How Do Americans Talk About Race? Sen. Barack Obama spoke on Tuesday about the role race has played in the presidential campaign and addressed the racially charged remarks made by his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Guests and callers weigh in on the ways in which Americans talk about race in public and in private.
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How Do Americans Talk About Race?

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This is TALK OF THE NATION in Washington.

Barack Obama's speech in Philadelphia this week was not resolved everybody's questions about his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr., openly and otherwise, it's likely to be a factor in the nomination fight and if Senator Obama wins that in the general election as well. But whatever the political effect maybe, the speech also challenged us to talk about race. So today, we want to explore, exactly, how we do that.

Is race something you talk about at home, at work? Do we speak differently depending on who we're talking to? Do we ignore or gloss over a set of issues that many find uncomfortable? Is race just a black and white issue? Do we talk about race when an opportunity arises: the O.J. trial, Katrina, Barry Bonds and, yes, the Reverend Wright, or is this an ongoing discussion? Does the conversation generate resentment and anger or do we deflect the heat with humor? Many commentators have written interesting takes this week. We've invited four of them to speak with us today and we need to hear from you.

How do you talk about race? Call and tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail You can also join the conversation on our blog, that's at

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times. She joins us today from the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN (Columnist, Los Angeles Times): Thanks for having me on, Neal.

CONAN: And in your most recent op-ed, you said you're angry. What are you mad about?

Ms. KAPLAN: Oh, so many things. I just wanted to make the point that black people - at least most of the ones that I know - are mad, in one form or another, that doesn't mean that they, you know, they go around looking angry but all of us - so many of us are just as distressed about the conditions in black America. I could give you a list but maybe I'll do that later but, you know, public education, unemployment. I'll just throw out one statistic that was - that has become sort of normal and that is the unemployment rate of black males, I believe, in Milwaukee is close to 50 percent. That's just not a good thing for all of us and we see these things. And even though things have gotten better - we all know that - they are so far from being good. And so, you know, at the very least aggravated to stress, if not actually angry, about all these things and it's a kind of constant state of mind.

CONAN: And is this an anger that blacks can express amongst themselves but more difficult to express it across ethnic lines?

Ms. KAPLAN: Well, absolutely. We really do have - you know, different conversations going on. We talk about this amongst ourselves all the time. But it - we, at least, I do not generally have these conversations with, say, white people because there's really no history of it and we kind of assumed that other people don't want to hear it because we get that message all the time. People think it's complaining. They think it's - it makes them uncomfortable. We always - and if we did bring it up, we always feel like we're in a position of explaining ourselves and our points of view to people who don't understand it or don't want to hear it. So we, you know, we tend to just not to put it out there.

CONAN: So it comes up in a - that what some might regard as a teachable moment. And…

Ms. KAPLAN: Yes.

CONAN: …somebody might say, well, what do you think about Reverend Wright and Senator Obama and you feel like you have to explain.

Ms. KAPLAN: Absolutely, and that's frankly a little tiring. I'm happy to be on the program but very often we only have these conversations when something like this, quote, unquote, happens. But my point just was that, this is to me is not something that happens. This is not a moment. This is actually, you know, like I say, a general state of mind.

CONAN: A condition.

Ms. KAPLAN: Yeah, exactly.

CONAN: Simmering resentment, is that fair to say?

Ms. KAPLAN: Sure, simmering. But again, you know, we also don't want to give this image to the rest of the country that all black people walking around with these huge chips on their shoulders and, you know, ready to blow at any moment.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KAPLAN: A sort of a stereotype, and so in a way, you know, the anger really is - it's historical, it's long-standing and we have just learned how to cope with it, I suppose, channel it into, you know, constructive ways or just, kind of, set it aside and express it amongst each other, you know, go to church, you know, give back to community, all those kinds of things. Again, your anger and dissatisfaction are, for us, you know, entirely logical, and frankly, I don't think enough black people are angry enough.

CONAN: Interesting. In his speech, Senator Obama was talking about some of the attitudes of older African-Americans like the Reverend Wright, which he said were a little bit, you know, passive. You're a younger woman, certainly far younger than me, and do you see a difference, generationally?

Ms. KAPLAN: Well, actually, you know, I am exactly Barack Obama's age. We are the - we're born in the same year. And I'm not as angry as my father, okay? He is still pretty, let's say, very dissatisfied with the way things are and I am also dissatisfied. I live in a different political era than my dad but I very much see things that are wrong. Even though I, you know, personally, I'm doing okay. That actually makes my anger all the more logical because I look around and see opportunities that I had that I feel already closed off or, you know, have gotten left. So I am just angry in a different way, I think, but I have never - there's never been a point where I've said, you know, okay, I can rest, you know, this, you know, we can stop feeling this way. I just don't think that's true yet.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on this conversation. Our number's 800-989-8255, e-mail is We're talking with Erin Aubry Kaplan, a contributing editor at the opinion page segment - section of the Los Angeles Times. And let's go to Roy(ph). And Roy is calling us from Cincinnati in Ohio.

