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Interview with Marlene G. Fine and Fern L. Johnson, authors of Let's Talk Race

Today’s blog features an interview with Marlene G. Fine and Fern L. Johnson, the authors of the just-released book Let’s Talk Race: A Guide for White People.

1. Why did you write this book?

There have been so many calls for conversations about race, but they don’t seem to lead to genuine interaction. We hear a lot of experts on news and public affairs programs and have excellent resources through books, documentaries, and films, but we just don’t do the important work of conversation because it’s hard, inconvenient, or just doesn’t fit into our daily life. In our teaching and in workshops we’ve done together and separately, we’ve observed how hard it is for whites to talk about race. It’s easy to deflect to other topics, to hold back because of concern for others, and to not listen carefully. At the same time, we’ve had Black friends and colleagues tell us how frustrating it is for them to not be able to talk about race with white colleagues and friends because it seems to deny the reality of Black lives. Blacks confront race every day. Black friends, colleagues, students, and workshop participants also often expressed to us that they were tired of teaching whites. They said it was time for us to take responsibility for our own learning.

As academics who taught and researched race, we thought we knew a fair amount, but when we adopted our African American sons, we discovered how much we didn’t know (and still don’t know). We became witnesses to race in new ways. So we thought sharing our experiences with other whites would help them get beyond their hesitance, fear, embarrassment—whatever is keeping them from talking about race—because they would see that we all have to learn and are continuing to learn how to talk about race.

We wrote this book for white people. As one of our endorsers said: “While some of the information seems basic to me as a Black woman, I appreciate the importance of more white folks talking to one another about race because they [the authors] understand the blind spots, the pit falls, the traps, and the, what I call ’trash thinking,’ that needs to be composted.”

2. Isn’t action more important than talk?

Concerted, joint action requires talk. Americans tend to want to move immediately to action before we identify problems and fully vet solutions and do the necessary learning. Good solutions require commitment and follow-through. Most important, they require diverse voices at the table and trust among those voices. That trust comes through building relationships, which we do through talk, through conversation.

3. Why do we need to talk about race?

We need to talk about race because we’re at a fraught moment. We’ve seen massive protests throughout the US by people of all races and ethnicities in response to the murders of Black men and women at the hands of police and to the mass shootings directed at BIPOC. We’ve also seen changing attitudes about interracial relationships and biracial individuals. At the same time, we’re seeing the growth of white supremacist groups and vitriolic hate directed at BIPOC. As the coronavirus pandemic winds down, we risk losing the momentum of Black Lives Matter. We cannot wait for the next crisis to continue to mobilize people. We have to begin to address our racial history and the inequities that are the legacy of slavery NOW.

4. Why is it difficult for whites to talk about race? As the authors of this book, do you have difficulty talking about race?

Whites are often reluctant about saying the wrong thing—something offensive, stupid, not PC. Many whites also often don’t know enough or have mis-information about Black history, racial disparities, and African American cultural practices to engage in productive conversations about race.

We, too, have difficulty talking about race. But we recognize that the conversations will be difficult, that we may be uncomfortable, but we know that we have to try.

About the Authors

Author Fern L. Johnson

Fern L. Johnson, PhD, is Senior Research Scholar and Professor Emerita at Clark University focusing on race and culture. As a white parent of African American sons, she co-authored The Interracial Adoption Option. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts.

Author Marlene G. Fine

Marlene G. Fine, PhD, is Professor Emerita at Simmons University focusing on cultural diversity and leadership. As a white parent of African American sons, she co-authored The Interracial Adoption Option. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts.

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