Naomi Tutu: Conversations about race are as important as ever

Naomi Tutu
Naomi Tutu
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Over a year into the Obama presidency, human rights advocate Naomi Tutu says conversations about race are as important as ever.

The international activist and daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu will deliver the keynote address at the Saint Paul Foundation's Facing Race Ambassador Award celebration Monday evening.

The event honors local residents who have acted as "ambassadors" to engage the public in conversations about race.

"People are often afraid to have those conversations," Tutu said. "They don't want to be labeled angry. They don't want to be labeled emotional. They don't want to be labeled racist."

Despite this, Tutu said she believes that Americans can have honest conversations about race.

"I say to people who are nervous about having those conversations, 'I'm glad, because that means to me you realize how important these conversations are,'" she said.

The event's honorees include Herbert Perkins and Margery Otto, who are being lauded for their work to create community dialogues about race. Perkins and Otto serve as co-directors of the Antiracism Study-Dialogue Circles, an organization that creates small group discussions about race and racism.

The event will also honor the work of three organizers in the East Metro area. The honorees include: Ouida Crozier, coordinator for Diversity and Cultural Competency at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Dr. Eric J. Jolly, president of the Science Museum of Minnesota, and Angelique Kedem, Minnesota coordinator for the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.

Tutu spoke with MPR's Tom Crann on Monday about the importance of engaging in conversations about race.

Tom Crann: Why is it so important that we talk about race?

Naomi Tutu: Because race and racism is still such a fundamental part of our communities--that the impact of race and racism is felt daily by the vast majority of people in our country, that race is still a major determinant in this country and places around the world of access to goods and services. It's still a major determinant of the kind of justice that you are going to receive in our justice system. So if we are going to be a truly just nation, we have to do away with racism and we cannot do away with racism by ignoring it.

There may be some who have a different approach and say that if the goal is to have a color-blind society that by talking about it too much that it emphasizes the divisions, the differences, rather than eradicating them. What's your response?

Tutu: My response is that actually when you try to ignore the differences or pretend that differences don't exist, that's what entrenches differences and entrenches suspicions of one another.

In fact, when we talk about race, when we talk about racism, when we talk about the impact it has on our lives, that in fact empowers us.

I don't talk about a color-blind society. I talk about a society that celebrates our differences and uses our differences as a gift. So for me, the aim is not a place where we don't see difference. It's a place where we see the gift that difference is in our communities.

Some people don't feel comfortable talking about race because the conversation may get volatile. You may say something that might even be naive or might be seen as bigoted or just misperceived. How do you get beyond that?

Tutu: This is what I like about the St. Paul Foundation's work and the work of the ambassadors they'll be honoring is that people who are involved in the work on conversations around race are very cognizant of the fact that these are uncomfortable conversations.

These are often dangerous conversations...People are afraid to have those conversations. They don't want to be labeled angry. They don't want to be labeled emotional. They don't want to be labeled racist, and being in the conversation, many people fear, is that is what could happen.

But in fact, the reality is when you are in conversations that are focusing on these issues, that is when we are empowered, in fact, to change our perceptions and the perceptions of the people around us. It's important to be willing to be angry. It's important to be willing to be naive. It's important to be willing to have your knowledge...questioned because that is the only way we can start a new foundation in our discussions.

So I say to people who are nervous about having those conversations, 'I'm glad, because that means to me you realize how important these conversations are. If you were blase about it, then it would be that you're ignoring the history of race and racism in this country.' Being nervous is actually a positive first step in having these conversations.

So, how do we start talking about race?

Tutu: I think that you need to have facilitators who are themselves comfortable with being uncomfortable, who are themselves well-versed in making a safe space to have those conversations. It doesn't necessarily follow that it has to be a trained facilitator, but it does follow that it has to be somebody who has an awareness of their own views on race, on racism, on prejudice, who has an awareness of where they learnt the lessons that they know about race and racism, and who are comfortable speaking about their own experiences, who are comfortable speaking about their own prejudices, so it makes it safe for others to have the conversation.

In my particular case, I've been fortunate that I've had the opportunity to have conversations about race with a large number of people, just because of growing up in South Africa, being asked to be a public speaker around issues, but I think that for most people the first thing that we need in order to have these conversations is a safe space, is a place where we know that even if people think that what we say sounds racist, that they will give us the benefit of the doubt, that they will be willing to say that this is a question or a statement that comes out of their experience.

We're more than a year into the Obama administration. Certainly during the campaign and during the inauguration and the president's public speeches, this has been a topic, and Americans have been talking about race. How has that changed, as you see it, over the past couple of years?

Tutu: I've been amazed. It's a very strange animal that has come out following the election of President Obama. I think on the one hand that for many people it was a huge step forward in the history of race and racism in this country, that it said the American people are ready in many ways to embrace the diversity of people in this country.

At the same time, I have seen that it has brought out a willingness from some areas to use the race card and to use racism and racist language in the criticism of the president and in the questioning of his ability.

And for me, both of those things actually offer us a great opportunity as a country. They offer us an opportunity, going back to why I'm here, to have real, honest conversations about racism.

Do you think there have been more conversations about race in the Obama age?

Tutu: I'm not sure that there have been more. I think that there has been a fear, on the part of some people, to call racist some of the statements that have been made. I know that the president himself, after the one speech in Philadelphia, very rarely has talked about race and the impact of racism on the criticisms and opposition to him. And I understand that.

That's part of the legacy of racism that as soon as you raise the issue of race as a black person, you stand the risk of being labeled angry, chip on your shoulder, unwilling to accept responsibility.

Playing the race card.

Tutu: Exactly. You're accused of playing the race card. I think that I have seen at the community level and particularly on college campuses that there has been more interest in having conversations about race in this country's history and in this country's present.

Is race something we can talk about in isolation? Economic issues are very often tied to race in this country and elsewhere in the world. Do you have to talk about it in a more connected way?

Tutu: The best conversations about race are ones that connect it to the larger system that we live in and understanding not just of the social impact, but also the economic, the political, the historical context of race. You can't isolate race and racism from the rest of our lives.

You're the daughter of a very famous man who's iconic, especially about these issues. Does that open a door for you and give you added credibility to talk about these issues?

Tutu: Definitely. I think that people are willing to listen to me because my last name is Tutu. They might not like what I say once I've said it, but it has definitely opened doors.

I'm very aware that being 'the daughter of,' as we say, has offered me opportunities that I might not have had otherwise.

And what are those challenges then, that your message is your own and not necessarily your father's?

Tutu: That is the challenge. People then expect at some level that I will be a mini-Desmond, that I will have the same perspective as he does on issues. And that was a reality for us growing up. Anybody who's out there who is a minister's child or a priest's child knows that there are the expectations that people have...that you're supposed to be holy.

The standard is very high.

Tutu: Exactly. I think that the biggest challenge for me has been to find my voice that is mine around things that I am passionate about.

As a black woman, race and gender looms large in my life, but also for me the other passion that ties to those is bringing people together, the sense that if we start talking to one another rather than yelling at one another that we find opportunities for so much growth, that we find opportunities for real healing of communities, but that we also find opportunities for great creativity and for doing things in different and better ways. It's all about bringing people together with all their differences, not trying to ignore their differences.

(Interview edited by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran.)

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