Talking About Race: Another 50-year look back

Do you remember this photo?  Can you place it in time and space?  (location and era?)
Gold medalist Tommie Smith (center) and bronze medalist John Carlos (right) showing the raised fist on the podium after the 200 m race at the 1968 Summer Olympics; both wear Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. Peter Norman (silver medalist, left) from Australia also wears an OPHR badge in solidarity with Smith and Carlos.  PHOTO CREDIT: John Dominis  CAPTION CREDIT: Wikipedia
This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 Summer Olympics (in Mexico) and the image above that was seared in our minds — October 16 for the detail-conscious among us. Do you remember how you reacted at the time? Embarrassed? Or angry? Or puzzled? If so, this post is for you. I’m glad you’re here. For a sense of the context in which this protest occurred, I recommend this PBS publication from the Zinn Education Project: Teaching a People’s History. NFL players are again “taking a knee” at their games, while the National Anthem is played.
With thanks to the New York Times for the image.
What has your reaction been? Embarrassed? Angry? Puzzled? More power to them? Whatever, this post is for you. I’m glad you’re here.  And, if a good summary of this protest is of interest, here’s one I found from CNN. How about the Black Lives Matter movement?  Do you respond, “But all lives matter!”? If so, this post is for you. I’m glad you’re here. If this movement baffles you, I recommend this op-ed piece from the New York Times, 2017. 
“How many blacks are in your class?” I naively asked my granddaughter during my recent visit last month. I’d just returned from my second day at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland (GIC) where I’d noticed a significant increase in diversity among those of us there to hone our group facilitation skills. Yes, GIC had been working on outreach and the results were very welcome. Diversity was on my mind (as it often is). Hence my rather inelegant question. Confused, she looked to her dad for direction. “Grandma’s from a different generation,” my son responded quietly. I sat for a moment, not sure how to proceed. “How do you talk about race?” I asked. For I believe this will be my country’s next great challenge. What followed was a conversation of sorts, a short digression on the advantages and disadvantages of the term African-American, and a report on the recent diversity seminar my daughter-in-law had attended at her work, all of which led me to this series on race. Specifically, on how we talk about race?

How do we talk about race?

Red and yellow, black and white, They are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world. 

Was this a song from your youth too? I remember thinking at the time, that’s just like hair color. White, black, red, yellow, and all those shades in between, just like skin color! Yet, from my perspective as a 10- to 12-year old in the very early ’60s, people in the news seemed to be making more fuss over skin color than they did over the other differences.

How the scientific community categorizes race has evolved.

  • In the beginning there were three: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. Actually, you go back far enough and in the beginning there was one and she was black. Be sure to shake your cousin’s hand next time you stand behind a black woman at the grocery store.  I digress.
  • By 1962, there were four: Caucasian, Mongoloid (asian), Negroid (black), and Australoid.
  • And, according the US Census Bureau, by 1997 there were five: White, Black, American Indian (or Alaska Native), Asian, and Pacific Islander.  They also state,  “People who identify as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race.”

Still, the question persists, Why do we subdivide our own species?

To collect my thoughts on this series, my first stop (never my last), was Wikipedia’s entry on Race:

First used to refer to speakers of a common language and then to denote national affiliations, by the 17th century the term race began to refer to physical (phenotypical) traits. Modern scholarship regards race as a social construct, that is, a symbolic identity created to establish some cultural meaning. While partially based on physical similarities within groups, race is not an inherent physical or biological quality.[1][2]

Actually Wiki does not go back quite far enough. Let’s revisit the Spanish inquisition. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz said at ‘The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness’ at University of California, Berkeley (11-13 April 1997):

What we are witnessing in late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Spain is the first instance of class leveling based on imagined biological racial differences, indeed the origin of ‘white’ supremacy, which I argue was a necessary ideology to support the rationalization of colonial projects in America and Africa. 

