On Morgan Freeman and “Just stop talking about it.”

Once again, there’s a video that’s been making the rounds and I’ve found myself making the same response to it every time. I think it’s time to get my thoughts together in one place, and here it is. Before I start, here’s the video in question; it’s a clip of Morgan Freeman talking about his thoughts on Black History Month and talking about race.

I want to break this up into a few sections.

Black History Month

For starters, I want to acknowledge that I get where Freeman’s coming from. The ideal world is one in which Black History Month is unnecessary, the history of Black Americans so well integrated into the fabric and curriculums of the US that the idea of relegating it to a month seems ridiculous. I think Freeman and I share this desire.

The question, then, is how we go about achieving our goal. Is it canceling the institution of Black History Month and just hoping everything will just get better on its own? Or is it passionately campaigning for the inclusion of Black history in all the places it’s missing until Black History Month seems absurd?

The desire to see Black History Month gone now communicates that you think the world is either A) doing just fine as it is right now or B) at least headed in a good enough direction that we can trust it’ll get there soon enough. If you don’t, then your desire must be for Black History Month to be unnecessary in the future and then work for that future.

“Stop Talking About It”

I’ll be honest; I understand it feels great to hear Morgan Freeman–a famous Black person–say “let’s just stop talking about racism.” There are quite a few reasons for this.

First, it’s such a wonderfully simple answer. Do you mean that, simply by no longer talking about racism, it’ll go away? I’m not sure whether the uploader of this video intended the title to be ironic (although 1.2 million thumbs up suggests its viewers don’t take it ironically), but “Morgan Freeman solves the race problem”, the YouTube clip title, does seem to be how this video is usually proposed.

Second, it makes us feel comfortable for the answer to be to just ignore it. I know I’m not the only White person who often feels a little uncomfortable when we’re talking about race–like I’m not quite welcome, like I don’t understand the language, like I walked into a previously running conversation and nobody’s bringing me up to speed. If someone–an insider, nonetheless–tells me that the conversation is over, that makes me a lot more comfortable than someone telling me I have to stick it out and figure it out.

However, we’re running into the same situation as the previous point: we have to agree that either A) the world is fine as is or B) the world is doing well enough that it’ll just right itself on its own, without discussion. In a previous conversation I had about this, someone suggested that it’s unnecessary for race to be talked about so much, because “it may not even be a thought for most people on a daily basis.”

Here, I’ll have to step outside of my attempt at an un-biased approach and simply state: This is not the truth. The world is not fine. The world is not doing well enough on its own. And race is only easy to ignore if you’re White.

Bam. I said it. The concept of being able to just ignore race is a luxury particular to White people. (Since there are a lot of White people in the US, please know that I’m talking the majority here; I’m very aware that there are exceptions to this description.) We’ve spent our lives comfortably unaware of many of the racial dynamics at play in the US, and enjoyed being the recipients of race-based privilege that carries along with it a blanket hiding many of the experiences of people of color around us.

Racism and racialization are not gone.

Of course, the Trayvon Martin case is in the news right now. But that’s something that’s currently an issue of contention (although it’s very interesting to note the racial makeup of the different “sides” to the debate… take a look at that some time), and I’d rather work with something that has no contention.

Here are a few statistics to frame the conversation:

  • The average net worth of White Americans ($113,000) is 20 times the average net worth of Black Americans ($5,600) and 18 times the average net worth of Hispanics ($6,325). (source)
  • College-educated Black mothers have higher infant mortality rates than White mothers who dropped out of high school. (source)
  • Black Americans represent 13% of drug users (paralleling the national racial demographic), but they account for 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of those sent to prison on drug possession charges. (source)
  • More African Americans are under correctional control today (prison, jail, probation, or parole) than were enslaved in 1850. (source)

Statistics come from, and are given more context in, this post and this post.

There are so many more elements to this conversation–education, hiring, health care, beauty standards, and much more–but this is a place to start. There is a problem, and it is very large, and simply not talking about it is not going to make it go away.

Also: this conversation extends to other people of color, too, but Black people are the most hard hit by the effects of racialization in the US.

