Stories from Political Issues

This New Tool From the Smithsonian Helps You to Talk Openly About Race

Kells McPhillips

Kells McPhillipsJune 9, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images/Tony Anderson

Right now, the question of how to talk about race has become an important (albeit tardy) topic for many Americans. Anti-racism doesn’t get a chapter in health or history class at school, and so the onus falls on white people to educate themselves and adapt their behaviors to become better allies. For that purpose, the Smithsonian’s new “Talking About Race” tool, created by experts at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, is indispensable.

A compilation of exercises, videos, handbooks, and conversation-starters, the Smithsonian’s tool comes packed in with much of what you need to know about the racial history that has come to define the United States—and how you can respond to it. Using a back-to-basics approach, scholars and activists use their expertise to do the critical work of defining privilege, uncovering your own innate biases, and how language contributes to othering of Black people.

The website has so much to offer, but one particular exercise really stuck with me. In a short article by American activist Peggy McIntosh, PhD, entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” the reader is asked to take account of their own privileges. “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks,” writes Dr. McIntosh, identifying specific give examples of assurances society afford to white people, but not to the Black community:

  1. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  2. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  3. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.

For white Americans, these are given; for Black Americans, they can be rarities.

Beyond naming the privileges that have become completely invisible to many Americans, the Smithsonian’s newest resource also offers action steps to teach people how to actively be an anti-racist. For example, the tool points to the George Lucas Educational Foundation’s community building ideas, which outline tangible action points that educators can use to engage their students in racial conversations.

Knowing the tools exist isn’t enough. People need to interact with them and bridge them offline into their lives. The Smithsonian’s tool can help you learn how to talk about race openly and honestly.

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