An awkward conversation about race

An awkward conversation about race

CultureSeptember 21, 2017 By Reilly Capps

Racism exists on a spectrum. Nobody is zero percent racist.

"Many think that you have to be burning a cross and shouting the n-word left and right for you to be considered racist, and if you're anything better than that, then you're clear and you're free, and that's not necessarily the case," Pete Cataldo told us. "I'm fearful that this millennial generation thinks, like, we're color blind. The only human beings who are colorblind are babies."

Cataldo is a writer and activist in New York City who wrote an essay called "The Danger of Ignoring the Gray: Racism on a Black-White Spectrum." In the essay, he recommends having uncomfortable conversations about race.

We called Cataldo to do just that.

[Pete Cataldo, writer and activist.]

RSTR: Talking about race is terrifying. Especially online. You're always afraid you're going to say the wrong thing. But it seems like we gotta say something, given what's going on in the world. 

CATALDO: It's that terror, that fear, of talking about race, that keeps us from taking that next step. As soon as you drop the word race and racism, people start to tune that out. It's almost as if calling someone the "r" word is almost a racial slur in itself. We have to get to a point where we have to be able to reach each other and talk to each other. That's why I think opportunities like this are so important.

RSTR: If racism is on a spectrum, and there's 100 percent racists and zero percent racists, and most of us are in the middle, what percent racist would you say that you are?

CATALDO: Fifteen percent.

RSTR: Fifteen percent? That's higher than I would have expected.

CATALDO: Maybe it's 10 percent. I'd like to say zero. A lot of people would like to say zero.

RSTR: Alright, let's go awkward. I'll say something I'm prejudiced about, and then you say something that you are prejudiced about.

CATALDO: Ok.

RSTR: I'll start with a positive one. In my experience, Latino families are very cohesive.

CATALDO: I've noticed that myself. I've always admired that sense of family and togetherness. We all see color, and that's ok. To pretend that we have some sort of colorblindedness is just silly.

RSTR: Now you go.

CATALDO: Let's see. Boy. (Pause.) This is hard. I …This is honestly really tough. I'm not sure i'm going to be able to help you here. (Long pause.) Can we come back to it?

RSTR: Tell me why it's hard. Is it because you think you don't have racist ideas, or are you reticent to say them to me because they'll go on the Internet?

CATALDO: All of us have our own prejudices. I'm not saying that I don't. It's more of an in-the-moment thing. I just can't think of one right now.

RSTR: So you'll see, like, a guy from Mongolia dribbling soup down his shirt, and you have a thought, like, oh, Mongolian people are messy eaters.

CATALDO: Yes. But what good does it do to say it?

RSTR: I don't know. Maybe there isn't. Is it just a matter of kindness? Like, I felt pretty much fine telling you I think Latinos have cohesive families because it's a nice thing. But I do have these thoughts that are like, Swedes put their trash out on the wrong day. Trashy Swedes, can't get their trash days straight. But I don't say them. 

CATALDO: There's nothing productive about coming out and saying that. (Pause.) Black folk are pretty loud. I'll own that. We are loud. My wife and I joke all the time, black folks move in the neighborhood, there's gonna be dancing going on.

RSTR: Is the main thing just not to act on the thoughts? You're running a restaurant and you got black people coming in, you stick 'em in the back room with the bad service. That's the problem?

CATALDO: Yeah. It's not like I don't want to live around black people cause they're loud. When you have those thoughts, find out why it is that you think that, find some information to understand better. It's up to us to call ourselves out.

RSTR: Should you stop being friends with a racist just because they're racist?

CATALDO: If you're talking about someone who is David Duke style racist, it's probably best to scratch that person's name off your contact list. But if there's someone who has some prejudices — again, we all have them — it's up to us to talk about that. At least try to change that viewpoint. It's gonna be awkward.

You know what happens when we bottle up our thoughts and stay silent? Trump. After Trump got elected people were like, We're not gonna talk about this at Thanksgiving. No, we need to talk at Thanksgiving. And the day after that, and the day after that. This is how these things get solved.