GAY: It was the tipping point that we needed. People are starting to see that these systems only work for some of us. And they work against the rest of us, those of us with brown or black skin. And we want to do something about it because we live here, we work here, this is our country, too.
GREENE: Roxane Gay says a few bad actors in police departments have created widespread fear, but it goes beyond the police.
GAY: It's also just people everywhere. You can see people who, online, are commenting on these matters, and they refer to black people as animals. And so it's a very real thing. This idea that humanity is not extended to all of us.
GREENE: There's certainly been some overt racism this year. There was a lot of outrage when the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling, was recorded making racist comments. You wrote at one point that what worries you is that far too many people seem surprised when racists are revealed. Tell me more about that.
GAY: It's disheartening that people think that Donald Sterling is the outlier and that he's the exception and not the rule. That people are so stunned, it makes me think that perhaps people don't have diverse social circles or professional circles where they are around people of color who might be frank with them about what it's like to be a person of color in America. But at the same time, it's good that people can still be shocked by the kind of racism that Donald Sterling demonstrated. It's good that people can look at that and say, this is a problem.
GREENE: Well, Donald Sterling, I mean, he was brought down over his behavior and had to give up his team and, you know, we saw...
GAY: Well, (laughter) he was brought down, but he's still a billionaire. Let's not, (laughter) you know, let's frame this correctly.
GREENE: You're arguing, giving up his team, but maybe he was not brought down entirely?
GAY: He lost his basketball team. Oh, dear.
GREENE: Well, he lost his basketball team, I mean it - whatever happened to him, it was because of behavior that was not brand-new, which makes me think of Bill Cosby as well. I mean, he has been overcome by accusations of rape, but many of those charges, not new. What is that about? Was there some broad push in the public this year to really reject the behavior of men in positions of power?
GAY: I do think that this was a year - and we saw some of this last year as well - a year of reckoning where people are saying enough is enough. The wealthy and the powerful can no longer use the rest of us as their playthings. And with Bill Cosby, the rumors have followed him for years, at least 15, 20 years if not longer. And I think it just reached a point where there were so many accusations that we had to say we cannot value Cliff Huxtable more than we can value the testimony of these women.
GREENE: I want to ask you about one other incident earlier this year in Santa Barbara, California. A young man went on a rampage and killed six people and left a manifesto behind essentially saying he felt rejected by women. And it sparked a conversation about what many men expect from women and what happens to them when their expectations are not met.
GREENE: How did you react to that conversation?
GAY: I thought what Elliott Rodger did was absolutely devastating and very indicative of the gender rift in this country that men - some men I should say, not all men - feel that women owe them attention, affection, love, sex, and when they're not given what they are owed, there are consequences.
GREENE: You reference the Not All Men campaign, men coming forward and saying this is not - this does not apply to all men. A lot of women seemed to respond to that campaign and suggest that they feel this.
GAY: I think the conversation advanced in a really interesting way when the Yes All Women campaign emerged in response to say that perhaps it is not all men, but yes, all women deal with misogyny. And again, I don't know that any change has happened yet, but at least we're having the conversations where women are saying, this is what it's like to live in a woman's body, and I think more and more people are listening. And that defensiveness that inspired some men to say not all men is a good place to start to at least have them take a look at not only their behavior, but the behavior of their friends. So when one of their friends makes an off-color joke, maybe it's time for you to stand up and say, hey, don't do that. So it's not enough to say not all men. It's how are you moving through your life and working to combat misogyny on a day-to-day basis?
GREENE: How do you feel as 2014 comes to an end?
GAY: I don't know. I feel dispirited,. But I think that to give up is a luxury, and I refuse to give into that. I am going to try and remain hopeful that we can create actual change, that these conversations can become more productive than just saying what we think and feel, and we can figure out how to create political change, which is what's going to be required for a lot of these issues to be addressed. So I'm disheartened, but I remain optimistic that our need for change will overcome our weariness.
GREENE: Does that suggest that some of the movements from the '60s and '70s on these very issues, I mean, did they fail in some way?
GAY: No, they did not fail. There was just work still to be done, and we're continuing that work now. Those movements were hugely successful, and it would be so harmful to take away from what they accomplished. It's just that the problems that the movements of the '60s and '70s we're dealing with were huge problems for which there are not simple and easy answers.
GREENE: We've been speaking with Roxane Gay. She's the author of two books that came out this year, the novel "An Untamed State" and a collection of essays called "Bad Feminist." Roxane, thanks very much for talking to us.
GAY: Thank you.
INSKEEP: And thank you for listening in 2014.
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