As someone who does race work, every so often someone makes the comment, “All you talk about is race.” I usually keep it moving and avoid making any response, but the statement frustrates me–mostly because it’s not literally true. I talk about a lot things. But I do talk about race a good bit.
Here are five responses I’d give to anyone who says someone else talks about race “too much.”
1) This is how I choose to curate my online presence.
I typically get the “all you talk about is race” line from people on social media. But people go online for all sorts of reasons. Some want to socialize with friends. And others like to keep up with the news. Others try to promote a business. I choose to use social media to talk about race and related issues. This means I won’t post the breadth of my thinking on Facebook or Twitter. I don’t share too much personal information. I don’t share funny cat videos. I don’t talk about sports all that often. Just because you don’t see it in my timeline doesn’t mean it’s not an important topic to me.
We all choose how to utilize our social media platforms. I choose to talk about race. If you choose to use your online presence another way, go for it. If you don’t like how much I talk about race, feel free not to follow. But there’s no need to jump in my mentions just to say you don’t like how much I discuss a certain topic.
2) I study and write about race for a living.
Almost everyone has at least a passing interest in racial issues, but some of us study them for a living. Right now I am a PhD student in History with a focus on twentieth-century race and religion. I literally read dozens of books that tackle race in a variety of ways—politically, economically, socially, and more. I travel the country speaking to churches, organizations, and student groups about the ways race has affected us historically and in the present. I write thousands of words about race. It’s what I do. So I talk about it.
It’s not often that people call out a pastor for talking about religion too much. I haven’t seen too many instances of people telling musicians they talk about music too much. Of course, lots of people talk about work non-stop and that can get old. But race is a special case. Race is, by nature, a polarizing topic, so people tend to have a lower tolerance for hearing about it. But the fact that we have so much trouble honestly dealing with race in public discourse is a reason to address it more, not less.
3) You don’t know my life.
Not only do I study race in an academic setting, as a black man in America I experience the effects of race in my life every day. Whether it’s the anxiety I endure every time I get in the car and worry about a routine traffic stop turning into a traumatic experience or deflecting the assumptions of danger and thuggery total strangers foist upon me, I have to deal with race. What you might perceive as a peripheral issue in your own life is a major issue in mine. So why can’t I talk about something that affects the way I do life in stark and unavoidable ways?
4) Who gets to determine the “right” amount of race talk?
There’s no universal law about how much one should or shouldn’t talk about race, so who gets to determine the “right” amount? For every person who says I talk about race too much, there’s another person who encourages me to keep doing what I’m doing. There is no ideal ratio of race talk, and it’s arrogant to believe that your taste for the topic is the final word. Saying someone talks about race “too much” is a way of policing that person’s perspective. This mentality demonstrates a hubris that needs to be interrogated. Dictating how much someone should talk about race is exercising a form of superiority that may prolong disagreements.
5) Racism is everywhere.
In their seminal book “Divided by Faith” authors Michael Emerson and Christian Smith characterize the United States not as a racist but a “racialized” society. A racialized society is one that, “allocates differential economic, political, social, and even psychological rewards to groups along racial lines; lines that are socially constructed,” they explain.
Living in a racialized society means that race is usually more of a factor, not less, than you think.
Pernicious ideas about race camouflage themselves in other concepts. Law and order, residential segregation, certain school choice initiatives, state sovereignty—all these can and have been used as proxies to hide racialized ideas that perpetuate separation and inequality. When I talk about race I try to expose the ways in which the idea continues to be salient despite being hidden.
Check Your Assumptions
Underneath the “all you talk about is race” comment is the assumption that someone is imagining racial issues that aren’t there. Saying you talk about race too much often means, “I think you’re making ‘x’ topic into a racial one when it really isn’t.” That might be true. Or it might not be true. It’s helpful for all sides to examine their assumptions.
Instead of judging someone’s timeline for talking about race “too much”, maybe we should pause to ask why it’s so important in the first place. Race isn’t just an idea, it is a reality that affects one’s well-being, sense of worth, livelihood, and lifespan.
It could be that a person who often talks about race is a race-baiter intent on getting likes and clicks in a vain effort to fill a deep loneliness in their souls. Or it could be that the person has legitimate burdens, concerns, and critiques that would edify individuals and improve our present racial condition if heeded.
Next time you’re tempted to tell someone they talk about race too much, check your own assumptions. If you still feel that way, then the “unfollow” button is a wonderful tool.