Celeste Headlee on "Speaking of Race": "Don't feel bad, just say something"

Acclaimed author Celeste Headlee deconstructs white guilt, the realities of history, and the myths of race

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 10, 2021 4:00PM (EST)

Illustration of a diverse group of people (Getty Images/Angelina Bambina)
Illustration of a diverse group of people (Getty Images/Angelina Bambina)

"So what do you do at a traffic light?"

When Tomi Lahren blithely informed Trevor Noah on "The Daily Show" five years ago that "I don't see color," he retorted with a question that wasn't just clever, it was true. We do see color. And it's disingenuous at best to say otherwise, because if you don't see color, how can you see racism?

Celeste Headlee wants us to see color. And she wants us to get used to talking about it. As the author of "We Need To Talk: How To Have Better Conversations" and "Do Nothing: How to Break Away From Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving," she's passionate about  helping us forge clearer, deeper, more meaningful relationships with ourselves and with each other.

"I spent many years worry about whether I was allowed to call myself Black," she writes in her newest book, adding, "I've been lectured about color by both Blacks and Whites." As a self-identified "light-skinned Black Jew," Headlee has "thought about bias and race nearly every day" of her life. Yet when she was approached about writing a book on the subject, she was initially reluctant. Fortunately, she changed her mind.

Just in time for those holiday family gatherings, "Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk abut Racism — And How to Do It" is a practical guide to having more honest, empathetic conversations around the table.

Salon talked to Headlee recently about awkward encounters, cognitive dissonance, and why we can't just ignore our racist aunt at Christmas this year.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I'm so glad that you wrote this. Why don't we start by you just telling me why this book, and why now?

My editor from Harper Wave that came to me when George Floyd was murdered and said, "Hey, you're the voice that's missing on this." I said, "Nope." Not doing that. No thank you. I had absolutely no interest into entering this conversation. There's really good research that shows every single time you write about race, especially as a journalist, all the hate that gets directed back at you. There's also a danger that once you begin to write about race, you will not be asked to write or speak about anything else.

It was also just so traumatic. It has been for everybody, but journalists, when you're constantly having to watch those videos and have been since Michael Brown, you just get to the point of saturation. As the months went on and I saw how badly the conversations were going, I'll tell you what I saw. I saw Black people who had reached the point of just throwing up their hands, you know? I saw white people who in the recent years have finally opened their eyes and come to realize the reality of racial discrimination in this country and sincerely want to do something but kept mucking it up, kept saying the wrong thing, kept reaching out in the wrong way. I said, "This actually is something I can help with. This part, I know how to fix."

I wrote back to my editor and I was like, "It would be cowardly of me after the whole history of my ancestors fighting for these issues to sit back and be like, 'Nah, I have this opportunity from a major publisher to write something on this issue but no thanks.'"

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One of the things that makes you so compelling as a writer is that you have been able to move pretty fluidly in a lot of different worlds. You have this identity, this history, this family upbringing, where you don't just tick off one box. What does that change about the conversations I imagine you have gotten to hear because you're not the darkest person in the room?

I have had to hear a lot of things that are upsetting and I take very, very personally. I mean, you're talking about my family and people that I love. Then it makes it one step even worse because when I say, "I'm Black", people either rush to say, "Oh no, I'm not racist" and then try to prove how not racist they are, or they get mad at me, as though I've tricked them into saying something racist by pretending I was white or something.

That's upsetting. At some point, you have to either just constantly get upset by it or you have to figure out a way to make your way through it, because, for me, with as light-skinned as I am, I'm not going to get around it. This issue is going to come up all the time.

In terms of making my way through the world and finding a racial identity . . . I would watch people like Colin Powell, who was about the same skin tone as I am, but everyone calls him Black. In our hyper-racialized world, it's not considered acceptable to acknowledge his non-Black ancestry, and I always wondered to myself if that's what he wanted. It's perfectly okay if that's how he wanted to be identified. But I remember working at radio networks, as soon as leaders and managers found out that I was Black, the only show I hosted on NPR, for example, any more was "Tell Me More." I became the Black host.

I don't think it's intentional. I think that as soon as there's a question in people's mind, this urgency they feel is to categorize me first. That's where that question, "What are you?" comes from. As soon as I say I'm Black, I could say the rest of it going forever and ever and ever, I could give my entire background, but the only thing they will remember is Black. In their minds, that's the category where I belong now.

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Very early on in the book, you use this quote: "Racism is real, race is not." That is hard for people to think about on many levels. It's hard to say, "That's my culture, these are my ancestors, these are my people, this is my identity — which is different from my race." Tell me what that means.

I'll give you an example. The difference between a Black American growing up in rural Mississippi, whose family ancestry is all centered around farmland perhaps, what cultural ties do they have with the kid who grows up in Oakland? We're talking about a super different cultural experience. Possibly very, very different traditions.

