How do we discuss the topic of race with people of another race?

Chico State sociology professor and department chair Nandi Crosby-Jordan joins the show to break down challenges in these discussions, including the problem with color-blindness, the concept of white fragility, and why nobody owes anyone a history lesson on their race.

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Professor Nandi Crosby-Jordan laughs as she speaks into a microphone in a conversation.
Nandi Crosby-Jordan (left) is the sociology department chair at Chico State and also a professor in multicultural and gender studies. She has a particular interest in matters of inequality, including race and race relations. (Jason Halley/University Photographer)

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(SOUNDBITE OF PROFESSOR NANDI CROSBY-JORDAN)

CROSBY-JORDAN: A lot of people are well-intentioned, and they were raised by well-intentioned parents who told them, “Everybody can be your friend,” “Anybody can come to the party,” “We don’t treat people differently because of how they look, that’s bad,” and so I think they meant well—except, people are different, and those differences matter!

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KATE POST, HOST: This is “Out of Curiosity,” a podcast driven by the wonder of lifelong learning, from California State University, Chico.

TRAVIS SOUDERS, HOST: Welcome to Out of Curiosity. I’m Travis Souders.

POST: And I’m Kate Post.

SOUDERS: On this episode, we have Professor Nandi Crosby-Jordan, the sociology department chair at Chico State and also a professor in multicultural and gender studies. She has a particular interest in matters of inequality, including race and race relations. Professor Nandi, thank you for joining us.

CROSBY-JORDAN: Thank you, I’m glad to be here.

SOUDERS: We posed the original question to Professor Nandi, “How do we talk to our friends of a different race about race,” and we did so as a “touchy subject,” but Professor Nandi pointed out that it’s not necessarily a touchy subject for everyone.

CROSBY-JORDAN: Although race is touchy for a lot of people, I think the people who are probably most uncomfortable talking about race are whites.

I could be wrong, but my sense is that many people of color grew up in families where race came up around the dinner table, where they were taught lessons that, “Because you are a person of color, life is going to be challenging for you in the following ways.”

In America, I think whites tend to think of themselves as not belonging to a racial community, not necessarily having a racial identity, and certainly not having to navigate life day to day around their race.

So, to say, “Well, let’s talk about race,” it’s the people who’ve been talking about it their entire lives who are still struggling with it, because it’s an issue in America that is pervasive, but it’s also one I think that many people of color are equipped to talk about—not necessarily to say that they’re right, or that it won’t be emotionally charged, but in my experience (I’m actually teaching three sections of race and ethnicity this semester), it is folks who have not been forced to talk about race and certainly their own racial identity who find it most difficult to navigate conversations about race.

POST: Let’s start off by talking about, “What is race?” Professor Nandi took us through an exercise she does in her race class, where she has the students call out the names of races in America.

CROSBY-JORDAN: Oh, I get numbers in the thousands. Hundreds. “Lots,” they say, and I said, “OK, let’s name them!” So I started writing on the board and I filled the whole board, and students are just yelling out, “Filipino!” “Dutch!” They’re saying all kinds, and I’m writing every single thing on the board, and then you hear some conversation—this is every class—they’ll start talking amongst themselves, “That’s not a race!” So then I’ll ask, “Well, what’s your race?”

I go around the room and you hear students say, “white, white, Caucasian, white, Asian, African American, black,” and I’m like, “Where are all these thousands of races ya’ll just told me were up there? So essentially we’re down to just six? Just six of y’all represented?” And then there’s, “Oh, well you know, I’m part–” and I say, “No, just stick with race.” Turns out, yeah, in America we’ve got about six.

But it’s all socially constructed, and so when we start talking about social constructs and the fact that over time, the way that we talk about race, the way we think about race, who is which race depending on however much drop of whatever blood they’ve got, and how other countries and cultures think about or don’t think about race, all of that stuff helps to give us context about social constructs.

SOUDERS: One of the major points that Professor Nandi made was that when we’re talking to people who have had different experiences than us, those experiences often shape the way that people talk, including accents and verbiage and mannerisms, and those all factor into the conversation itself.

POST: When we approach conversations of race, we’re not all coming to the conversation on the same playing field.