ROY (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Roy.

ROY: First, thank you for having me on and especially thank you for having this topic. It's been a long time since there's been an open discussion about race, where people are interested in absorbing information instead of just yelling and screaming.

CONAN: We may get to that later but…

ROY: I'm not (unintelligible)…

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROY: What I wanted to - what I wanted to bring out was - I'm biracial. My mother is white, my father's - and my father's black and I was raised by my white mother, lived in a black neighborhood and the whole complicated, convoluted situation with that. And I really talk about race very often. I talk about it at work, I talk about it in my home life because it's very important to me. It was made very important to me by society that I was raised in. Now I found in my experience that it is - that even though I am biracial, it's quite obvious, that white people still look at me as being black. I have other features than just my skin tone that made some people think that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ROY: And - but I found that they will be more prone to talk in a more intellectual way where they're this passionate. Whereas, the black people which I am related to as well will be much more, you know, relational, much more sympathetic and you'll be able to talk more about the things that have happened.

It's clear to me that there's been a big divide in that view as for impact as well because blacks will - even if you deny it, eventually you will realize there is racism affecting you whereas the white people in my family, and white people that I have known, they actually believe that racism is gone or…

CONAN: And do you find that they or you approach this subject on eggshells?

ROY: I know that when the Cincinnati riot happened back in 2001. On the next day, I went out into the street because I knew people had to talk about race. I went down to center of the city and talked to - just approached two strange middle-aged white guys to me and just started talking with them. And they were very hesitant, and they were very removed and distant. They were shocked that I had approached them, and in fact there was a lot of that. But in the same vein, I was part of a group that gathered a bunch of liberal-minded Jews that were willing to talk about it but they also has this limit that they wouldn't talk anymore where, you know, once I started talking too much about it, it was no longer in their interest. But, of course, when I was talking with black people in the same situation that I was, we could talk for months.

CONAN: Erin Aubry Kaplan, you have a foot in two camps too?

Ms. KAPLAN: I do.

CONAN: Yup. And do you find that Roy's experience near as your own?

Ms. KAPLAN: Wait a minute, I'm sorry, my foot in two camps?

CONAN: Yes, your husband is white?

Ms. KAPLAN: Yeah.

CONAN: And doesn't that give you some opportunity to talk to his family too?

Ms. KAPLAN: Well, you know, the foot - of course, it does. Although I have to say we live in a - in a mostly black neighborhood, so that's interesting, you know, in one sense. But, you know, I think Roy brings up a very good point. This has to do with context. You know, depends on who you're talking too, you know, if you're talking to whites who are - you know, you have to kind of feel them out. Are they sympathetic or not, you know, how far can you go? Do you even bring it up? We're constantly having to make those decisions and even if they are sympathetic and even if it's your own family because, yes, I do have these - you know, my family is, you know, my in-laws are white. I tend to talk more theoretically about race opposed to my experiences. That I talk about with, you know, my black family and friends. And so very often there's not that connection you make, that you make as, you know, a black person to connect your experience with, you know, with, you know, something more analytical. I found myself making those adjustments, almost subconsciously. I'm not sure that's a good thing. (Unintelligible) that.

ROY: Well, if I could add, real quick, to that, it's my belief is that the reason why it's - they would rather talk about that intellectually is because it's not, in effect, what they feel

Ms. KAPLAN: Right.

ROY: …it's something that they see.

CONAN: Not part of your experience.

ROY: They are removed from it.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. KAPLAN: Right. Right, you're absolutely right. And I think that that contributes to, you know, people being shocked, like in instances with, you know, with Pastor Wright being shocked to, quote, unquote, "hear this things," he hear this kind of feeling because they simply don't, they don't hear, and they don't see it and they don't experience it. When we talk about inequality, if you're not experiencing inequality and you're on the other side where things work for you or the government works for you, where you're okay, you're going to be very surprised to hear this. It's almost like it's a world you don't see or that, you know, you don't touch.

CONAN: Roy, thanks very much for the call.

ROY: You're welcome. And I wanted to add one more thing is that actually I do get to see both sides in the situation that I'm in because will hear one side say how ridiculous the other side is being, no matter which side it was.

CONAN: Okay.

Ms. KAPLAN: Yeah, I get that too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much, Roy. Good luck to you.

ROY: Thanks.

CONAN: Let's talk - see if we can get Jan(ph) in. Jan is calling us from Las Vegas, in Nevada.

JAN (Caller): Hello.


JAN: Well, I'm calling because I was raised in Texas in a white family, and my mother thought - I heard - grew up hearing terrible racial epithets. Sometimes, I still hear them. And I'm embarrassed to hear them, but she has become a Barack Obama fan, and so that I'm very thrilled to see that happen.


