I have been studying U.S. race relations for the past 18 years — first, as a graduate student of ethnic studies, and then as a college professor of sociology. In that time, I’ve learned one very important lesson: no one is an expert on race relations. Anyone who claims they are has lost sight of the most important part of race relations — relations.
We only understand what race means, not just in the U.S. but anywhere, in relation to other people, especially other people different from ourselves. And just as our relationships with other people are constantly evolving, so is our understanding of race.
Race does not mean just one thing, for all people, at all times, and in all places. Its meaning changes according to context — historical, geographic, and social — including how two or more people define themselves and each other while interacting.
I myself refer to my own racial identity in many different ways, depending on context — sometimes Indian American, sometimes South Asian American, sometimes Asian American, and sometimes Woman of Color. I base my racial identity on who else is with me, in a given context, and which identity I think will have the most meaning to them.
But lots of times, I get it wrong. I am never quite sure what answer someone is seeking, when they ask about my race or ethnicity. What answer will have the most meaning to them? I quickly find out, though, in relationship with them — however brief or practical that relationship may be. And this is why I say that we can only understand what race means in our relations(hips) with other people. There is no White without Black, after all, and no Black without White.
This is also why I have learned that no one is an expert on race relations, because, as we all know, relationships change. As soon as we think we know who we are in relation to someone else, dynamics shift, new expectations arise, and old rules no longer apply. And this happens not just between individuals, but also groups. We may think we understand someone or many someones, only to find out, in relationship with them, that we never really understood them at all.
So, starting at the end of May 2020 — with the George Floyd protests — when White friends and acquaintances both in the Santa Maria Valley and across the nation have asked me what they can do to improve race relations in the U.S., I first tell them that I am no expert and there is no right answer. Then, I tell them to start intentionally seeking relationships with People of Color, on our terms. Join a community organization like the Santa Maria-Lompoc Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), or attend an event hosted by Corazón del Pueblo Cultural and Creative Arts Center of Santa Maria Valley. Make yourself the minority and learn about race relations in relationship to those with experiences different from your own.
Recently, a colleague at my university referred to me as a practitioner of race relations. I really like that and have decided to refer to myself in the same way. I am continually practicing to improve my relationships, especially with those of a different race than myself. It’s not practicing to make perfect, but practicing to be better — to do better — and to create a better world for all of us. I hope you will join me in practicing to improve race relations in our community, and beyond.
Lata Murti is an Associate Professor of Sociology for Brandman University and a member of the Santa Maria-Lompoc Branch of the NAACP.
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