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Thursday, June 25, 2015 - 5:34pm

Talking Racial Divides and Healing After Charleston

Police clashes with black youth in Ferguson... in Baltimore... in McKinney, Texas. The ouster of the N-Double A-C-P leader in Spokane, Washington. These are moments when race emerged as a national issue.

The church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina have raised up race relations and Southern heritage. Can a substantive discussion of race, history and culture begin? GPB's Michael Caputo asked Doug Thompson, a professor of History and Southern Religion at Mercer University. He edits the website, the Journal of Southern Religion and teaches courses on race relations through history.

This is the full conversation we had with Thompson.

MICHAEL CAPUTO
So, Doug Thompson, I guess the first question I have is...the conversations have been about the life of this shooter, Dylann Roof.
After that it seems like now the conversations have been around what the Confederate flag represents on the dome at South Carolina and in other places.
Is this helping the conversation along?
Are we getting somewhere with these kinds of conversations about the shooter, about the flag?

DOUG THOMPSON
I think that the shooter sidetracks us a little bit.
And we've heard this already, mostly because it looks like he's a deranged person.
So the symbolism that stands behind his hate is dismissed as if it's a side thing.
The flag could also do that if we choose only to say that its removal somehow fixes the problem.
I think we are at a moment where we can talk about race.
I'm not confident that we are in a position to actually get into the room
in part because I don't think we, as it was stated, are ready to talk about, honestly, what the racism means to us.

CAPUTO
We have had Ferguson. We have had the NAACP woman in Spokane. We've had the situation in New York City.
We have had how many chances at getting to the discussion on race?
What's it gonna take to get us to talk, and who are you talking to right now when you say, "We ought to talk?”

THOMPSON
It's all of us. I think we all need to have this conversation. Every one of your examples involves the way in which African-Americans have to participate in the conversation about race.

White Americans often get to remove themselves from that conversation, easily, by saying, "It's not a racial issue," or, "See, it's a racial issue, but it doesn't involve me."

I'm actually talking to people who want to think about race as something that has formed them as people.
That they think in racial terms, but they know they're not allowed to talk about it publicly in racial terms.
It is the kind of conversation that you often have with your family or your friends,
where a joke is mentioned, or a offhanded comment about a group of people, even when someone who might look like part of that group's in the meeting or in the room with them.
And it's dismissed. Or laughed over. It is that kind of framing that causes us to think in racial terms.
We think it's okay, and so every one of your examples are pieces where someone can dismiss themselves from the conversation.
And I often tell students, "None of us are allowed to dismiss ourselves from that conversation."

CAPUTO
I think when you talk about conversations with family, with friends, we're talking about what I would call "bubble conversations."
We're like-minded family, friends.
We choose, let's face it, most of the time, people who are like-minded with us when talk about friends—with our family.

We have to get outside the bubble. What do you to get outside the bubble, Doug?

THOMPSON
I call it an echo chamber.
It is, in fact, the bubble. It's the way in which we have been taught to think and to interact with people.
It's not unusual to want to be with like-minded people, to feel comfortable with like-minded people.

I'm not as confident that it's just putting folks in a room. I think it can—it actually is relationships.

Often teammates, who play on an athletic team together, form a bond that has nothing to do with race, and at least they wouldn't see it that way.
But they are connected in a way that they have to see the person in a different light.
A classmate could do a similar kind of thing. I think roommates in college or young adulthood are powerful ways in which you can create those relationships.

My own personal experience would be the way in which church groups could interact together, not in a desegregated format which we usually talk about, so we all have to desegregate the eleven o'clock hour.
While that might be an admirable goal, there's a long history behind African-American congregations being independent and having their own identity.

And in the United States, as a racial construction, in order to desegregate you have to leave your institutional or cultural identity behind.

I don't think that it's about desegregating the eleven o'clock hour, although that's not a bad goal.
But, doing activities together, partnerships, where interaction are not forced but relationships develop.
I do think that when you are confronted with someone who doesn't fit a stereotype and have to see them as a human being you will likely start paying attention to their larger struggles.
Regardless of your skin tone.

CAPUTO
Can you do something in preparation if you are willing to go there, to go outside of that comfort zone?
Is there something you can do to prepare to engage?

THOMPSON
I think so. I do this with students in classes when I talk about race, particularly history classes.
And I give examples, so there's kind of an unwritten or unspoken understanding about safety related to being in a car.
And one of the things that people will often do when they see someone they don't know or are afraid of is that they'll lock a door.
That's a somewhat normal reaction in the sense that if you feel fearful, you should protect yourself.

I often tell students, "Don't not do that. But the minute you do it, ask yourself this question, 'Why did I do that? Where did it come from?'"

And that is a moment of preparation whether or not you can answer it, I never knew for students.
But this idea about the way in which I think about a person that I don't know in a particular way, where did that come from?
You're not going to be able to know everyone. It's just not humanly possible, and it doesn't even work.
But what you have to do is think about the ways in which you have been taught to think in racial terms.

But that's a self exploration. You have to do the examining.
And it may point you in odd places.
It can be Mom or Dad. It can often more likely be a grandmother or grandfather.
It could be a favorite uncle. It could be a favorite teacher who taught you something that you remembered.

My oldest child won't use and still resist, at some level, using the language of black and white.
Because he says there's no one who's black and no one who's white.

And I asked him about this recently, and he said his second grade teacher was struck by a conversation that was going on in class.
And so she called a group of white students with arrow quotations around it, up to the class.
And she asked them to put their arms beside the white board.
And she said, "Are any of you white?"
And they all realized they're not.
That doesn't fit.

She did a similar thing with African-American students and a black piece of coloring paper or cardboard paper and asked the same question.

And he's a rising senior, and that story—that moment has stuck with him.

So he got shaped in a way different than I did growing up.

But it means that we are constantly being bombarded in racial or "racialized," what I call "racialized" terms.
And you have to pay attention to those.

CAPUTO
I hate to sound "New Age-y," but I hear the New Age term "mindfulness" or "being present" in a sense.
Is that what we're trying to do when we go to think about that moment in time as you just described about going up to the white board, and that was your child's moment, or that moment when there's the lock, and you've locked the door?

Is that what we're trying to do then? Is that what you're describing, "Be present. Understand what you're doing when you're doing the action, " or, "Understand that memory that you have and how it informs."

THOMPSON
As a religious studies person, mindfulness does certain things, so I'd contextualize that a little more.
"Present," I think, is a good word.
I also think of it in terms of consciousness, that these things that are unconsciousness to us that lay below the surface are brought forward.
So you recognize them.

It's hard to realize that your grandmother taught you to think in racial terms, because she is important to you.
She has shaped you in all kinds of wonderful ways, important ways, that you should validate and hold on to.
But that one moment that you recognize she also taught you to think in terms of a person being not good enough for you or, perhaps, not even human enough for you, is a hard moment.
And it's easier to say, "I don't want to talk about that," because grandma is important.

It is this element of consciousness, bringing things that are below the surface forward so we see them, hopefully come to some understanding of them, but to see them.
I think that's what the clip at the beginning points to,
that until we're actually in conversation with one another, we're not forced to have to think about those things, particularly the stuff that's below the surface.
The way in which we've been formed not to think about these issues, particularly if you are a designated white.

CAPUTO
Doug Thompson from Mercer University. Thank you so much for being with us.

THOMPSON
Thank you.

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