As media coverage of Mitt Romney's remarks about women and people of color getting "gifts" to vote Obama washed over media, I had one thought:
I wish he had read my new book.
Selfish as it seems, that thought came because my book, Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, describes how prejudice and stereotyping has been deployed by media outlets, pundits and politicos to galvanize audiences.
And Romney's statements about gifts echoed a classic stereotype: defining the same political choices made by different people in different ways, depending on which candidate they supported and who the people were.
I'm sure lots of wealthy people and small business owners voted from Romney because he might help them get more "stuff" amid promises to provide better government without raising their taxes and assurances he would create a business climate where their companies could grow.
But somehow that choice was seen as more moral than Hispanics who preferred Obama's immigration stances or women who preferred the Democrats' position on reproductive rights. And Romney wasn't alone; despite repudiation from politicians such as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Romney was backed by Fox News Channel pundit Bill O'Reilly -- the same guy who called me a race-baiter four years ago, inspiring the book's title.
Still, I thank Gov. Romney for one thing: He has proven how badly America need to have this conversation about prejudice and stereotyping.
When I first started writing about the myriad ways race, society and media intersect, my fondest hope was that I might get other people talking about these issues in ways that would change a few minds and open a few hearts.
And a couple of weeks into the release of my first book, Race-Baiter, I can't believe how many people out there seem to want to have the same discussion, fueled by an earnest desire to grapple with issues which have roiled the public space for many years.
More folks than ever yearn for a safe space to talk about cultural and race difference in a way which brings new understanding and allows them to express themselves. And I feel privileged to help enable that conversation in any way I can.
The book offers a few tips on how to enable these conversations which seems worth sharing here. As we try to understand better the coalition of voters who re-elected the president, it's important to develop tools for talking across all sorts of social differences which can help us understand each other and solve the nation's biggest problems.
My tips for a healthy discussion, based on my experiences so far:
1) Remember no one owns these subjects. People of color may have more experience with experiencing oppression, stereotypes and prejudice, but unless you've spent a lot of time thinking about these issues and doing some research, you likely don't know much more than anyone else. Motive counts for a lot here. if you're focused on winning an argument or proving a point, you'll make a lot less progress.
2) Falling prey to prejudice doesn't make you a racist. Much as most of us hate open racism, we must recognize that prejudices are seductive. They help explain a complex and often frightening world. So believing prejudice doesn't make you a racist or bad person necessarily. Often, it just makes you human.
3) Talking about race and prejudice doesn't make you a racist. It's easy to try shutting down these debates by accusing people of "hypersensitivity." And its also true that people can be wrong about perceptions of prejudice; one of the most confusing issues here is that, because so much of modern stereotyping is subtle, it's possible to make mistakes in identifying it. But trying to talk about these issues earnestly is important; calling someone a race-baiter or race hustler for an honest effort to talk about prejudice is mostly about denial and stopping an uncomfortable conversation.
4) This work is never done. The hope fostered in all the talk about a post-racial society after President Obama's first election was a fervent hope: Maybe we can be done with this now. Some people yearn for a moment when we can finally say we've solved the problems with race in modern society. But we now know, after a pitched, four-year partisan battle in Washington too often marred by questionable assertions about a black president with a self-described "funny-sounding name," that our issues simply grown more complex as we grow more diverse. And the struggle is constant to keep old prejudices and stereotypes from seeping into our modern discourse.