JAN: And that, so that, but even I, at this level of my life, I'm almost 60, I'm still learning. My African-American friends that little ways that we hurt other people, just little assumptions you're making, you know, I have a very young African-American friend and they're very dearly to, you know, let me know that I've said things that hurt her. So, I just hope, I have great hope.

Ms. KAPLAN: Hmm. Well, that's great.

CONAN: That's great, Jan. Thanks very much.

JAN: Okay.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

JAN: Bye-bye.

CONAN: And Erin Aubry Kaplan, we'd like to thank you for your time today.

Ms. KAPLAN: Thank you, Neal. Good to be here.

CONAN: Erin Aubry Kaplan, nice to have you with us.

She's a contributing editor to opinion of the section of the Los Angeles Times, and joined us today from the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California.

This week, in particular, the country is talking about race, so are we. Coming up we'll hear one view of how many white people think about race, and why they don't talk about it. We want to hear your stories this hour, 800-989-8255. E-mail,

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

This week, the country is talking about race, and we are talking about how we talk about race? Do we really need to hear from you on this? Do you talk about race differently at the kitchen table than you do at the water cooler? How does the conversation change depending on who you're talking to? 800-989-8255, email, And you can read what other listeners have to say on our blog at

Let's get another caller on the line. This is Sarah(ph). Sarah is with us from Folsom in Washington.

SARAH (Caller): Folsom, California.

CONAN: California, all right.

SARAH: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. My sister's first husband is black. And I was very young at the time that she married him. And he really - he opened my eyes to things like the experience of driving more black, and you know, the extent to which I'm very privileged. And what I find as a result of that experience is that people will be talking to me and they think that they're confiding certain things about race or religion, and I feel the obligation to expose them…


SARAH: …on those things. But I'm also…

CONAN: To call them on it.

SARAH: Call them on it?

CONAN: Yeah, I mean, to say that's wrong.

SARAH: Yes, which is always a really uncomfortable thing to do, but I don't do it because I get some kind of high (unintelligible) because I feel that if it just - if it goes on without any comment then I (unintelligible) agreed to it.

CONAN: And you're sort of an indicted co-conspirator.

SARAH: Yeah. Yeah, I feel like I've (unintelligible) agreed to remarks. And I also happen to be Jewish, and people don't think I look Jewish, and they will confide certain things in me. And so, I set them right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And how did these conversations go? I mean, do you say, you know, hey, wait a minute that's wrong? Or do you get angry? Do you try a joke maybe?

SARAH: I find that there's not an easy way to do it, but in general, it's not a good idea to anger the person because then they won't be able to hear what I'm saying. But I will question them on it, I will question their assumptions.

CONAN: Hmm. And do you think this is something important for you to do for yourself, nevertheless, if you lost friends over it.

SARAH: No, I haven't lost friends over it but I do think it's important to do. And I also think it's important to do because I am still, being white in this country, I am privileged, and being female, I don't - I can tell you, I don't get hassled at the airport to the extent that I've seen other people in the past. I think that if I don't confront these things and I continue to live a life that's very isolated from black and minority people, you know, I see insensitivity creeping into my worldview.

CONAN: Sarah, thanks very much for the call.

SARAH: Okay, thank you.

CONAN: I appreciate it.

SARAH: Okay, bye-bye.

CONAN: Joining us now is Robert Jensen. He's a professor of journalism at the University of Texas, and also the author of "The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege." And he's with us today from member station KUT in Austin, Texas.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Professor ROBERT JENSEN (Journalism, University of Texas; Author, "The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege"): Great to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And I wonder, as a white man, I know you've written about how difficult it is sometimes to have conversations about race with, well, with other white people, in fact with anybody.

Prof. JENSEN: Well, it's difficult in some sense, but of course, it's easy because in the dominant position, one can take on these questions quite easily. What I found is, it's actually much easier in some sense for me to talk about white supremacy than for some of my black colleagues and black friends, because they are going to be labeled as whiny and angry, and I can do it, and push the envelope further. So, in one sense, of course, many white people for emotional reasons are fearful. But we also have a kind of latitude to speak more bluntly and more honestly, and I think we should take it.

CONAN: Well, when you use expressions like white supremacy, I seem that you get (unintelligible) out of some white people.

Prof. JENSEN: Yeah, because I think we have to recognize that white supremacy is the dominant ideology of the culture. And here I'm not talking about clan members and neo-Nazis, the overt white supremacist, but to recognize that we still live in a white supremacist society that, you know, ideological terms, the way have been, the knowledge of this culture structured - open the course catalogue of the University of Texas in Austin where I teach and you'll see white points of view reflected predominantly. And of course, in material terms this is still a white supremacist society. There's still a racialized gap between white and nonwhite society. That's a white supremacist society.

