HOW TO ASK ABOUT RACE – Marilyn Armstrong

I read a note on Twitter yesterday wondering “how to ask” about race? I suppose it depends on what color you already are and who you are asking, but let’s suppose you are white and the other person isn’t. Any shade of not-white will do the job. From a light tan to a rich deep brown, not white is not white. Just your average person in one of the various colors that make up skin on this planet.

Colors are not white or black and I have yet to meet anyone who is gray. White isn’t a human color, nor is black. We are all somewhere in between. I don’t even think albinos are truly white, but a very light version of what ought to be the original color.

We are all shades of pale to dark brown, ranging from fish-belly (me) to dark olive, light tan, to sort of pinkish with levels of blotchy.  The freckles of youth turn to liver-spots in age, and some skin conditions cause blotchiness. In the end, though, skin is the largest sensory organ in the human body. Eyes, ears, nose, and mouth can see, hear, smell, and taste … but every single inch of your skin can feel and in various way. Skin is sensitive and discerning and I don’t believe it makes the slightest difference what color it is.

So, if you want to talk about race, why don’t you try asking someone who isn’t the same color as you how it feels to be them? How are they dealing with one more outrageous act of systemic racism? On the other hand, if you hate them because they don’t look like you, maybe you should skip conversation and get your attitudes adjusted. THEN have a conversation. Hatred just isn’t a good place to start.

The easiest way to talk about something is to want to talk about it and have someone with whom to talk about it. If you don’t have any friends of other colors, then maybe you should deal with that issue first. Lectures, book, seminars, and podcasts, not to mention television news — doesn’t really give you a meaningful grasp of even the basics of the subject. If you really don’t know how to have a conversation, that’s a different problem.

If you live in an entirely unicolor area, maybe you should become part of an activity that includes people of other races. Find someone who seems sympatico and get a bit friendly. You might be surprised at how much you have in common. It might be a hobby — photography? movies? history books? Star Trek? video games? Of how much you love/hate/don’t know what to do about our so-called government, drugs, parents,  grandparents, teachers, boss, taxes, judges, police, umpires, or referees are a fine starting place

Once you scratch off the surface color, what’s left is humanity in all its extraordinary facets. You might form a great friendship or fall in love. Or start an enterprise.

Ask. If you aren’t a bigot or racist, you can start conversations with a complete stranger as long as you are polite, non-aggressive, and really interested in the answer. That’s how I’ve made many friends of all colors.  I wasn’t rude. I was simply curious and interested and it turned out, they were curious and interested right back. You just never know about humanity until you’ve tested a few different  oceans, lakes, and streams. It’s all water. What’s really different is its temperature, saltiness, and how many rocks are on the bottom. And how your feet feel about that.

I’ve always been interested in peoples’ backstories. What their lives were like. What churches they went to and how they felt about it. Their relationships with school and the arts. What things made them laugh or cry. Curiosity can take you far in this world, at any age.

Categories: Gallery, History, humanity, justice, Marilyn Armstrong, Photography

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40 replies

  1. Well actually there ARE ‘gray’ people but they’re usually breathing other words they’ve stopped breathing at all. Hubby was gray when they took me to the morgue to see his body before it was cremated. It’s not a memory I relish particularly either. One must truly look beneath the skin to find the actual person. Color ought to be irrelevant in the grander scheme of things (in my opinion). Being kind and compassionate, listening well, and doing small things for others as a matter of course instead of duty are the things that ought to count. Sadly it’s the other way ’round, isn’t it?


    • I turned blue gray when my BP crashed, but I came out of it. Probably with some missing brain cells. But I was referring to people who aren’t dying or dead. Although sometimes, that line seems awfully thin.


  2. nice post Marilyn…thanks for share


  3. Excellent post, great wisdom. Thank you 💚


  4. The Offspring and I have been talking a lot about racism lately, who hasn’t? And we both think the old thing about ‘walk a mile’ should not only be taught in schools, it should be role-played in schools, from the youngest age.