CROSBY-JORDAN: Many of us are equipped with language and vocabulary, whether it is our own racial identity or calling something racist and distinguishing that from discrimination or prejudice, that many of us either are equipped with on some level, or almost not at all. And so I think part of the difficulty in having those conversations is we’re not all talking about the same thing. We don’t all have the same vocabulary, and we’re certainly not experiencing it in similar ways depending on our standpoint.

SOUDERS: Talking with our friends of different races and different backgrounds, in ways that are sensitive or welcoming to their different life experiences—well, first I want to address two things that I thought of as we were walking over here, and there are two things I hear specifically to try to avoid looking like they’re trying to hurt anybody: “I don’t see color”—yeah, you cringed!—And, “I have a black friend who, fill in the blank, so I’m not racist.” 

I think a good way to start with those is, one, it’s good to see color, right?

CROSBY-JORDAN: Of course!

SOUDERS: And so let’s dive in there, because I feel like that’s that’s where a lot of people get hung up, maybe even in a well-intentioned spirit.

CROSBY-JORDAN: Exactly. Like you said, a lot of people are well-intentioned, and they were raised by well-intentioned parents who told them, “Everybody can be your friend,” “Anybody can come to the party,” “We don’t treat people differently because of how they look, that’s bad,” and so I think they meant well—except, people are different, and those differences matter!

Those differences aren’t bad, they just help to explain how people show up, how they talk, what they eat, and the things that matter to them. So when you tell children who may be white, “everybody’s the same,” or “don’t mistreat people that way,” I know it’s coming from a good place. Except, what’s happening is those kids now don’t have equipment to be able to to make sense of their feelings or their experiences, and they show up to college, and just they’re just like, “But, but my boyfriend is…” 

And now someone’s looking at you sideways because you just tossed out “your boyfriend is black,” and now everybody’s upset, and you don’t know why.

SOUDERS: One of the really important things that we got from our conversation with Professor Nandi was that when you’re asking a friend about some insight into their culture, even though they’re your friend, they don’t necessarily owe you an explanation.

POST: And that the explanation they give you is from their own experience, and you need to trust that that is true and real to them.

SOUDERS: We understand that when we talk to each other, we’re trying to communicate in some way, on some level, even if the sounds are different, right? So, we’re friends among each other—I’m white; you are not; and we’re discussing the topic of race, which we just discovered, even very lightly touching on it, is a very deep topic.

As we discussed, white people tend to be more fidgety about this topic. So, in wanting to understand what is a proper way that I could speak to you, in a way that would account for our racial differences, in a way that’s respectful—Because we’re friends and I don’t want to harm with words or offend you in any way—what are some useful things that people can introduce into their conversations that help them do that?

CROSBY-JORDAN: I love the way that you frame it as “friends,” and we don’t want to harm each other, because I make a distinction between the person who is curious about race or a racial group, or people having certain kinds of experiences or ways of thinking about things, but they’re not friends, and then people who are friends, because my first piece of advice is: Go make some friends who are different from you.

If you are friends with someone, first and foremost, just spending time with people, you learn things, and so when I give advice to folks who are not friends, who genuinely have those questions about, “how do,” and “how come,” and, “why is,” I say, go make some friends. One of the things you pick up just from hanging out at people’s houses and watching them do their hair and watch them cook what they cook—you’ll just learn some stuff.  

But we are friends, you and me, Travis, and you’re just like, “Dr. Nandi, you know, I don’t quite get it, can you help me explain?” So the first thing to recognize is that even if we are friends, that if I have some resistance to sharing because I don’t feel safe or comfortable or equipped, or thinking that you might be a bit fragile around those things, I might hesitate to say that. Our friendship doesn’t give you necessarily carte blanche to pick my brain.

But on a different note, the first thing is to know that it’s going to be difficult still, if we’re friends—if we’re lovers, even—it’s still difficult because one of the things about people who are of different races is, they have not only different experiences, but they see things differently.  Things make sense to them differently, and so as friends, you’ve got to trust that if I say this is my experience or this is a thing that I know, and I know I know it, it’s important to just roll with that. You don’t have to agree, but I think a lot of times what makes it unsafe for people of color to say, “Here’s what I believe” or “Here’s my experience,” is because even their well-intentioned friends, or roommates, people they care about, will say, “I don’t see it like that.”

POST: She quotes sociologist and educator Robin DiAngelo, who wrote the book White Fragility, talking about how when white people are called to talk about race, often their first reaction is to get defensive. 