We're the most affluent country in the history of the world, the most powerful country in the history of the world. If we wanted to erase the racialized gaps in wealth and wellbeing that exist, we could do it. We simply choose not to. I think it's fair to call the United States a white supremacist society.

CONAN: And you also talk about the origins of the fears of white people including a fear - getting back to what you were just saying - of losing what we, white people, have.

Prof. JENSEN: Right. I think there's a lot of fears that work within us who are white. One, as you point out, is that we realize at some level that some of the material goods we get in this culture, as white folks are connected to that racialized disparity, so there's a fear of loosing actual things. There's the fear of losing status. There's a fear of those kinds that are tangible outcomes if that was a more racially just society.

But there's other fears working for white folks; I think at some level white people know that some of what we have has nothing to do with our own hard work, our own brilliance. It has to do with living in that position of privilege. And we're afraid to confront that.

The other thing I've noticed and this was a very painful process of coming to terms within myself, is that white people especially us, good liberal white folks, those about who are suppose to get it also carry around within us, of course, a lot of racist training. And I think a lot of white people again, especially liberal white folks are afraid that somehow that racist training is just going to emerge. And especially people of color are going to see it and their going to mark it.

So I think part of the hesitancy to talk about race on the part of white people is a fear of stepping out into this what seems like very dangerous territory on the possibility that people of color might see you or more appropriately perhaps see through us and recognize the lingering effects of that racist training. But again, we have enormous privilege in this culture as white people, and we have an obligation, as other callers and guests have said, to step out and mark the nature of white supremacist society and to work against it.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Kim(ph). And Kim is calling from Goshen, Indiana.

KIM (Caller): Hi, Neal.


KIM: Oh, I absolutely agree. It doesn't sound at all shocking to me when he talks about this being the white supremacist nation. My daughter, my 12-year-old daughter is of mixed race, and my parents are very racist. My mom will say things in front of my daughter, like she's worried about Sasha(ph) never getting a boyfriend because the boy's parents will never accept her because of her race.

CONAN: In front of her?

KIM: Yes, in front of her. And she refers - my mother refers to my daughter's black family that lives in North Carolina, she refers to them as those colored people. And when she says that, my daughter will say, grandma, why do you call them that? And I say mom, you really must watch it. You know that's not right.

CONAN: There must have been a moment, I don't know if you heard the senator's speech, but when he was talking about the inability to disown his own grandmother…

KIM: Yeah, I know.

CONAN: …must have been striking quite how close to home.

KIM: I know. That's the reason why I called. When I heard you say that, I thought, oh, my gosh, I've got to tell Neal, my mom does the exact same thing to my 12-year-old daughter. So, I absolutely understand where Senator Obama is coming from than that, and I'm sorry he had to deal with it and I'm sorry my daughter has to deal with it.

CONAN: You know, we are too, nevertheless, is this a subject you can talk to with your mother, apparently not productively?

KIM: That's right. I can talk to her until I'm blue in the face. My parents are both this way. Yeah, they are absolutely steadfast in their feelings that they don't see anything wrong with the way they think or the way they believe.

CONAN: And some people might say, you know, why do you take your daughter there anymore if she's going to be subject to what a lot of people with regard is abuse.

KIM: Well, yes, but we are blood, and while I am trying to correct mom and dad in the way they think, and now, you know, there's no getting around it. I, in my way, in my relationship with my daughter, teach her that the way grandma and grandpa feel is wrong. And she knows - as she sees, she is the only mixed race child in our family, and you know, we are all white with blue eyes, and my lovely daughter has a tan skin with very dark eyes, and she knows there's a difference, of course, she's 12-years old. And sometimes she refers to that. She refers to - she wishes that she was white. She doesn't like to go out in the sun because her lovely skin gets darker. But - and she just sometimes feels badly about that. And I tell her that the problem that she's going to have in her life probably will have people take advantage of her beauty, rather than worrying about that she's mixed race.

CONAN: I suspect - let's hope that's true. Let's hope that's true. Thanks very much for the call Kim.

KIM: You're welcome.

CONAN: And we wish you, you and your daughter the best of luck.

KIM: Thank you.

CONAN: And I wonder Robert Jensen, you were talking about fears earlier and confronting them. Just hearing that phone call, there was an incident you described in your essay, an incident that came, I guess another one of those teachable moments, this was about the O.J. trial, you found you found yourself on a panel sitting next to a black man.

Prof. JENSEN: Yeah, it's one of those times when I have to confront my own fears. So there I was the expert white guy who's supposed to know things about this. And I realized that in public, I was afraid that my colleagues sitting next to me, a very good scholar and a very decent human being was going to somehow see through me, see that I haven't fully dealt with my own racist training. And I did get that very intense racist training that's so common in this country. And it was confronting that fear that helped me, and that was maybe a decade ago. Of course, if you're honest as a white person, you face these things all the time, it's the constant learning experience.

