Discussing race in the U.S.

Racism is not dead. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us of this observation in her novel, Americanah. Having recently moved to the United States from Canada, I gained a lot from the protagonist’s, Ifemelu, experiences regarding race and racism in America. As Ifemelu points out, racism is a particularly contentious issue in the United States and, because it is such a contentious issue, discussions about race in the United States employ a certain ‘language’. For instance, in the United States, Ifemelu’s friend describes herself as multiracial, but in Nigeria her friend says that she is half-caste. Both terms are describing the same thing, but certain phrases are appropriate in one community, while others are not. Race and racism are issues in Canada as well, but they are not discussed or treated in the same manner as they are in the United States. Honestly, I am still learning what phrases to use and how to approach issues of race in the United States. So, I benefited significantly from Ifemelu’s perspective on appropriate expressions and behaviour.

As we discussed in class, too often people avoid talking about race because, quite frankly, it can be awkward. Personally, I am extremely nervous that I might use inappropriate language and possibly offend someone. However, a classmate pointed out that my temporary discomfort with the subject is very minimal compared to the discomfort that people who are part of a minority race in the United States face every day.

Furthermore, the novel Americanah reminds me of this year’s First Readings novel, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. In The New Jim Crow, Alexander argues that as a society we have trapped African Americans in a vicious cycle of racism through mass incarceration, and that we have a role to play in shaping the future. I found the story about the police’s expansive power to attempt to address the drug problem and society’s seeming acceptance –– through a lack of questioning –– of the perpetual cycle that results particularly insightful, because it made me think about the alleged wrongdoers, the people who are supposed to protect society, legislator’s roles in drafting policy, and our role in asking for change. Adichie makes a similar argument in Americanah when Ifemelu is hired to speak at different events because she is a lead blogger on race in the United States. At the events, Ifemelu notices that she was hired because of her blogging status, not necessarily because of her ideas for change. People wanted to say that they brought Ifemelu to speak and attended her events, but were less interested in changing their behaviour. In doing so, like in The New Jim Crow, the event-organizers and attendees are actually perpetuating the cycle of racism by not truly engaging with the issues.

Alexander and Adichie both encourage readers to engage in conversations about race, even though it might initially feel awkward. As Alexander highlights, the result of not discussing race or questioning racist behaviour and policies, is the current system of incarceration that disproportionately targets African Americans. In order to realize a true change in the system, we must stop pretending that racism is an issue of the past and listen intently to the people who are being oppressed.

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