Glossary: How to Talk About America’s Racial Wounds — With Pop Culture Examples

Hey there. If you’ve been following the news, then you’re likely aware that hundreds of (literal, flag-carrying) American Nazis recently marched around Charlottesville, Virginia, carrying tiki torches, injured 19 people, and killed a woman.

America’s racial wounds.

They’re a thing. White Americans have spent over 400+ years, since we first started living on this continent, building our wealth and power on the backs of black, brown, indigenous, Asian, and really any non-white (through whatever arbitrary standards we were using to define “white” at the time) labor and resources. That’s usually in our history books, but it can be a bit harder to find sometimes.

So, a lot of people are starting to realize that this is something we might, as a nation, want to start talking a bit more about. But that can feel really intimidating. Engaging in these discussions is hard. It often requires understanding of a lot of specific terminology and phrases, and for many non-POC folks, the fear of seeming totally uninformed and ignorant keeps us from engaging at all.

Here’s the thing: Unless we start engaging in conversations, we will never learn. But that means we will sound like we’re not an expert — for quite a while — and that’s okay. There is no way to skip the learning process and jump right in as an established expert. That’s not really how the process of, you know, learning works.

We will say something awkward. We will sound like we don’t know what we’re talking about. But more often than not, the POC in our lives — especially the people who know us and care about us — will be grateful that we care enough about them to want to learn about the hidden realities they deal with every day.

These discussions on race are crucial to have.

However, in times of when emotional headlines, many POC will not be in the best emotional space to engage in conversations. It’s too raw. It’s too painful to delve into. In the weeks after painful news stories, they will probably need encouragement and checking in, and not be too stoked about diving into tough conversations.

What is an overall strictly intellectual process for white people is a deeply personal experience for POC. It’s talking about trauma or pain.  Or having to re-live assault or abuse, or talking about a difficult battle with illness. It’s can feel like discussing the death of a friend or loved one. It’s very emotional, and can be difficult for people to talk about for long periods of time.

But when POC are ready to engage in conversation, these are very important things for we, as Americans, to be talking about.

So here’s a glossary of terms to help you prepare to engage in relationship and conversation.

But please — don’t make the (very common) rookie mistake of using intellectual understanding as a cop out for real, authentic relationship-building and community. I live in Seattle: a very liberal, highly-educated, and predominantly white city. Plenty of us can talk about racism and sound very educated and aware. In Seattle, many of us know all the right terms to use when talking about racial injustice. We know all the right things to say.

But very few of us (non-POC) actively engage in multi-cultural experiences and communities. I spent so much time feeling inadequate for not knowing the right terms and not sounding as smart as everyone else around me. I wish I would have started just trying to engage a lot earlier.

We don’t need more people who know the right words. We need more people who are brave, kind, and caring enough to actually do something about it. I am not an expert. I can’t speak with authority on, really, any part of this process. I hope this glossary can be helpful, but there are plenty of POC on the internet who can explain these concepts a million times more effectively than I can. Google them. Follow them on Twitter. Learn from their resources. There are so many great resources out there. I wasn’t sure if I, as a white woman, should write about this at all. But I wanted to do something I hadn’t seen anyone else do yet: put a pop culture spin on it, with real-life examples — because I think that these types of practical examples can help us understand complex and emotionally draining more effectively. But under no circumstances should my blogging about my favorite TV shows ever be the only resource someone reads.

The only thing I can speak about with authority, is what it feels like to be regularly falling flat on my face, getting back up again, apologizing to the wonderful, wise, insightful people who I’ve unintentionally hurt, and committing to looking for more areas where I can learn and grow.

But if knowing some more words and phrases helps you in this process — I already write about TV in my free time. I might as well add something meaningful to it.

ABC’s Boy Band

Understanding racial injustice, with examples from ABC’s new reality singing competition Boy Band.

  1. “Cultural appropriation”: Are white rappers and hip hop artists stealing from black culture?
    The show features a white teenager whose strength is hip hop and rap — much like Macklemore. In his song, “White Privilege II,” Macklemore has written about the dissonance he feels as someone who found a very successful career as a rap artist, when the vast majority of African American rappers never see as much success as he has.

In Boy Band‘s case, does cultural appropriation not matter as much if the white rapper is actually an minority — as most of the remaining contestants are African American or Latino? Answer: No. It’s still a little weird to make a name for yourself with a skill that, when done by black men, comes with endless stereotypes and assumptions, but when done by white men is praised as “so refreshing” and “the only rapper I’ll let my kids listen to.”

2. What about if a popular white artist sings in Spanish on a smash-hit song? Is that cultural appropriation?
From where I stand, I think we need more people like [Boy Band contestant] Sergio on the radio, instead of Justin Bieber singing about nibbling on some poor girl’s ear in Spanish lyrics he only sometimes remembers.

3. What’s the problem with saying “I don’t see color”?
Especially in a time where black bodies are murdered on the regular due to use of “excessive force,” and we just had a huge march that proves a ton of people still think it’s okay to wave Nazi flags, declaring your alignment with a group that murdered millions of people — something the whole world, like, quite literally went to war over — it seems pretty clear that the whole “I don’t see color” approach to race isn’t really working in America.

Sometimes we need to see color. We should probably realize that color is the reason a lot of people feel unsafe, just to walk to the grocery store, and innocent kids and adults are ending up dead because their very presence made someone who was on edge feel threatened and question their safety.