CROSBY-JORDAN: She was doing this work with people of color, and she asked them, “What would life be like for you if, when a white person said something or did something and totally stepped in it and then you called them out, and they just said, ‘OK, I’m going to sit with that,’ what would life be like?” And she said, this person of color responded to her by saying, “That would be revolutionary.” To call that revolutionary, she said, speaks volumes.

SOUDERS: We’re not saying that white fragility is necessarily “wimpiness,” or like, “frailty,” right? It has a different meaning here.

POST: Yeah, it’s more about how, because of the position in society that white people hold, they’re often able to live in a place of comfort where they don’t have to engage in issues of race, except on the periphery of their lives, and so when there is an issue, or they are called to task or maybe they made a misstep, they are—we are—suddenly very defensive, because it’s seen as sort of an attack on this complacency and this identity that we’ve developed for ourselves.

CROSBY-JORDAN: We’ve all got to realize that our relationships are difficult, they’re complex, and that if we are to maintain those relationships and grow in them, we’ve got to make race not a non-issue, but we’ve got to make it more of an issue.

SOUDERS: Other than strictly speaking black and white, any two races together, it almost sounds like you need to go into it willing to be OK with not understanding a whole lifetime of that person’s experience, and be OK with you not being central to that experience. 

CROSBY-JORDAN: Absolutely. It’s just difficult. But it doesn’t have to be consistently difficult. I think that a big part of what we need to do is acknowledge that none of this is easy! It’s all rocket science, until the rocket takes off, and then at that point, yeah, it’s kumbaya.

This is much bigger than us—the issues about race and human interaction and authenticity, all that stuff is just so much bigger than we are. At the end of the day, you just be nice to people. That’s it.

If you just trust the process of loving your friends and caring for them, and being honest, even to the point where you say, “Jane or John Doe, I want to ask, and it’s really uncomfortable for me to ask,”—like, saying that, just to say, “I think,” or “I don’t know,” or “correct me if I’m wrong, but,” you know—

SOUDERS: Imparting that trust that they’re going to be able to help us?

CROSBY-JORDAN: Yes! Absolutely! Because we care about each other, and so tossing that out, because what that does is, it says, I don’t assume that I know you better than you know you. I think it’s OK just to say, “I don’t know a thing.”

SOUDERS: Professor Nandi made a point to say that you can do everything the way that you’re supposed to do in respecting a conversation and being curious about other races, and what the proper way to talk about it is, but she also made sure to point out that there always will be some chance that you might be approaching an uncomfortable situation, even despite all those things.

POST: Yeah, and that someone doesn’t owe you their story, and that there is no one way to approach a situation. What might work in one situation is not necessarily going to work in all of them because, as we all know, and as Professor Nandi says, people have varied experiences, and we shouldn’t expect a one-size-fits-all kind of solution.

CROSBY-JORDAN: There are going to be students who listen to this, or even those of you in the room, who might be thinking, “Oh, OK this is cool, Dr. Nandi said I can just talk to my roommate, my friend, and approach it this way.” But there’s going to be somebody on this campus who is perhaps—I’m just tossing out a hypothetical—who is a person of color, and you are going to do everything right, and you care about them, and they care about you, and they are going to have a response and you’ll be like, “Oh Lord, this is not what I was expecting! I thought maybe if I just came in…” 

That is because we are a varied group, and the range of our knowledge is vast, and it’s those of us who are getting older who know that we don’t know anything—the folks who think they know it all tend to be younger, and you’re in class with some of those folks, and they are going to let you have it, and it may not be until years later that they’ll be like, “Jesus, whew, when I was 20, mmm, yes.” So don’t have expectations that it’s always going to be good, just because you all are in class, and this is the subject, or they’re nice, or they’re your roommates, or you know them. 

You might get your head bitten off one day. And just know, I did not tell you that it was going to always be good. Most of the time it will be, though.

SOUDERS: As Professor Nandi says, we’re not going to solve this issue, which is much bigger than us, in one podcast episode.

POST: But showing up is a good place to start.

Thank you to our guest today, Professor Nandi Crosby-Jordan. This is Out of Curiosity, and I’m Kate Post.

SOUDERS: And I’m Travis Souders. 

The show is produced by the office of University Communications, and edited by student Hayden Duncan. Make sure to never miss an episode by subscribing to it wherever you listen to podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)