Our Response To This Video

I know this has been long. I want to write pages more, but let’s just end it here: As White people (and as people in general), we need to step outside of our place of comfort and be loving, compassionate advocates for people who are treated unjustly. As Christians we find it very easy to have compassion and fight for justice for oppressed people outside of the US, but somehow struggle to fight for justice within the US. Again, there are a lot of reasons behind that, but let’s just start with this: rather than being the ones trying to shush the race conversations, Christians–White American Christians in particular–should be the ones who push outside of our comfort zones and stand alongside our sisters and brothers of color. We should be the ones who are willing to examine ways we might have personally benefitted from systems of injustice, and we should be the ones who learn to listen to people of color rather than always demanding to be heard.

My vision is that, when people of color in the US (Christian and non-Christian alike) think with pain about the past and present oppression of their people, and the many rifts between people along racial lines, they would see White Christians as humble, loving allies who stand up for them when no one else will, who build bridges to places of power and influence, and who, like many White folks during the Civil Rights Era, march with them to the world where we don’t, indeed, need a Black History Month.

Matt

21 comments

  • I think there are a few other extremely important statistics missing from your list. These include out-of-wedlock pregnancy, unemployment rates and youth unemployment rates. For me the most important statistic is the out-of-wedlock pregnancies because it is alarming the difference. Often black people start at a disadvantage before they were born because they are destined to life without a father.

  • http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr60/nvsr60_01.pdf#table15

    “The proportions of nonmarital births
    vary widely among population subgroups. In 2009, these proportions
    were 17 percent for API, 29 percent for non-Hispanic white, 53 percent
    for Hispanic, 65 percent for AIAN, and 73 percent for non-Hispanic
    black births”

    Only 27% for blacks whereas non-Hispanic whites is 61%.

    • Hey John,
      This is absolutely another important piece of information. For more information, see the second post I linked to above for more information. A quote from that article: “Due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers, a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.” Those statistics, and the circumstances leading up to them, are horrible, painful, and something that I hope we can work just as passionately to combat.

      Thanks for your input!
      -matt

  • As someone working in a college of education, the idea of “Black History Month” comes up a whole lot. I have serious reservations about the institution. Having a multicultural unit (in a literature class, for instance), leads the students to the conclusion that there is something different about that literature. It, in effect, segregates diverse literature. The end result is to reify the position of White literature (or history or whatever). It marks it as the literature that one usually studies and, therefore, as the literature most worthy of study. Having a Black History for one month necessarily implies that you are having “White History” the other eight months of the school year. I always suggest to my students that they should do away with the multicultural unit… and make every unit multicultural.

    • Andrew, what you’re saying definitely makes a lot of sense. I think there’s a space (perhaps unique, but perhaps not) for people have the ability to create an ideal environment to be able to do away with the segregation of Black History Month. So, while your students can’t fix the world by removing Black History Month in their classrooms, they can create one place in which Black history really is integrated enough that, at least in their classroom and curriculum, Black History Month becomes unnecessary. I love what you’re doing there.

      Also, just a heads up, your class and our conversations around it have been extremely influential in my development into a mildly cross-culturally savvy person. Thank you.

  • “College-educated Black mothers have higher infant mortality rates than White mothers who dropped out of high school.”

    How is this a sign of racism? Obviously its a sign of horrible imbalance, but institutionally what causes this? (Not disagreeing, just trying to connect dots)

    • Great question. I didn’t describe what “racialization” is in this post, but that’s more what that statistic (and probably much of the others) reflects.

      Racism, as I use it, is more about the attitudes of people. Racialization is the description of a situation–system, nation, whatever–that’s differentiated or striated based on race. It’s not always bad–if we fought all racialization, we’d be aiming for the “Melting Pot” one-size-fits-all model, and I’m not advocating for that. Rather, when justice, opportunity, economy, incarceration, etc. are all racialized, that’s a sign of a problem. So, I could talk a little about what specifically causes and is reflected by those statistics, but I don’t have all the answers. Maybe other people do, but I don’t.

      Rather, I know this one thing: There’s a problem. And I want to be a part of the solution.

      I hope that makes sense. Thanks for your question. 🙂

  • Those stats are terrifying. This is a rather bigger problem than I realized it was. What can we do?