And I think the only thing that I can testify to you is that, if one does that, one not only becomes a better person in some sort of moral or political sense that life gets a lot better when you shed fears, you move through the world in a much more productive and in satisfying ways. So for those of us who are white, I think there's both an argument from justice in a sense that we should be confronting white supremacy and racism because it's the right thing to do.

But I also think we have to talk honestly about what I suppose we could call an argument from self interest that our own lives become richer and more meaningful when we have the courage to confront these things. And these things come up every day. I just came from class where a similar kind of incident reminded me much less traumatic perhaps of how important it is to just speak honestly in public about these things.

CONAN: What was the incident?

Prof. JENSEN: Well, I was announcing an event coming up by a speaker with a Hispanic name and I stumbled over it and I instead of you know, sort of retreating from it, I made the point quite obviously that those of us who grew up in predominantly Anglo areas often have trouble with other names. And instead of avoiding it, we should confront it. And in this case I asked for help from people in the class who were more familiar with it. And it was a very positive moment, I think.

CONAN: Robert Jensen, thanks very much for your talk today.

Prof: JENSEN: Great to be with you.

CONAN: Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin; the author of "The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege." He joined us today from member station KUT in Austin, Texas.

If you like to join this conversation, give us a phone call, 800-989-8255. E-mail us,; and you can check out what other listeners are writing about on our blog at

This is TALK OF NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

And joining us now - not everybody thought Senator Obama's speech started a good dialogue - Michael Meyers is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. His op-ed called "Obama Blew It" appeared in today's Los Angeles Times. And he joins us today from NPR's bureau in New York.

Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (Executive Director, New York Civil Rights Coalition): Thank you.

CONAN: And Senator Obama addressed how race is affecting his campaign. In your op-ed, you say he blew it and explained racial differences, amplified deep seated racial tensions. Should we not address race at this point?

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I think we have to address race and talk about race differently, and that was the uniqueness of the Obama candidacy up into the point of his speech on race. And that, you know, this notion of mixed races - that's a racial idiocy. We all belong to the same race, that's the human race. And if civil rights community in particular understands that we believe in absolute equality and that race ain't what it used to be and we fight all the time against stereotypes and group think and putting people in racial boxes, and our effort has been to remove narrow constrictions of the mind; to extrapolate prejudice, to broaden one horizon so that we are fighting stereotypes based on race, on gender, sexual orientation, and we must begin in our language to treat people as individuals and regard them as individuals and to judge them as individuals and based on what as Dr. King used to say, the content of their character not their skin color.

So, you know, when Obama has started talking about groups such as whites who resent affirmative action against the gay, you know, there are plenty of whites who supported affirmative action and that support for affirmative action is not a racial test or opposition to affirmative action. It's not a racial test. You know, people of all colors, on both sides would have very vexing public policy question. So, you know, I'm - and this is to acknowledge obviously, that there is a legacy and a culture of racist thinking - racialist thinking. But it comes out in many different forms: internalism, outright discrimination, racial nonsense, prejudice, stereotyping, tokenism, class feelings; and therefore, I believe that when we have to have one standard.

And so when ministers such as the Reverend Jeremiah Wright talks racial nonsense and speaks as bigot, then we have to condemn that as bigotry when Louis Farrakhan speaks as a bigot, we must condemn it as bigotry. And I don't want to hear nonsense - that's what it is - about one has to have a trained ear. My ear is trained, my ear is focused, it is black but it doesn't mean anything that you have a white ear or a black ear or a yellow ear or a brown ear, you recognize bigotry for what it is.

CONAN: In your piece, in fact, you said that that reference to the untrained ear meaning whites and Asians and Latinos don't understand.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, that's what this implication is.


Mr. MEYERS: I think there are people who understand bigotry. And my point is that I believe that we share one nation that is united not around racial fiefdoms and tribalism, ethnic polarization, ethnic chauvinism or whether or not one is married black and white and whether or not you're a hybrid - all that is racial nonsense, all that is old hat, all that is dysfunctional thinking, all of that is group think which must be fought against.

And Obama was the transformational candidate who want to be judged based on his qualifications, based on his character, based on his philosophies, based on his policies, based on his notion of change. And change means getting away from the notion that we can judge people and group people and think about people and think about people based on these categories. And that's was the mistake of Geraldine Ferraro, that was the mistake of Governor Rendell who said that, you know, people are not going to vote or Obama between Pittsburg and Philadelphia because he sees Archie Bunkers out there. Well, as a leader, he has to fight those notions of racism. And he shouldn't deify them, he shouldn't reinforce them, he has to fight them. And you have to - as a leader say, you cannot judge a person based of their skin color or for that matter, their gender. What is wrong with that?

