Awkward conversations are never easy to have. Theyâ€™re not fun, theyâ€™re not exciting and we usually avoid them rather than diving in head first. However, as college students, awkward conversations are a part of our education and at times, prove necessary. Monday night, we held these truths in mind as we approached comedian W. Kamau Bell with a proposition.
â€œHow would you like to spend an hour talking about race with two white girls?â€
Bell was almost two hours over his contractual obligations and our professor had asked us not to approach him with our proposal. We didnâ€™t expect a positive reaction, but to our surprise, he accepted â€” as long as it involved good Mexican food.
It was 10:30 at night and Tacos El Regio wouldnâ€™t open for another 30 minutes, so we opted for a San Antonio staple: 24-hour cafe and bakery, Mi Tierra.
We had seen his stand-up comedy-meets-lecture presentation earlier that night and were excited to discuss the topics we had heard in a more personal setting and with Trinity in mind.
At first, the hostess seated us in a small booth in the back of the restaurant, but we quickly realized that a nearby table was better suited for his 6 foot 4 inch frame.
After a few minutes of small talk and perusing the menu, we were ready to start our first awkward conversation about how to start awkward conversations.
As two white women who go to a majority white university, we had never really been challenged to talk about racism, so we werenâ€™t even sure how to start.
â€œI think the first year of college should be spent deprogramming you from the â€œismsâ€ that you developed in the real world that we should try to get out of your system before we send you to the next stage of life,â€ Bell said. â€œItâ€™s often put on the outside of your education instead of on the core of your education. Itâ€™s like, â€˜Well Iâ€™m here to get a degree, Iâ€™m here to do pre-med. Also I have to sit through this seminar about racism.â€™ Clearly by doing that youâ€™re not making it important.â€
Nodding in agreement, we were eager to hear more. Still not sure where to start, we listened as he continued.
â€œWeâ€™re at a critical point where people want these discussions but people donâ€™t feel comfortable having them unless they bring me or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Milo to speak on college campuses,â€ Bell said. â€œSo itâ€™s my job to be like, â€˜Just start having them.â€™â€
Simple as that. Just start having them. Naturally, the question as to who facilitates those conversations came to mind. Who holds the responsibility? Often we place it on the nearest person of color and expect patience, guidance and a good sense of humor. But thatâ€™s not realistic.
â€œItâ€™s not a person of colorâ€™s job to educate this person. White people should get on the front lines of that,â€ Bell said.
Bell continued and said he wants to see more white people actively participating in the dialogue.
â€œFor white people specifically there are organizations now that exist to help white people talk about their white privilege and white supremacy,â€ Bell said. â€œThere is an organization called SURJ (showing up for racial justice), which is a white privilege organization founded by white people and run by white people so white people can have those awkward conversations with other white people. Itâ€™s a way for white people to own the space.â€ Â
And thatâ€™s not a bad thing. It may even make it easier to engage in these awkward conversations.
â€œEvery white person has a better chance of talking to another white person about race and racism than a black person or a Latino person,â€ Bell said. â€œJust by nature of the fact that you can get closer to a white person and go, â€˜Hey can I talk to you for a second?â€™ And just by nature of the fact that your skin colors gives you entry into that conversation.â€
At a school where you canâ€™t go a day without hearing the word â€œdiversity,â€ it became clear that it is important to understand the difference between diversity and inclusion.
â€œDiversity can cover up a number of sins,â€ Bell said. â€œSo when we talk about diversity, that doesnâ€™t actually help us if it means that 8 out of 10 people in the room are white people. So for me, itâ€™s like the goal is inclusion, and at the very least, an inclusive mentality. So that even if those people arenâ€™t in the room, you respect their viewpoint and you make decisions based on how you think those people will be affected.â€
At this point we were feeling pretty awkward. We were excited to have open, natural conversation, but it was clear we were out of our depth. Instead of quitting while we were ahead â€” or at least not too far behind â€” we decided to push a little more and call to question his call to action of gaining some white pride.
â€œWhite people seem to be able to divorce themselves from their race and ethnicity,â€ Bell said. â€œFor A black person or a Latino person race and ethnicity is an intrinsic part of who you are. You canâ€™t be a black person and say â€˜Iâ€™m proud of who I am but I donâ€™t consider myself black.â€™ Black people would be like, â€˜Ah come here, we need to talk to you.â€™ You canâ€™t talk about pride in who you are as a black person or as an Asian person or a Mexican person without including your race and ethnicity.â€
And when it comes to racial pride, you donâ€™t make it far without the name Colin Kaepernick invariably making itâ€™s way into the conversation. Bell analyzed Kaepernickâ€™s actions not from the perspective of a black American, but from the perspective of an American who is proud of his country and his freedom to challenge it when he feels injustice is present.
â€œAnyone who thinks Colin Kaepernick isnâ€™t doing what heâ€™s doing because heâ€™s not a proud American â€¦ Heâ€™s doing what heâ€™s doing because he is a proud American and he has a higher standard for his country than his country currently wants to live up to. When the runners in 1968 are standing at the Olympic Games in Mexico City with the Black Power fists in the air, thatâ€™s pride in America. Thatâ€™s also saying, â€˜America, you can do better and because I am an American I want my country to do better,â€™â€ Bell said.
Preparing to move forward with conversations â€” no matter how uncomfortable they may be â€” we were reminded to keep in mind the perspectives we bring and the privilege we posses.
â€œThe way I think about this is â€” one, when you have privilege itâ€™s important to learn the value of shutting up. If you have privilege, then you have benefits you donâ€™t even see. So if a person who doesnâ€™t have privilege says â€˜I have a problem,â€™… if you tell them I donâ€™t think you have a problem youâ€™re just using your privilege against them,â€ Bell said. â€œSo you really have to own your privilege and perspective.â€
Excited, inspired and a little less uncomfortable, we are excited to introduce this â€˜Trinitonianâ€™ series, â€œLetâ€™s Make It Awkward.â€ In the coming weeks, we will explore the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone and engaging in dialogue on topics such as diversity, inclusion, political correctness, safe spaces and the ways in which we can challenge and shape our perspectives. Even if it is hard to have these conversations, we think Bell said it best.
â€œThe thing you should do in college is be actively and aggressively pushing your perspective as far and as wide as you can â€¦ because when you get out of college youâ€™re not necessarily going to have time to do that work. We shouldnâ€™t wait until shit hits the fan before we have these conversations.â€