Apr 292009
Authors: Phoenix MourningStar

Every so often a friend or acquaintance sends me emails or asks me during lunch “Why don’t you write about race?”

A closer friend with whom I’ve had a long history of race-based conversations put it this way: “Aren’t black writers supposed to write about sports, black pride or the white-man keepin’ ’em down?” We bantered back and forth for a while with our usual stereotypes about sports, O.J. and completed the cycle with a “who has it worse: African-Americans or Native-Americans?”

When I got home, I leafed through my sporadic submissions to papers and confirmed what I already knew — I don’t address race in my writing.

The list of reasons, or excuses, could be long.

I think the first two short ones, fear and challenge, are easy to jump on.

Writing is a tough thing to do. Add on the fear of being offensive, excluding others and rocking the boat, and it’s even more so.

The art of talking about any near-controversial topic is a time-developed skill. Discussing sensitive topics in public forums can bring up the history of educational, human rights and health disparities in this country (even when that isn’t the point of the piece), and it requires walking a fine line that can be downright uncomfortable as you try to express your own feelings and ideas, and those of your friends, without completely generalizing an entire segment of the population.

In my view, it’s a balance between the need for racial, ethnic and cultural groups to be recognized and respected as part of a larger society, and individuals who still rightfully demand to be seen as their own person.

I think in some ways, for a person who writes, this balance is a challenge to avoid appointing yourself the spokesperson for an entire race when the point is only to speak one’s own mind — something for which the Rev. Al Sharpton has been praised and criticized.

In the end, I think the point of writing about race comes down to the personality and personal experiences of the writer.

An important component to writing and conversing about these issues is having a background from which to understand the issue. Otherwise, we can’t really know “where they are coming from” in a discussion. Unfortunately, this usually takes time and effort.

While the issues of race, racial identity and social justice are important, I like to tell people who ask me about why I haven’t started writing about it until now a little bit about me.

I grew up working on a family farm in a small township in southwestern Michigan. Ours was one of only a handful of non-white families in the area. I showed hogs and a horse at the country fair every year.

Until junior high, I was the only “colored kid” in nearly all of my classes; the others, Issac Hais and Joe Pena usually got “rationed” into separate classes.

Junior high for me was mostly marked with questions from the black kids such as, “How come you talk so white?” while the white kids would ask, “Why don’t you know how to play basketball?” The only common question-statement across the groups was “I didn’t think black people listened to country music.”

I pretty much grew up in the country part of white-America. A downtown formerly populated with family-owned shops was looted by Super Wal-Mart. The rear lots of community pharmacies long closed are now used for the business of entrepreneurial street pharmacists. The YMCA where I learned to swim sits empty, and the movie theater I took my first date to is dilapidated and crumbling.

The big city burdens of abandoned houses and competing issues of an aging population and growing teen pregnancy rates had been wearing on the town long before the current economic crisis.

In short, my experience on race relations is muddled to say the least. Call it cowardice, identity crisis or survival, yet I am always in wonder of what keeps other people from writing or talking about race.

Phoenix Mourning-Star is an environmental health graduate student. His column appears Thursdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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