CONAN: Mike Meyers, stay with us if you will.

And we're going to continue this conversation. When we come back, we'll talk more about how we discuss race at the kitchen table, at the office, with our families, and including a conversation with Gustavo Arellano on the role that humor can play in the conversation. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, e-mail

I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Today, we're taking a moment to examine what we talk about when we talk about race with our families, with people of different backgrounds and how that conversation changes from place to place, group to group, person to person. How do you talk about race? 800-989-8255. E-mail us

Our guest is Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, who wrote an op-ed entitled "Obama Blew It," which appeared in the Los Angeles Times. He's with us from our bureau in New York. Let's get a caller on the line. And this is Julie(ph). Julie's with us from Reno in Nevada.

JULIE (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Julie, you're on the air.

JULIE: Hi. I'm calling because I have a question about how to (unintelligible) to talk about race in the classroom? I find my students when I ask about race and where they see it to all be very open and not to admit that we have race problems in society.

CONAN: Do you have any advice for her, Michael Meyers?

Mr. MEYERS: Yes, the New York Civil Rights Coalition runs a program in the schools. It's called the unlearning stereotypes, a civil rights and race relations program. And what we do is we send volunteer lawyers and law students. We team them up and usually by racially and male and female as a team, two people go in to a classroom at the same time. In that way, they present role models of adults who are successful, who work together across racial and gender lines just symbolically either students get it. And they bring up issues of current events and they talk about and have the students talk about and examine all kinds of stereotypes: stereotypes based on race, based on gender, based on sexual orientation. And what we have learned and found that students not only get it, but that this generation is different from past generations. And that they really believe that race ain't what it used to be. And they are mixing it up. They have friends who are black, white, Asian, Native American, Hispanic. They date across, quote, unquote, "skin colors and races and genders." And what we have also found out is that people are hopeful. They're not angry. They are not dispirited. And we have to give young people in particular opportunities for learning and overcoming discrimination and prejudice. And when they get to talk about these issues, and not in a paternalistic fashion but in a candid fashion, in a way that they have -they're entitled to their opinions as individuals. They don't represent and don't (unintelligible) for group grievance. They talk about these issues as individuals. And that's when I'm urging people to do that we must use the power of the human intellect to stop this gibberish about skin color differences.

CONAN: Julie, does that description of - describe your students but first of all, how old are they?

JULIE: They're freshmen in college. And it does, it seems like they have been taught that they shouldn't be racist so that when you ask them questions about where you see race that they don't what to admit that there is a problem. I mean, they do seem reluctant to bring up, you know, individual cases. And they are dating you know, interracially and have friends of other races.

CONAN: Do you worry that they're blinkered and ignoring things that are boring? Are you hopeful that they're maybe as Michael Meyers was saying, a new generation that has new attitudes?

JULIE: Well, I'm hopeful that they are open to other races. But I do think that sometimes perhaps they're ignoring issues of race because they don't necessarily see it within their community or environment or friendships.

CONAN: Mm-hmm

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I look at the college communities in particular. And I was talking about high schools with respect to unlearning stereotype program. In high schools in particular, you find that the college and universities, we reinforce in which is a cultural difference and race. And they bring black students, for example, to colleges and campuses long before they bring the white students because they think that minority students aren't yet up to a rigorous college environment. And then when they bring the minority students ahead of the rest of the class, they get to know each other very race. And they get to know all the culture in the campus. But how does campus supposedly, white races, therefore we have to room together, we got to have a black dormitory. This reinforces racial patterns. And we don't get - we don't empower people to act at individuals because we deprive them of their individuality. The colleges and universities are suppose to be the best and the brightest of minds. All they do is reinforce and perpetuate racial idiocy of stereotypes.

CONAN: Julie, thanks very much for the call.

JULIE: Thank you.

CONAN: And Michael Meyers, we appreciate your time today.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. His op-ed, "Obama Blew It" appeared in today's edition of the Los Angeles Times. And he joined us from NPR's bureau in New York. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Mike(ph). Mike with us from Boston in Massachusetts.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. Yes. Hi. This is Mike.

CONAN: Go ahead.

MIKE: Hi. I'm an Asian-American and I want to talk about a little bit about some of that race conversation amongst my Asian friends. I think there is a diversity of some of the topics and the view about race. I mean, some of us will get really excited when we, say for example, watching "American Idol" or American's best dance group when you see Asian person, Asian contestants, you know, you get very excited. I think in many ways, this is sort of like, well, we wonder if people can really understand - it's all about Asian experience. While some of us - some of my friends who do try to blame you into, so that a mainstream America and try to feel like, well, you know, maybe we shouldn't be thinking about race a whole lot.

