To talk about race, you have to listen
Written by
regina barreca
November 2016
Written by
regina barreca
November 2016

When Donald Trump says he wants to make America "great again," what many people hear is him saying he wants to make America "run by white men" again. We've been talking about race in coded terms during this election — except for those moments when Trump explains that black people all live in hell — and I think we need to address it more directly.

But a white woman pushing 60 shouldn't be encouraged to talk about race in America all by herself; we've had too much of that, just as we've had too many men explain to women how we "really" think. I didn't want to whitesplain.

That's why I've invited a former student who's now in her second year of a master's program in public administration at the University of Connecticut to join me in a conversation about one of the most important issues in American life.

"I'm 23 years old and much of what I have heard about race comes from people who are white," says Nyanka Joseph, who graduated from the prestigious Medgar Evers College Prep School in New York before coming to UConn. "Even though many of my high school teachers were themselves African-American or black Caribbean, the works on our AP lists included only canonical authors. I didn't hear my voice or the voices from my neighborhood. I didn't know if they ever made it to the page."

Every couple of weeks Nyanka visits me in my basement office to talk about literature, culture, life — and writing. Like me, Nyanka grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her mother, like mine, was born in another country yet still managed to read to her children every night in English, subduing her mother tongue to suit the American citizens she was raising.

In the work of fiction that Nyanka has been writing over the past two years, when characters speak in the French patois of St. Lucia, I hear my mother's Quebecois patois.

"Fear cuts straight through that girl's curiosity," she writes of a character, and "When she has to hide, she has to shut down her imagination. Curiosity can't thrive if it's bullied by fear."

But even in a world where women are suspended in "a mixture of defiance and shame" they remain strong and instill strength in those around them. "Rough hands offer the most comfort," says her narrator, "As children of poor parents will tell you."

As you can imagine, we spent a lot of time talking about the violence perpetrated on the black community by the white community, before and after Ferguson, and the way that that's affected race relations in our country.

I asked her if she thought videos showing officers using what appears to be undue force against black men were documenting systemic racial discrimination and were an irrefutable step in the right direction.

To my surprise, Nyanka said no.

"On one level, videos of black bodies strewn like so many empty bullet shells make people less sensitive to black death, because it becomes normalized and acceptable. Perhaps they think it wouldn't happen so frequently if the violent stereotypes weren't true. Then there's the subconscious effect on the black community that teaches self-fear and self-hate. Showing those videos is not showing the black story but is instead negatively shaping and exploiting black death. The media would never show white men who were shot lying on the ground. They respect the white body.

"Newsmakers and pundits," she continued, "expect us to watch from their perspective and be OK with the idea that this is finally the truth — but it's still their truth."

"What truths do we need to hear?" I asked her.

"When I started to read works by Caribbean and black writers, I started drawing from a different well," Nyanka said. "I heard the stories of those who have for too long been erased. Our stories shape our vision of ourselves as people, as women and as citizens.

"I hope those who feel alone in their blackness will hear my voice and share their story because it matters. We need to write the future and make it a stronger, healthier, better one for the black community."

Here's to the future of a truly great America where all our stories are heard.

Let's be friends

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