    Role play is not the same as truly experiencing something yourself, not least because at the end of the session you can walk away from the hurt. But I truly believe that once you experience racism, to whatever degree, it makes it harder to then /become/ a racist yourself.

    Of course, that pre-supposes that you have enough empathy to make the leap in the first place, and enough caring not to want to repeat it with others. But I believe role play would be a good beginning. And it might make asking those vital questions a lot easier.

    Disclaimer: I’m Hungarian born and looked slightly Asian as a kid. That kid grew up in White Australia at a time when Asians were still seen as the ‘Yellow Peril’. I know what it feels like to be five years old and surrounded by a bunch of kids all yelling “Chink, chink, bloody chink’. Trust me, it wasn’t the words that hurt, it was the hate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And I bumped into a fair bit of antiSemitism. I never understood why. Also, how did they know I was Jewish? Lacking skin color or other physical differences, how do they KNOW?

      Liked by 2 people

      • I suspect some people just hurl the worst invective they can personally think of. 😦


      • Marilyn, a GOOD, very thought provoking piece, REALLY.

        We’ve known each other as FRIENDS, lovers and, finally spouses – since 1964. We’ve talked about a lot of different things, intimate-often difficult- matters. I am usually comfortable sharing the darkest stuff with you. It is what makes us soulmates. We have discussed race – beginning with the 60’s and through these dank, depressing contemporary days that have triggered nightmares of deja vous for me.
        After all these years, all these talks with you, the person closest to me — there are still things buried very deep that I am reluctant to share because they are very painful. There! I’ve said it.
        We watched a recent show where they discussed race. Plot included a parent’s need to discuss difficult things with his “difficult” teen offspring. RACE was the most difficult. I forget what advice the hero offered.
        I think it was some version of “be honest, be ‘real'”.
        My parents were ‘real’ with their 3 sons. They taught us about “presenting ourselves” in public. Always be clean, neat, well spoken, respectful but NOT timid. Good advice, I believe, followed by all three Armstrong sons. Given our present times, I think I need to have a chat with my two younger brothers about this stuff. We usually ask each others thoughts about what’s happening. I think it’s “easy” to have a chat about the Wanker POTUS and his impact on others who easily follow. We haven’t had a real talk about how we are really dealing with it. I know I could use input.

        My youngest Brother is very much in the public spotlight. I’m sure he must be the recipient of unpleasant “fan” mail as I was in my working days. My middle Brother, recently moved into a new living community, far from New York where he spent most of his life, must also be undergoing some awkward moments, to be kind. As I write, I am even more convinced we should chat to tighten the bond, weakened somewhat by geographical distance. It occurs to me it will help me with my own demons.

        Racism: I’ve been in the trenches, at its worst, during the 60’s and 70’s as a TV News reporter. It continued simmering just below the surface through my retirement in 2001. Not a story you leave in the newsroom. I bought the images home night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. I diluted it in humor but those images have always stayed with me.

        Not easy to discuss. But certainly TIME now to get those demons out and share with loved ones as well as friends, acquaintances and strangers willing to listen, share and hopefully understand.

        It’s ABOUT time!

        Thanks, again, for this piece.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, “Lory”, for your share. I just finished mine which follows yours a few spaces down. Words DO hurt but you can answer them with words. But that only deals with the surface pain. I’ve always been sensitive to ALL kinds of racism, bigotry, sexism and intolerance. It goes with the territory. I’ve worked in the company of outright miscreants who considered themselves “pals” as their shared their awful jokes and stories about “those people”. I had to cinch my guts to get through the moment, the hour and the day – to “stay professional”. I guess I was one of the “good ones” to many of those folks. For me, it was a costly deception. I had a long and decent career. Hopefully, I opened the door for some others – just as some opened the door for me.
      I hope the public outcry will make things better for today’s generation of young people. I also hope they know their history.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Gary. That ‘I guess I was one of the “good ones” made me cringe. That “I don’t like X, but you’re okay” thing. In the last few years, we’ve seen exactly the same thing playing out with one of our very best [Australian Rules] football players. He’s Indigenous, like many of our best players, and was a huge favourite with the crowd until one day, at a match, he called out a spectator [from the opposing team] who called him an ‘ape’. Suddenly, he was booed every time he played football. Because he had the temerity to stand up for himself. We’re still reeling from that one as it exposed exactly how racist a lot of Australia is. Yet, if you were to ask those people, they’d probably say ‘Nah, I’m not racist, but…’
        You have opened doors, but they continue to be slammed shut again. That has to stop. Othering has to stop. It’s something left over from our caveman beginnings, and it’s the root cause of conflict between humans. 😦