And so there's sort of a diversity of some of the opinion, but at the same time, I think, one major issue is really about a solidarity and how much are we willing to sort of be willing to listen to one another's experiences. I mean, I remember one - I have two really good friends from North Carolina and they're Caucasian. And but then when I first met them, they really would (unintelligible) on you and say, you know, would you tell me about your Asian-American experience because we have no idea what it's like when you were growing up? And that was a very refreshing sort of conversation. And that gives us sort of the opportunity for this kind of conversation.

CONAN: I wonder when Americans do talk about race on those occasions, do you feel that they're talking just about blacks and whites, and not so much about Asians and Hispanics?

MIKE: Oh, yeah, especially for Asian, I think, even for Asian, there's - that the term of professional foreigners continue to come up for us. I remember multiple times in either business functions or social functions when I meet Caucasian people and they will immediately say hello, you know, I've been to China or, you know, or something like that. I'll actually - well, you know, I've never been to China before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MIKE: You know, I grew up in the U.S. and - or they would make some assumptions. And I think that largely is result of the fact that people are uncomfortable talking about race issue, uncomfortable to talk about culture issues. So, when they do get into those situations, they don't really know how to start and they - conversation very awkward.

CONAN: Yes, indeed. Mike, thanks for the call.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Joining us now is Gustavo Arellano. He's the writer of the Ask a Mexican column for the Orange County Weekly and author of the book "Ask a Mexican". He joins us today from member station KPCC in Pasadena, California.

And, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. GUSTAVO ARELLANO (Columnist, Orange County Weekly; Author, "Ask a Mexican"): Hola, Neal.

CONAN: And I know that your column takes what - well, some people might take as offensive or insulting questions and responds to, at least, to begin with humor. Do you find that an effective approach?

Mr. ARELLANO: It's been very affective. I've been doing the column now for about three years. And many people e-mail me and love the fact that I do use satire to debunk so many stereotypes that people have - in my case specifically about Mexicans, not Latinos, specifically Mexicans, not other groups and so forth. And I have found it affective because when it comes to stereotypes, here in the United States, we have such a rich, I say, sarcastically, tradition of stereotyping the others, stereotyping minorities, and the best way to fight them - I could whip a mono about them or I could poke fun at the idiots who are perpetually in those stereotypes at me.

CONAN: Yeah, and - but nevertheless, does - is humor affective, do you think?

Mr. ARELLANO: Again, absolutely. I could tell you anecdotes where people say hey, because of the humor that you use now, I could go back at people. And when they criticize me or try to stereotype me, I could just hit them back with the debunking that you showed them to be. I don't have empirical evidence that could say that but just from my experience, it's been much more effective than me writing a serious op-ed piece because I also do write op-ed pieces where I'm a little bit more serious. But I've found that my pieces for Ask a Mexican are much more powerful and get much more of a reaction, a positive reaction than anything serious I could possibly hope to write.

CONAN: And just going back to that conversation we had with Mike, the caller from Boston a moment ago, is this conversation, when America does talk about race sometimes go right past Hispanics and Asians and other people or just to focus on African-Americans and Caucasians?

Mr. ARELLANO: I think that's how it's historically been but, really, in the past 10 to 15 years when illegal immigration has been such a hot topic in this country. Now, you have the - or the topic of Hispanics or specifically Mexicans going into the dialogue about race. And down in the southwest United States, of course, that's been - the dialogue has been going on since the United States won the Mexican-American war back in 1848, so…

CONAN: I was going to say 1493, but anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARELLANO: Well, oh, no, in that case, I'll go back to the Spanish Armada. We could go - actually, my theory is the reason why Mexicans will always remain a perpetual other is because as the, I think, he's a sociologist or historian, Samuel Huntington over at Harvard. He once wrote this very controversial essay where he says Mexicans are incompatible with American culture. But he broke it down very specifically, Mexicans are Hispanic. They speak Spanish and they're Roman Catholic. Americans, whatever that may mean? They're English, they're - they speak English and they're protestant. And I think there is some credence to that theory.

CONAN: hmm, we're talking with Gustavo Arellano who writes the column Ask a Mexican.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I wonder, there's now been so - we were talking earlier in the show about a resentment and anger which - and it comes up in this issue. And the immigration issue has heated up so much people almost go off immediate. Is it easy to talk with your white friends, with your white colleagues about this issue?

Mr. ARELLANO: It's really hard because there are - a lot of good people out there who do have - who are opposed to illegal immigration. And I do believe that a lot of them, they're not racist, they're not bigots but it's so hard to have that conversation because almost immediately whenever it comes to that topic, they'll say, oh, those illegal immigrants are not learning English, they're keeping their culture. And those are not arguments about illegal immigration. Those are topics about immigration. And those are the same things that were thrown against the Irish and the Italians a century ago when they were coming here the legal way. My all-time favorite column that I ever wrote was somebody asked, why don't Mexicans ever bother to learn English? And then I said that the United States government shares their concern. They came out with this study that shows this new wave of immigrants, they don't speak the language, they only make money to send back. Well, the thing with that study, it was the 1911 Dillingham Commission report. And the immigrants that they were attacking at that time were Italians, Eastern Europeans and Jews.