What ties them together is that they both have the experience of being Black in America, and being subject to that kind of racism and the white gaze in the United States and the danger of being a Black American just living your life. That creates a cultural touchstone for them.

In terms of their race itself, you can't investigate their DNA and say, "This person is a Black person from the United States and this is a Black person from Africa." It's not possible. Believe me, scientists tried. They tried really, really hard to find a scientific justification for racism. Racism had been invented to justify slavery. "Now we just need to find the science to back it up, to justify our cruelty." Yeah. It's been tried. It's just not there.

I absolutely honor our traditions. Nothing is going to remove the history that those two people share regardless of how different their cultures are, their upbringing, their experience, their traditions. They both have this shared history of being descended from slaves in the United States or from experiencing the racism and hardship of racism in this country. That bonds them together, even though their cultures might be very, very different, even though, they may eat different things over the holidays.

Culture is real. Communities are real. Traditions are real. But race doesn't exist. History is real. We're never going to be able to erase the history of racism. That's part of what ties together a Chinese American with another Chinese American. The race itself? It's a figment of our imagination.

You write about the problem of white liberals and the unique pitfalls and minefields of white liberalism. I think a lot of that has to do with the, frankly, self-centeredness of some white liberalism and the, "I need to prove that I am a good person" of it. But I want to ask you what white liberals get wrong, and what can be done to fix that.

I can't speak for white liberals, having never been one. But what I sense is an honest sincere desire to do the right thing. I think that's what makes the fear of being called racist or making a mistake so intense.

We have to think of this in terms of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is extremely uncomfortable for the human brain. We really hate it and we will immediately and very forcefully work to resolve cognitive dissonance when it occurs. Here you have this white liberal who thinks of themselves as being fair-minded and inclusive and anti-racist, sincerely, and then they say something that a person of color goes, "Wow. That was pretty racist." There's cognitive dissonance. This thing that they said and the reaction to it does not match the image they have of themselves, and it's incredibly uncomfortable.

They can do one of two things. They can say, "Obviously, there's unconscious biases leaking out. I'm so sorry. I'm going to totally work on that." They can do that. That's rarely the response that people have. The other thing they can do is say, "No, no, no. That's not how I meant it. I was just joking. I'm not racist. You're being over-sensitive." That allows them to resolve the cognitive dissonance. They're not racist, they didn't do this racist thing, because it wasn't racist. Ha ha, I'm still a great person.

Sadly, that second reaction doesn't help. It helps you in that moment but it means you're never going to address the unconscious biases that live inside your subconscious, that are there right now, and will leak out.

For the chapter on making mistakes, the first sentence is that there are two types of people in the world, those who have said the wrong thing about race and those who will. I think that especially for white liberals, you have to accept that you will say the wrong thing, you will do the wrong thing, you will make a bone-headed mistake like putting up a black square [on social media] and have Black people react and go, "How does this help us? Thank you for the effort, but how is this helpful?" That makes you feel bad and it makes you feel like, "Oh, I'm not the anti-racist I thought I was." At that moment I want you to take door number one and say, "I need to rethink how I'm going about being an anti-racist person. What are the choices that I make? Are there things that I could do every single day to move the needle even a tiny fraction of a distance toward progress?" The answer is, yes, you can but you have to open yourself up. You have to make yourself vulnerable to your own mistakes.

And then I don't get that rush of dopamine that comes from "I did a virtuous thing." It's, "I have to sit with my own discomfort." That is such a huge part of why there is this intense, emotional, visceral response to critical race theory. It's, "You're going to make my children feel bad about themselves" — which is not what it is at all. But the fear that you might make your child uncomfortable is so powerful. What do we do about that? It's really hard to sell discomfort, Celeste.

Except that if you look throughout all of nature, discomfort is what reaps rewards. I don't want to diminish it down to the oyster and the pearl, but that's what childbirth is, that's what all kinds of the most productive and fertile forces of nature are. They're a result of discomfort and, in some cases, pain. The pain and the effort is what makes it valuable.

Comfort is not an exciting state. Comfort is the enemy of innovation and growth. If what you're looking for is comfort, that's a pretty awful, namby-pamby life. The discomfort, which is going to be temporary, is worth it because of what you get at the end.

This whole thing of striding towards comfort, I get it. I too after a long day want to put on my sweats, put my feet up, and watch Netflix. But that's what we've been doing for generations. We need to be honest with ourselves and say all of these things we've been trying for generations are clearly not working, and it's not just in race. The World Economic Forum says that if we continue at our current rate of progress, we will not reach gender equity for almost one hundred years. I won't see it, you won't see it, our children won't see it. Are we comfortable with that?