    • You’re right! I don’t have any easy answers, but I think that’s the most important question to keep asking.

      I think the first thing we can do is not rest until we have answers (and actions). One thing I’ve found to be important is to always ask both that question (“what can we do?”), and then more importantly, “What can I do with the specific situations and relationships and talents I have?” I’m a communicator and a networker, so I use those things to educate people. But if all we are is aware, that’s not enough. I don’t want to say “I’ll leave the action up to more action-minded people,” because I want to be as much a part of the solution as I am a part of the communication of the problem. But I think part of the problem with much of our generation’s advocacy is that we get a simple action–donate $5, click “like”–and then we think we’re done.

      Rather, I’d love if we continued to wrestle with this question–together, if possible. A few things I’ve learned that are really helpful:
      A) Learn to listen rather than speak. Enter conversations with people of color who have more experience and ideas than we do, and shut our mouths for a bit and just listen.
      B) Use our resources well. Take advantage of the networks (share the truth with people who don’t know), position (hire people who you know have a lower chance of getting a job because of the color of their skin), voice (stand up for justice in public and political discourse), talents (use our jobs, hobbies, talents, etc. to benefit people in need of it), and time (volunteer with organizations that are really making a difference) we have available to us.
      C) Be bridge builders. Many of the difficulties people of color experience have to do with their networks, connections, access to resources, etc. So, if we have those things, and we develop relationships with people who might benefit from them (or know where they can go to good use), we can be bridge builders. Similarly, if we know influencers and power-wielders who don’t understand the situations of people of color, we can be those who help them learn.

      Those are just a few. Any other ideas?

  • I used to be of the “just pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, but I have recently come to the conclusion that poverty — regardless of the cause — tends to be self-reinforcing, and I suspect that racial inequalities are similar, or even a type of poverty. Poverty tends to be marked by many things besides lack of money: limited networking, lower skills, lower self-confidence, etc., all of which make it harder to escape poverty. And, if there’s a generational component — this is the way your parents lived — now it becomes a way of life, a part of your culture, and these cultural “norms” are reinforced both internally and externally. How do we help the poor and downtrodden escape this vicious cycle in a way that truly respects their human dignity? My personal opinion is that “programs” of all sorts will do very little (and don’t seem to have done much so far). There is certainly a place for welfare for the destitute, and laws that punish blatant discrimination, but neither conservative nor liberal programs can achieve something that can only be accomplished through love. As St. James says, wishing the poor well without actually doing thing about it proves our faith worthless, but merely giving them money or whatever else they lack will do nothing but

    I wonder if Morgan Freeman really wants us to stop talking about race. Perhaps he was simply making a provocative comment in order to allow a better conversation about it. One issue, as you mentioned, is the inherent discomfort we whites feel in discussing any race-related subjects with other races, particularly blacks. Not just because it’s a difficult subject we’d rather ignore, but also because we feel in someway we’re not permitted to talk about it. It’s rude, demeaning, whatever. As I’m typing this, I’m wondering if there might be a proxy version of race-related discussions that serves to obscure and avoid the roots of the issue. Anyway, if we can’t have honest and open discussions about it (and if you, Matt, feel uncomfortable, it’s gotta be worse for the rest of us), then it’s going to be really hard to do more than just talk in circles around the whole thing.

    • Jonathan,
      Me too! I love your conclusions there. My friend Saúl Cruz of Armonia taught me a lot about poverty, and one of the most important things is that poverty is a mentality, not just a situation. When they’re working with impoverished peoples, they have seen what happens when you just throw resources at them: they don’t know how to have money and it’s destructive in one of many possible ways. Similarly, he talked about how the idea of “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for life” is a good start, but him knowing how to fish will only do him good if you work to break down the barbed-wire fences that have been erected around the pond. There are many components to the ongoing nature of poverty, and you mentioned some: the impact of family life, education, living situation, health, attitudes and experiences toward money, power, and authority… but there are also, like the barbed-wire fence in the example, systemic issues causing these problems. We must acknowledge and seek to understand both aspects in order to really address this issue.