CONAN: And given that - well, again, bringing up the absurdity is another form of humor, I guess. And do you find - you write this column (unintelligible) can obviously, you know, think about, do you find that you do that in regular life too that you can use a joke to deflect people's anger?

Mr. ARELLANO: I'll give you the best anecdote I know which happened to myself. One time, I was that this really fancy - I would call it a separate club in Orange County - and it was Mexican buffet night. So I was going to get myself some beans and rice. And I was dressed in what some people call a waiter shirt, a guayabera, which is a fancy shirt that Mexicans use whenever it's a summer time. So I'm serving myself beans and rice, and an older white lady comes up to me and says, oh, can I get served as well? And my response to her was like, oh, no, ma'am, I'm not the waiter, you know, it's, you know, it's a misunderstanding. Well, I meet her about an hour later, I'm waiting for my car at the valet and she gives me the keys to her car. Oh, no, she asked, you know, can you go pick up my car? And I said, the only way I'm going to get your - you're going to have your car back, is if it's going to be on cinder blocks because (unintelligible) I stole all of your tires.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line? This is Art(ph). Art with us from Sacramento in California.

ART (Caller): Hi. I'm just going to - I'm relating an the experience where I was at a Christmas get-together with my sister-in-laws, my brothers, and I was talking about race issues. And one of the things that I brought up was how as a child, I was Mexican in American home. My mom, fresh or new from Mexico, kind of, taught us, keep your mouth shut around the white people because there was a power difference, the pretty profound power difference, and it was always that fear in our home. At least, I remember going - I would just be very, you know, circumspect about what she's saying…

CONAN: Mm-hmm, and…

ART: …when you're around.

CONAN: …and that was as a kid. Do you think things have changed?

ART: Yes, and affected, but it's affected me now as - in my professional life, I had difficulties, issues around trusting, you know, who I can trust. And in my - in that get-together in Christmas last year, I brought it up to my Caucasian sisters-in-law about this issue of trust. And one of them, kind of, looked at me (unintelligible), you know, obviously, was shock by it considering I've known her since we were kids. I mean, they kind of - we grew up in the same neighborhood, same town, same church, respected, you know, respected our elders who happened to be Caucasian. But in those - there's underlying thing in my home is - just be careful what you say.

CONAN: Be careful what you say. Gustavo Arellano, is that - that go on today, do you think?

Mr. ARELLANO: I grew up from a different generation. Where I grew up almost everybody was Mexican. In fact, the minorities were white people. And we just - we weren't afraid of them. To us, they were just kids that we poked around and I'd always call (unintelligible) which is whitey. And they didn't have a problem with that as well. It wasn't until college really, when I was finally in an environment where I was the minority. And I think because I grew up so comfortable with my Mexicanidad, with my Mexicaness, I didn't have so much of a problem relating to people of other races or ethnicity once I went into college and to this day, so I don't really see it as much of a problem.

CONAN: Art, thanks very much for the call.

ART: Thank you.

CONAN: Where do we go from here on this, do you think, Gustavo?

Mr. ARELLANO: I think we should always be upfront - we shouldn't be afraid. You know, Art made a great point. And there are a lot of people who are afraid of talking about race. There are a lot of people who because of the way they grew up, they fear the other, they fear the other races whether they be African-American, Asian, white or Hispanic. And we shouldn't have that, we should - the only way to get over that fear is really to talk to people about - talk to people about themselves and really celebrate the similarities. And I know that sounds very peacey(ph), hippy dippy(ph), but was - used a great example from the John Sayles film "Matewan," you know, of 1983 or so forth, where you had blacks, you had Italian immigrants who didn't speak any English whatsoever. Then you had working-class West Virginia coal miners. Well, all those three groups, they were fighting amongst each other to try to get work in the coal mines. But what united them ultimately was a game of baseball. And that was something that was from there, they were able to go on and live a happy life. And you then - they're breaking the strike, but that's whole another story.

But that's really the best way to do it, just have dialogue, be upfront. If you do have problems with people, well, tell them. If you're polite about telling people why, you know, the problem you have with them then it's going to be much better than harboring all these bad sentiments within yourself.

CONAN: Gustavo Arellano, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. ARELLANO: Thank you.

CONAN: Gustavo Arellano is the - writes the Ask a Mexican column for the Orange County Weekly. He wrote a book called "Ask a Mexican," with us today from member station KPCC in Pasadena.

Tomorrow, it's SCIENCE FRIDAY, Ira Flatow will be here. We'll see you again on Monday. I'm Neal Conan, this is NPR News.

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