What would happen if, when I told a story, I left out any racial descriptions, unless they had a direct bearing on the meaning of the anecdote?

I’m not sure why this thought came to me. I think it was prompted by an episode of “Hidden Brain,” which I heard on Maine Public Radio. In “The Mind of the Village,” host Shankar Vedantam focused on the ways we all may be subconsciously racist because we live in an environment that is inherently biased. One of his guests was Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, who is one of the creators of the Implicit Association Test.

“Perhaps we behave in ways that are not known to our own conscious awareness,” Banaji explained, “that we are being driven to act in certain ways not because we are explicitly prejudiced, but because we may carry in our heads the thumbprint of the culture.”

The test attempts to “decipher this thumbprint and expose people’s hidden biases,” Vedantam said.

Before I began writing this column, I tried to take the Implicit Association Test. But it made me so intensely uncomfortable, I couldn’t. I couldn’t bear the thought that I would click on an answer that proved I was subconsciously racist.

Yes, the thought is that abhorrent to me.

For example, one day I was half-listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition” while getting ready for work. A story about gerrymandering was on. I thought, “That sounds like Shankar Vedantam.” But why was he talking about politics, which is not his beat? I silently chastised myself. Did I really think all South Asians sound alike? That was racist.

It turned out that it was, indeed, Vedantam. He was discussing an effect that gerrymandering — reconfiguring electoral districts to favor one party over another — can have on constituents. Not politics per se. Social science.

I was relieved, for the moment. But a few days later, I was going to tell a story on Facebook about a family I’d observed while traveling on the Downeaster. My natural inclination was to start the anecdote with an identification of their race. Then I thought, why? Isn’t that an example of implicit bias? The color of their skin had no bearing whatsoever on the humorous fact that they all took separate seats in the sparsely occupied carriage and were apparently asleep within minutes of leaving the station.

I’m sure my self-censorship will seem to some as if I’ve been taken hostage by the political correctness police. No. To me, people are people. I don’t want others judging me by my color or ethnicity, and I won’t judge them that way either.

And as we are living in a racially conflicted time, words matter. How we identify each other matters. I like to people watch, and often form insights into human behavior as a result (although sometimes I just raise more questions for myself). But I try to be careful, when relating my anecdotes, not to comment on a person’s appearance — racial or otherwise — unless it bears specifically on the point I’m trying to make.

For example, I have a problem with people wearing pajamas in public. If I rant about this pet peeve, it’s pertinent that the person in my story is wearing nightwear. But if the man who once paid for my groceries, presumably because I had been kind to him, had been wearing pajama pants, that would be irrelevant. (Although it still wouldn’t make it right.)

There’s another reason I feel increasingly uncomfortable using race as a descriptor. What do I know, just by looking at someone? We humans are a wonderfully complex species. We are many colors. The only valid identification is the one we make about ourselves. Race is open to interpretation. It is a construct, after all. From Merriam-Webster: “An idea that has been created and accepted by the people in a society.”

There was a “Seinfeld” episode in which the character Elaine and her new boyfriend each misidentify the other. He thinks she’s Latina; she thinks he’s black. They aren’t. Since the characters are too polite to pursue the subject further, viewers are left assuming they are white. Assuming, that is, that the viewers care.

So what happens when I tell a story and leave out race unless it’s pertinent? Nothing. The story stands, because it could be about anybody, whatever the color of their skin.

Or maybe the answer is plenty. Because if I don’t mention race, my listeners don’t see it. They just see people. And isn’t that a good thing when, in 2019, a U.S. congressman wonders aloud how the term “white supremacist” became an offensive term?

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected].


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