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Duly Noted

Friday, Nov 18, 2011, 7:50 am

Jay Smooth’s TEDx Talk on Talking About Race

By Lindsay Beyerstein

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Just in time for awkward Thanksgiving dinner conversations. Video artist and radio host Jay Smooth delivers a TEDx Talk at Hampshire College on the fraught subject of how we talk about race.

Jay Smooth is famous for his 2008 video, "How to Tell People They Sound Racist,"--a very straightforward guide to a very difficult task. His advice? When someone says something racist, have "what they said" conversation, not the "what they are" conversation. That is, stay focused on specific words and actions that could be construed as racist. Whatever you do, don't make the leap to accusing the person of being racist.

This isn't about coddling racists. It's strictly pragmatic rhetorical advice. You can't win an argument about whether someone is racist because it comes down to unproveable suppositions about their motives. Your best strategy is to keep the focus on what they said, and why that might be construed as racist.

In his TEDx Talk, Smooth takes the discussion one step further. Some viewers tell him that even "what they said" conversations don't work. The TEDx talk attempts to explain why not, and what we can do about it.

Smooth argues that many people hear a "what they are conversation" even when it's framed as a "what they said" conversation. Why might that be? We're all imperfect. None of us likes to admit we made a mistake, but in general, we're capable of entertaining constructive criticism about other aspects of our behavior. Why is it so hard to accept that one might have said something, even one thing, that sounded racist?

It's hard to take constructive criticism about race because we make the mistake of construing racism as an all-or-nothing phenomenon, Smooth says. We assume that even one racist-sounding remark is tantamount to being racist. So, ironically, people who are committed to not being racist are going to fight you the hardest if you point out that something they said sounded racist. If they think they're not racist, and they believe that non-racist people have to be absolutely perfect on race, then whatever they said must have been okay after all.

That's an unreasonable standard. We know that even nice people sometimes say mean things. Sometimes nice people mean to be mean. Sometimes they sound mean without intending to be. Either way, one mean remark doesn't negate a lifetime of decent behavior. What matters, Smooth says, is grappling with our imperfections and trying to rise to the occasion every time.

Smooth makes the important point that our culture's ideas about race are so illogical and emotionally laden that nobody is ever going to bat 1000 on race.

"When we're grappling with race issues, we're grappling with something that was designed for centuries to make us circumvent our best instincts," he says, "It's a dance partner that's designed to trip us up."

Smooth closes with a brilliant pair of metaphors: the "tonsils model" and the "dental hygiene model" of racial discourse. Either you have your tonsils, or you don't. People who think they're not racist, and could therefore never say a racist thing, are using the tonsils model.

The dental hygiene model says that bad habits and wrong beliefs accumulate in the course of daily living. If someone tells you you've got something stuck between your teeth, you don't assert that it's impossible because you're a clean person. Being a clean person doesn't mean being 100% dirt-repellant at all times, it means cleaning as you go. Being a clean person means accepting that you can get dirty.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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