Can White People Talk About Race?

Taking a reading on your offense-o-meter

I sometimes wonder if there’s any way a white person can write about race. We are all so afraid of getting it wrong, or of offending, so instead of making imperfect attempts, we just don’t say anything at all. That’s the safest thing to do, of course, on a personal level. But I don’t think it moves us forward as a society.

I’m going to make an imperfect attempt, and we’ll see how it goes.

While in San Francisco last week, I was reflexively comparing everything to Philadelphia, which is something tourists inevitably do. Things felt unfamiliar to me in a variety of ways, some small and some large. I remarked upon all the differences to the friend I was visiting.

At one point, I said to her, “This city is kind of lacking in diversity, isn’t it?” She was surprised. How could I say that? Hadn’t we just been in the largest Asian neighborhood in the country? And what about her neighborhood, which was primarily Latino?

“Yes,” I stammered, shamefaced at my apparently narrow definition of diversity. “Whites, Asians, Latinos all have such an impact on this city’s everyday life. But I don’t get a sense that the same can be said for African-American culture and community.”

She said that was true. San Francisco once had a very vibrant African-American community, but the latest numbers suggest San Francisco’s African-American population has dropped to 3.9 percent. This is obviously quite a contrast to to Philadelphia. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I noticed some kind of difference.

But it’s not just that I noticed. I noticed the difference—and I disliked it.

I thought about that a lot on the long plane ride home. It seems wrong to “like” or “not like” a city’s racial makeup. If I said, “I don’t like the fact that San Francisco has so many Latinos,” that would be plainly racist. Isn’t it just another form of racism to say, “I don’t like the fact that San Francisco has so few African-Americans”?

I write these things because when I came home and told a (white) friend about this, he said, “Well, don’t ever write about this. You’ll get in trouble.”

I understand why it’s dicey territory. So I try to reverse this kind of scenario to test out my offense-o-meter. I imagine reading a column in a magazine read primarily by African-American Christians. The columnist has moved to Texas after having lived in New York. She writes about not liking Texas because there aren’t any Jews there and she’s used to being around Jews. Would I be offended? I wouldn’t be. But would I feel condescended to or like a rare flower in an ethnic arboretum? Perhaps.

I still haven’t reached a conclusion about this, but I think it’s good to elicit some dialogue. So chime in, Post readers.