Word Funeral: for the words people say when they want to sound like they’re addressing race, but are really speaking about something else

As I’ll mention many more times in my writing, I was raised to talk about race at the same time I learned my colors. I am caramel; my mother is peach. Society reads me as Black, but considers my mother white. The jig was up the day my mother gave birth—I couldn’t pretend race didn’t exist, because it was, and continues to be, projected onto me. So, it has always seemed strange that Americans, in particular, feel as though they need to speak in whispers, or coded language, when discussing race. Yes, race is an American imagination (as one of my 5th grade students’ so eloquently put it, “There is no place called “White, “ or “Black,” so why do we [categorize] people by these names?”), yet, it is the most powerful lie manipulating the construction of our society… and we’re all whispering about it.

If we’re going to address the problems within our society, we must talk about race- not diversity, but race; not culture, but race; and not even inequity, but race. As an educator, I am constantly reminded of this when sitting in meetings, trainings, or conferences, and we’re talking about the “achievement gap,” but no one is naming race. The achievement gap is a race problem. Black and Latino students are performing behind their counterparts at all social class levels, and while it is not because they are Black and Latino, part of the problem is that our education system is created to assume that these students cannot be successful, because of their race. Similar things can be said about other systems—the prison industrial complex is a race problem, racial profiling is a race problem, unfair healthcare is a race problem, and the media is a visual history of our race problem… but we’re all still whispering about it, or using coded words to stand in for what we really need to talk about.

In my class, and many other elementary classrooms, teachers have funerals for overused words that don’t explicitly express what the speaker is trying to convey. “Nice” is always part of this funeral, because it’s a vague, overused word that rarely specifies what the speaker is trying to communicate. In this essay, I’m having a funeral for diversity, (in)equity, achievement gap, and culture. I understand these words have been code for “I’m progressive,” or I’m a “forward-thinker,” but, in my experience, they have meant, “I think I’m supposed to talk about race, but I’m not really comfortable in doing so.” In avoiding conversations around race—particularly in my current line of work—we risk perpetuating racist systems and ideologies. Having race conversations are the most difficult, yet they are the most necessary in moving forward. In confronting, and truly engaging in conversations around race, not only can we learn why we, as a society, have a fear of something that effects each of us, but we can start to recreate systems that are not racist as they stand to be now.

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