In “post-racial America” we talk as much or even more about race than we used to—often so long as we preface our talk with a phrase like “Despite the fact that we are in a post-racial era…” Race of all sorts seem to be all the rage in terms of news coverage. Some people may think that current discussions around race have not been that productive.
What is meant by “productive”?
Living in a medical household I hear that term a lot when Mr. Scribe is on call via telephone: “Is his cough productive?” he’ll ask the nursing home attendant about a patient. You’ve had these kinds of coughs before, I am sure. They sound loud and wet. You feel it in your chest. Your ears may pop. Afterwards you will have some sort of thick fluid that you then have to decide whether or not to spit out somewhere discretely, or swallow back into your body.
That’s a productive cough. (I know it sounds gross to speak of discussions with an image of spit hacked up from your lungs as a reference, but bear with me.) And I think that should also be the definition of “productive discussions” about race. If some metaphorical spit comes up during the discussion, then it is a productive discussion. No matter how disgusting that spit is, or how often we have seen that same slimy goo before.
See, it is important that we know why a cough is “productive” because the stuff that comes up helps doctors diagnose what might be wrong with the patient, thus making effective treatment more likely. Green or yellow mucous in your hankie? That might mean one thing. Red-tinged secretions? That means quite a different thing.
And, I propose, so it is with productive race discussions.
We often get frustrated that the same topics are discussed. The same insults. The same misunderstandings. The same hurts and slights. It often all feels like the same s***, only a different day. A reaction to all this is to assume that our race-related conversations are not “productive.”
I think, however, that we might be able to learn a lot about race and racism by paying more attention to the aftereffects of our disagreements: the spit. Not all post-discussion spit is the same, even when that spit is preceded by familiar sounding discussion. Personally, I do not think difficult conversations about race will ever go away. Like coughs, racial tensions will flare up from time to time within our societal body. We can be healed (relatively), and for a time. But another time, when our immunity is low or when we are exposed to a particularly nasty bug, it will flare up again.
A “productive cough” is not one that has been resolved or cured. It is merely a symptom of further illness that allows for proper diagnosis. A “productive race conversation,” similarly, probably will not be one that somehow results in magical “closure.” We may still feel very bad and very raw-throated afterwards. But if we’ve hacked up enough phlegm that we are willing to examine, then we may get enough diagnosis information to eventually get over our illness for the time being.
But we’ve got to look at the spit. No matter how gross it may be.