        Liked by 1 person

        • I couldn’t like what you said twice, but I would have.


          What a great word to describe the bottom line of racism. Maybe way back when Neanderthals and Homo Erectus were duking it out (but also intermarrying!) for dominance, tribalism was born and somehow, never left. We can only guess. Hundreds of thousands of years later, it would be nice to make progress.

          Liked by 1 person

          • -hugs- my opinion of homo sapiens is very low today so I doubt that we’ll ever rise above our basest, most primitive natures. Not genetically.

            That said, there have been times in our long history as a species that our social structures forced us to be better, or at least to behave better. This period is not one of them.

            I know we’re at a low point and things will improve eventually, but I fear it won’t happen in my lifetime. 😦


            • I’d like to think that we have made at least some progress, but these past three years have taken us pretty far backward. We’d better get it together and VOTE. I think our lives depend on it.

              As for living to see better times, I’m not in great shape myself and Garry is 78 — so that change better happen soon.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Yes, this is going to be a litmus test for democracy. Let’s hope a clear majority have a social conscience…or a conscience of any kind. At 67 I’m not that far behind. Fingers crossed.


  5. Good advice Marilyn. We all need to just talk to each other and try to understand each other’s lives better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m convinced we need to do more listening than talking. Mind you, Garry and I have been friends, lovers, and married since 1968 … and there are levels of his experience I understand mentally, but probably not emotionally. Because you really can’t walk in their shoes. You aren’t them.

      Garry is right. It WAS 1964.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Good, and those are great photos.

    As an aside, I have seen one or two people in person though who were genuinely black, not brown at all–maybe from a part of India, I think, or around there, but not at all brown. It was really unusual to see.


    • Some parts of Africa people are very dark, but not true black. It’s very dark brown with a hint of blue. The babies are not born with blue eyes and they have dark hair from birth. So did I. I had long black hair and dark eyes.

      I should amend this because the people I’m thinking of were Abyssinians and they were as close to black as people could be. Also, really beautiful.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Donnalee, I recall we were having a family conversation about this a few years back. We were talking about ‘Black and White” issues. My then 5 or 6 year old Granddaughter offered, “But Gramps is not Black. He’s Brown”. I just smiled. I think my Granddaughter, now a 20 something, has a solid outlook. Hopefully she’s a voice for today and tomorrow.

      Years ago, a lady friend used to affectionately call me, “Brownie”. Alas, I didn’t appreciate it. Bad on me for not sensing what she meant. I was still VERY up tight about words involving skin color. I wish I could apologize to her. We all make mistakes, small and large.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sometimes people get very triggered by innocently-meant things, like that recent issue where some lady had a bunch of little children dressed as animals for a performance, with faces painted to match their costumes, and someone said the child dressed as a monkey was in ‘blackface’ because the facial makeup was black–just as the other children had red and blue and yellow and other things that had nothing to do with race at all but with the animals they portrayed, and so in that case no, it was not blackface–it was just stage makeup to make the kid look like a monkey in a monkey suit. Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar, but if we are used to people smirking over cigars, or being insulting or sarcastic or critical and using that as a symbol somehow, it is easy to feel defensive about the next cigar someone innocently offers us. It’s too bad that things have been this way for you and for others and I’m sorry about it and hope that people are smartening up now.


  7. Curiosity and compassion count!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I love the Wedding kiss photo.
    Leslie xoxo

    Liked by 2 people

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