What is it you've made yourself comfortable with? Are you sure you want your self and your children to be comfortable with what's actually happening in the world right now? Do you have no optimism that it can't get better? Don't you have hope that you can make this better?

This hope and optimism is why we want to have these conversations around tables or even via Zoom, not just this holiday season but going forward. But it feels so hard, people think, "I don't even know how to start."

I keep getting this question as we head into the holiday seasons of, "I'm sorry, I get what you're saying but I have this racist aunt and I don't want to have anything to do with her. I don't even want to let her speak. It's not okay. On principle, it's not okay to even let her say those things."

I'm like, "Except she is saying those things. Maybe not in your presence but when she leaves that holiday dinner, she's going out into the world and inflicting those views and that hatred onto the people of color all in the world." That's number one. You are not preventing her from causing harm to others.

The other thing is, if all you have is five minutes, five minutes on Christmas or whatever holiday you celebrate, if that's all the tolerance you have, then put in the five minutes. Change doesn't happen immediately. It happens over time, five minutes each time you see this racist aunt, five minutes up until you say, "You know what? I'm starting to get worked up. Let's change the subject." Eventually, if there's any hope of her changing, it will be because of that constant drip of water, which will eventually erode the stone. Isn't it worth it to put in that five or then minutes every now and again if there's a chance that you might make a difference? That that's the one data point.

It's like when you talk about white guilt, I don't see it as white guilt at all. I see it as this incredible opportunity for white people, because statistics show that you're the most convincing on these issues. If people of color could fix racism, it would be fixed at this point. We can't. But the people who can fix it are white people, especially white men. Studies going back decades show that the most persuasive, the most perceived as credible on these issues, are white people and white men especially. That means you have power, maybe more power than you realize to really make a difference.

I was in the park a couple of months ago, with some of my friends and neighbors. I don't remember how it came up but one of the women there said, "I don't even see color." I waited a moment and I looked around, and nobody said anything.

Later on one of my friends says, "I felt so bad. I should have been the one speaking up." Next time, don't feel bad. Just say something, because you I have more leverage than I do. You're more believable than I am. I need you to be the one that says something instead of always me, instead of always your friend who is a person of color. Don't let the silence ring and then look at the one Black person in the room. Reach out towards the person of color and say, "If you don't mind, let me say something" and then say, "Hey, that may sound like an anti-racist thing to say. I even used to believe that was a good thing to say but here's what I found out, that's actually super wrong," or however you're going to phrase that.

White people, I really, really hope that we can disrupt this idea that conversations about race are designed to make whites feel bad. They should make you feel great because you have the power to change it.

If there's one phrase I hope people take from, this book, it's, "Don't rush." I love that you say that. Don't rush. We didn't get in this pickle overnight.

It's literally been centuries. This is one thing I want people to think about. I want people to ask themselves when was the last time I had a disagreement with someone and at some point in that conversation, the other person said, "I'm completely wrong. You've absolutely convinced me. I am wrong. You are right. Thank you." This never happens. Yet we keep going into conversations expecting that to happen. We enter these conversations expecting that. That's our goal, and yet it's never happened.

In the history of conversation.

Think about this for a second. Why do we keep approaching these conversations as though that's possible? Maybe we should try something else instead.

You talk in the book about patience. It feels so much right now like you are supposed to have a reaction and you have to have it right away. But being reactive is not productive. You talk about approaching people with an assumption of good, an assumption of respect.

The first thing is, don't have these conversations at all on social media. Period. This is one of the reasons I spend a good amount of time in the first portion of the book putting people through some mental exercises to acknowledge mistakes they've made, and to acknowledge the discomfort they feel when they're surrounded by people of a different race.

If you're going to study woodworking, the best person to take those classes from is someone who has been woodworking for a really long time, because they have made every mistake possible and they're going to be more patient with your own. They'll most likely be like, "Yeah. I used to do that too. Here's how I fixed it for myself."

This is why I want us all to get in this mindset of, "Yes, I've been there," and honest rather than defensive thinking that racism is some kind of inoculation you can take against and then I'm done.

We can approach this from a sense of, "Let me help you. This is hard. It's not a catastrophe. I want to help," instead of, "You're wrong and I'm going to prove how great I am by showing just how wrong you are in comparison," which never works, by the way. That's not always going to be the case. Sometimes you're dealing with a bad actor, but that's really rare. That's much more rare than people think.

We think that's common because we're on social media all the time and when we're on social media, we're basically central casting of the woke liberal and the racist conservative. We just slip right into those personas. Don't have the conversation on social media. Be a human being, and have the conversation offline.

More stories on how to have better conversations on tough topics: 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Celeste Headlee Critical Race Theory George Floyd Interview Racism Speaking Of Race