      I could definitely understand if Freeman was just being provocative. Clearly he’s at least thought about it. 🙂 But that sort of a provocative statement only has space if there’s a conversation after it. 🙂

      And you’re not the first person to mention how unwelcome we feel. I’d suggest this: We’re often made to feel unwelcome because of the history of oppression and pain coming from our ancestors, from our total cluelessness about the situations, and from how we’ve benefitted from the effects of racialization & racism in the US. So, we need to extend a little grace to people who may at times be hostile to us. But, more importantly, we’re often made to feel unwelcome because we don’t know how to listen. We enter into these conversations at best wanting to be heard because we finally understand it, but more frequently wanting to be heard even when we don’t understand what we’re talking about at all. We don’t understand very well, as a culture, how to just listen. The more I become involved in conversations surrounding race and ethnicity, the more I realize the importance of listening skills.

      Thanks for your thoughts and for participating in the conversation! So, given your new thoughts about poverty and the poverty-stricken, do you have any ideas about what we/you can do to move forward?

  • Oops, didn’t finish the last sentence of my first paragraph:

    As St. James says, wishing the poor well without actually doing thing about it proves our faith worthless, but merely giving them money or whatever else they lack will do nothing but is often just a function of pride and an exercise in self-gratification, demeaning the recipient in the process.

  • and. . . the comments don’t seem to accept html (or I did the strikethrough wrong). It should read:

    As St. James says, wishing the poor well without actually doing thing about it proves our faith worthless, but merely giving them money or whatever else they lack [strike: will do nothing but] is often just a function of pride and an exercise in self-gratification, demeaning the recipient in the process.

    Apparently, this sentence is important, since I have posted it three times. :p

  • I understand your points, and I agree it’s a good conversation to have. I think that Morgan Freeman probably intended something along the lines of what Andrew was saying regarding literature– that Black History should be equally celebrated with the rest of “white” history that is celebrated the other months.

    Although I didn’t follow your argument/defense of the infant mortality rates being an alarming statistic related to racism/racialization.

    Per Wikipedia:
    “Racialization refers to processes of the discursive production of racial identities. It signifies the extension of dehumanizing and racial meanings to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice, or group.[1] Put simply, a group of people is seen as a “race”, when it was not before.”

    I don’t see the connection. Obviously that is an unfortunate statistic, but I’m not sure it is one to be solved by whatever conversation this video could (and should) provoke.

    I recently saw that video myself, and my FIRST thought was, “I bet this video pisses Matt Stauffer off.” I win.

    • Ha! You do win.

      Yes, I’m with you and Andrew (and likely Freeman); the goal, the ideal, is the place where Black history sits comfortably among the rest of our history. I’m not arguing for Black History Month to remain forever; I’m suggesting that Freeman’s goals and mine are the same, but our thoughts about how to go about it are different.

      The term “racialization” is used a lot of different ways, so by using it without defining it, I was asking for misunderstanding. From my comment on Leah’s question earlier: “Racism, as I use it, is more about the attitudes of people. Racialization is the description of a situation–system, nation, whatever–that’s differentiated or striated based on race. It’s not always bad–if we fought all racialization, we’d be aiming for the “Melting Pot” one-size-fits-all model, and I’m not advocating for that. Rather, when justice, opportunity, economy, incarceration, etc. are all racialized, that’s a sign of a problem. So, I could talk a little about what specifically causes and is reflected by those statistics, but I don’t have all the answers. Maybe other people do, but I don’t.”

      The problem, then, is that we are living in a society where power, privilege, education, incarceration, health, mortality, and much, much more are segregated/striated along racial lines. I’m not saying “racist attitudes cause high infant mortality rates.” There are so many pieces to the process that leads to the place we are (and so many more pieces to the process that will lead us to a better place); I can’t claim to know them all, and an introductory blog post isn’t the place for the few I do know.

      But, politics, racism, anything debatable of the sort aside, the evidences of a racialized society are incontrovertible. The question that we’re left with is then, do I see a problem with it, and if so, what am I going to do?

      Thanks for your thoughts. 🙂

    • I just finally got a chance to view this. This is a great talk–thank you so much for linking to it!

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