4. What’s modern day “cash-cropping”? (A phrase better explained by Rue from The Hunger Games.)
What Boy Band needs now, is to turn it’s multi-ethnic pop group over to a management team and record executives who aren’t all white men. If this ends up being just another example of rich white guys profiting off of an economic approach to gaining more wealth through an appearance of diversity, then that concerns me.

5. What does it mean for white people to “share power” with POC?
In some ways, it can feel like the music industry is just trying to make money off of being more diverse. I only have about seven years of experience working in the “real world,” but I’ve worked or interned in four different industries, and from where I stand, I feel pretty convinced that money is at the root of every decision and almost every system and structure of power in our world.

I’m not sure if I even should be upset that so many industries have begin feeling the monetary incentive for diversity. But I have found that is very important — when possible — to have POC tell their own stories, instead of only having white voices tell their stories for them. Look at the incredible things that Elaine Welteroth has done at Teen Vogue. Look at the movies and films that are finally starting to get better representation in their starring roles. (Welteroth is a woman of color, and comedian Kumail Nanjiani just wrote and starred in a funny and poignant film, The Big Sick.) If convincing America that diversity — racial, ethnic, sexuality, abilities, gender, etc — is good for business, maybe that’s OK.

6. What is “code-switching”?
Do I wish that Zayn (the singer, formerly of One Direction, who sang that one song from the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack with Taylor Swift) could make even the smallest public reference to his Muslim faith without worrying that it will doom his career? Do I wish that he could date a (blonde, biracial) model who wouldn’t make mildly offensive jokes about Asians, leading to him ultimately coming to her defense by saying, “trust me, she likes Asians”. Of course. But we, as a nation, are not there yet. We’re still in the beginning stages of our learning process. And it is crucial that we continue to try to learn.

The CW’s Riverdale

Understanding racial injustice, with examples from the CW’s teen drama, Riverdale, whose executive producer is former Glee writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.

7. What does it mean to have better “representation” of POC in media?
In case you haven’t noticed, white people don’t make up 85% of America, as our TV and media seem to portray. It’s more like 62%. CW dramas Riverdale and The Flash have cast their shows to reflect this 60/40 breakdown fairly accurately. And that’s exciting. But their shows still haven’t taken the space to represent the reality of live as a person of color in the U.S. to a full extent.

Over the past few years, TV has become more diverse. Not shockingly so: most lead characters on primetime shows are still white. But there’s no doubt that the number of black (or Asian) friends and supporting characters is increasing. It’s a small step, but still progress. And a larger number of shows, like Scandal and Quantico, are even taking the leap to cast people of color in leading roles.

As a journalism major in college, and a former web writer and editor, I’m fascinated by the way “the media” — that ever-criticized yet completely inescapable conglomeration of web, TV, movies, advertising, and radio — subtly or not-so-subtly influences what we as a culture value, what we decide to buy, and what physical features we view as attractive and desirable.

8. What does it mean for someone who is biracial to be “white-passing”?
For the guys, Archie’s football jock rival Reggie, another character who was dark haired but white in the comics, is played by a Eurasian actor. Archie himself is actually biracial as well — actor KJ Apa, who drops his New Zealand accent to play an American on the show, is the son of a Samoan chief — but his character passes as white, and both Archie’s father and mother are played by white actors.

NBC’s Timeless

Understanding racial injustice, with examples from the NBC’s time-travelling drama, Timeless.

9. What’s the difference between tokenization and representation?
Timeless‘ two leading actors are white, and the leading man looks like an Abercrombie model. But another prominent character is African American. He’s not the star, but he’s totally there, and in practically scene. Because diversity is super important on television, guys. Look at how many background and supporting characters are people of color!

10. What is “erasure” — as in erasure of people of color and their experiences?
I just finished (because: Netflix) watching Hart of Dixie, a teen drama about a New York City doctor who moves to the South. Thanks to its location, the show is full of opportunities to discuss racism. And not necessarily in an after school special or ‘let’s focus on a social issue’ format — because do humans really even learn very well when we’re being lectured at? — but even in small ways … in casual conversation. The show is set in the (historically segregated) South, and features a mix of black and white actors, but the subject of race is never mentioned. In four seasons. Not even once. Painful history, lingering tensions, cultural differences … it’s like they don’t exist. Race has been completely gutted from the narrative of a show whose Southern identity is key to the plot, and in the freaking title, of the show.

Most notably, Hart of Dixie‘s town has a black mayor who is repeatedly characterized as beloved by his entire community. Especially the white grandmas, who — given the climate of the South throughout their lifespan — would be more inclined to show distrust or hold preconceived notions about a black mayor. But they don’t. Everyone loves him. And for four full seasons, Hart of Dixie existed in a weird TV version of the south where race was represented in skin tone but otherwise completely absent.

For the most part, and especially on network TV, we don’t discuss race. Unless it’s in a show centered around people of color, or for a specific plot point (crime fueled by racism) or the show is trying to have a socially significant teaching moment.

People of color have distinct experiences — unconscious bias, microaggressions, etc — that present a regular reminder that they are different, less valued, or misunderstood they are by various people they encounter. These are experiences that I, as a white woman, just don’t have. And these are experiences that are very rarely depicted on television shows.

In Timeless, the painful experiences that are a daily reality for POC aren’t gutted from the script. They’re not washed out of the show’s reality.


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