Talking About Race Matters: Background information when reading The Kindest Lie

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The Kindest Lie

by Nancy Johnson

The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson X
The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2021, 336 pages

    Feb 2022, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Valerie Morales
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Talking About Race Matters

This article relates to The Kindest Lie

Print Review

Years ago, comedian Chris Rock told a joke: "All my black friends have a bunch of white friends and all my white friends have one black friend." It is one of those bits of humor where the laughter leaves you reflecting on a sadder truth. Particularly, that racial segregation is still normalized in white communities. To have more than one black friend is an anomaly.

As Nancy Johnson shows in her novel The Kindest Lie, interracial friendships are contextually complicated. People of different races talk about race differently. According to Pew Research data, 63% of blacks and 66% of Asians say that race or race relations come up in conversations with family and friends. 50% of whites and 49% of Hispanics say the same. But 27% of blacks say these kinds of conversations come up often, while only 15% of Hispanics, 13% of Asians and 11% of whites say the same.

Of course, it's not just conversations about race that are significant in healing divisions. Developing actual relationships with those whose life experiences differ from yours is an important step in mitigating the social segregation that entrenches us and can be seen in our worldviews. Another Pew Research study found that 71% of blacks thought race relations were generally bad compared to 56% of whites. 78% of blacks believed the country had not gone far enough in equality measures, while only 37% of whites felt that way.

One spring day, my son was participating in a school track event when he was tackled by several members of the campus police. Despite the race number pinned to his T-shirt, they saw him running and thought he was the car thief they were searching for. Racial profiling of this kind is not an experience white Americans have to deal with. It's not a surprise then that 54% of blacks think the police treat minorities harshly compared to 19% of whites. Whites often aren't in the neighborhoods where police mistreatment occurs and are oblivious to the systemic nature of brutality because it simply doesn't happen to them. In this way, whiteness bestows benefits.

Neuroscience supports the empathy divide, or the idea that biases limit human empathy. In one study, Chinese and white participants had their brains imaged as they were shown videos of faces being gently touched by a Q-tip or being stabbed by a syringe. Scientists measured empathetic response through participants' anterior cingulate cortex and inferior frontal cortex, the parts of the brain that are activated when people are in pain themselves. When the participants saw someone who looked like them in pain, the brain activated significantly. But the activation decreased when the pain was inflicted upon a member of another group, someone who didn't look like them. The conclusion? We care more about those who are like us and aren't as inclined to have as much empathy for those who are different. But where does that leave us if we are always clinging to what is familiar? How do we bridge the racial divide?

In an article by Victor Rogers for Georgia Tech, licensed psychologist Tiffiny Hughes-Troutman explains, "A lot of people would like to talk about race, racial inequality, and the impact of racism, but don't know where to start. ... Some worry that others won't understand their points of view or fear that what they say might be offensive to others. Also, individuals may be confused about how to be an ally and supporter and how to make an impact in a positive, meaningful way."

Often, there are multiple layers to racial anxiety. There is the worry about perception, as Hughes-Troutman points out. But there are also the benefits of privilege and the unwillingness to understand. I dated a guy who was afraid of saying the wrong thing. He felt like he was always on pins and needles, anxious about his racial reactions and how they might be viewed (by me). I remember a very long conversation triggered by someone calling him racist because he didn't believe in diversity programs. He wanted to know what I thought. I was honest in my assessment but careful not to be inflammatory, to talk him through the points because I cared about him. But this left me with a nagging sense of discomfort. Why was it my job to make him feel better about his racial biases? He should have taken care of those on his own as a person who cared about other people.

Steve McLaughlin, a dean at Georgia Tech who is featured in Rogers' article, adopted a Guatemalan son and saw up close the experiences of his son in relation to the responses he and his wife received out in the world. It was shocking, and he chose to take action. "I became more attuned to some of the things that African Americans and Latinos experience — everyday microaggressions and racism," he says. "I became more passionate. And, I decided I need to speak up."

Despite the difficulties many people continue to experience in having discussions about race, Hughes-Troutman is hopeful: "This is a time for racial healing, and these conversations are more important than ever. Dialogue, affirmation and connectedness, and a sense of purpose and agency are ways to move us forward."

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Valerie Morales

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Kindest Lie. It originally ran in March 2021 and has been updated for the February 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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