How to talk about race

Community members filled Connecticut College's Evans Hall on Nov. 6 to hear Chief Justice Richard A. Robinson, the first African-American to head up the state Judicial Branch, speak with court reporter Karen Florin about race and cultural competency.

We knew Robinson as an expert on race from our coverage of state courts, and invited him to speak as The Day embarks on a collaborative effort with Connecticut College.

He often asks those who take his training, as he did with the 300-plus people gathered in Evans Hall, to think of an iceberg. When you first see a person, you see only 10 percent of who they really are. You see what they look like. Maybe you can determine their gender or get a sense of their religion or something about their socio-economic status.

"We're already making value decisions about these people based on this 10 percent, but the 90 percent, what you really need to know about them, about how they think, how they live, how they work, who they are, that's all below that water line," he said.

When the audience saw him walk on stage, they saw a black man — "a really good-looking black man," he said to laughs from the audience. The point, he said, is to acknowledge that "because you need to know what you're doing with that information."

"If you don't know what you're doing with that information, then you could be making these leaps and associations. You could be making these value judgments on me based on these stereotypes," he said.

The audience members burst into applause several times as Robinson candidly described what it felt like to be judged based on the color of his skin and how he works to foster tolerance among those who work in the court system. He patiently answered questions from audience members and those submitted ahead of time by readers. He stayed late to speak one-on-one with audience members in the lobby.

The Day produced and published a story and video of the event, and audio from the discussion was used in a podcast.

The forum was part of an initiative to better engage our readers, particularly on important issues such as race. Further forums, in collaboration with the college, are in the planning stages.

Readers have questions on race

A lot of African American men and women are being shot and killed by policemen. Most just because of their skin color and they are found to be not guilty! How do we make it stop! If we say something at the scene we might be shot too. Tell me what to tell my grandson! 

As a local educator in a predominately white and conservative community, what are some strategies for discussing racism and bigotry that is within students?

As you progress in your career and achieve desirable outcomes, you come under more scrutiny and criticism. Can you give some examples on how you were able to overcome the potential pitfalls when you're succeeding while black?

Asian-Americans are impacted by stereotypes and negative portrayals every day yet they are often omitted from dialogues about race. Should they be included?

Assuming (as I believe) that race is a concept and tool created and deliberately promulgated by the wealthy elite to gain and retain power throughout our nation's history, and that as such racial bias is by now activated unconsciously and instinctively at every turn in our decision making (e.g. by cops on the beat, by politicians, by voters, by prosecutors and judges, during interracial encounters) and that most people know very very little about the history and current functioning of racism, classism and power in our country, how do we begin to turn it around and begin the path toward real racial equity?

Can we begin "A Conversation about Race" by acknowledging the complexity and vagueness of race? Blacks can range from Haitians, Dominicans, Nigerians, South Africans, Kenyans, Brazilians to African Americans and more (with many different ethnicities within some of those countries). Likewise, Whites and Asians show a similar diversity. Yet, with all of the complexity brought by cultural differences Americans tend to categorize by the big three: Black, White and Asian. Why?

Can you address the difference between prejudice based on color and prejudice based on culture? 

When will decades of racial discrimination complaints in the Judicial Branch be addressed? The solutions must go beyond sensitivity training courses as there are decades of evidence of racism throughout the Judicial Branch!

Do you believe all Caucasian people should pay reparations for the African Slaves even knowing that many if not most US citizens did not have ancestors that owned slaves?

Do you have any suggestions on how we can agree to disagree? If I don’t agree with you and vice versa, how can I walk away without getting upset or upsetting you so that the conversations continue? 

How effective are conversations on race and cultural competency if the audience is primarily white/non-diverse? How effective can discussion be when there's such a lack of lived experience that would engender competency?

I'm 65, white and live on Bank St near the water. I try to mingle with blacks, in particular, but still feel very phony . . . can you comment?

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