Remember your taxonomy classes?  Me neither. But thanks to Google, I had a quick review.
My thanks to for this image.
Yes, every visual I found ended with Species, which brought me to an article in Psychology Today online, by one of my favorite authors, Eric Maisel (author of my favorite writer’s guide, The Art of the Book Proposal) entitled Should We Divide Homo Sapiens Into Subspecies? that I wanted to share with you. Although Maisel’s words raise important questions, none focus on race. So, I leave you to enjoy his article on your own and get back to my post on Talking About Race. (Really, Maisel offers important food for thought; I’m tempted to steal his ideas and do another blog. Someday.)
With thanks to for this image.
Humans have been organizing themselves into Us and Other for millennia.  Religion is (in)famous for its violence around the globe: The Crusades,The Inquisition, the Thirty Years War, The Salem witch trials, and the conflicts throughout the Middle East come most readily to mind; there are legions more.  Economics too has been an oft-used tool to categorize human beings.

Race didn’t begin to take on its modern meanings until the mid-16th century, and the terms and meanings that we now give to race in the U.S. weren’t concretized until the early 20th century. ANJANA CRUZ, Timeline from Medium Europeans invented the concept of race as we know it

Here’s a Ted Talk on the topic, The problem with race-based medicine, from sociologist Dorothy Roberts that I trust will put this biological notion of “race” to rest once and for all.

So, might the conversation on race that we need to have actually be about “racism”? We’ll look at that when my series “Talking About Race” returns in November.

How about you? How do you talk about race? 

24 Responses

  1. Susan Jacksonb
    | Reply

    That is interesting but more interesting is what your grandaughters group talk about race?

  2. Ally Bean
    | Reply

    I hadn’t thought of that Olympics photo in years. Yet in the context of today’s peaceful NFL “take a knee” protest it resonates. I don’t know that I talk about race much at all. I’m aware that people look different, but it doesn’t exactly register with me in any meaningful way. Or at least I don’t think that it does… Huh. Food for thought.
    Ally Bean recently posted…Fashionable Or Not, Here Are My Answers To The Fashionista QuestionsMy Profile

  3. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    There’s so much to respond to here, I’ll just settle for a personal anecdote.

    This weekend mothers and daughter, aunts and nieces gathered for a mountain reunion. One of my nieces is black; nearly all of her friends are white. She taught us dance moves at the cabin. I can’t mimic her graceful rhythm if I tried! She’ll visit us at the end of this month. I aim to be colorblind where race is concerned.
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Who Put the Butter in Butterfly?My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Marian. Yes, “color blind” was once my position as well. But the more I get into this topic, the more I read and learn and talk with others, the more I recognize that as a rather privileged position to hold. I say more about this in the third installment, coming in December sometime. I look forward to seeing where this topic leads each of us. Thanks for weighing in.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Talking About Race: Another 50-year look backMy Profile

  4. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Hi Janet, I remember that iconic photo from the ’68 Olympics, going well back into my childhood. As a kid, I didn’t know what to make of it. Perhaps it was confusing, maybe even a bit threatening? Now, I believe I can both understand and appreciate what they were trying to do, as I can the current NFL protests. The fact that so many feel threatened by this current peaceful protest is baffling and infuriating to me. While I like to think I’ve long had a decent understanding of our nation’s racist past, recent events have truly brought to light how deeply those sentiments continue to run in our country, and have helped me better understand the privileged position I’ve always enjoyed as a white man. Still, it’s a difficult subject to discuss — perhaps even more so because of my privilege. The best thing to do, I think, is to try talking less and listening more.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Tim

      Thanks for recognizing the difficult aspects of this topic. I think that’s often what keeps us quiet. And as with anything we’re begining, we’re often a bit clumsy at the start. I hope to see more participation as we go. Part II will come in mid November; I think we all need time to chew a bit on these ideas. Me too.

      I’ve been grateful (a bit) that tRump won as its helped me see how pervasive and systemic racism still is in this country.

      Thanks for weighing in.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Talking About Race: Another 50-year look backMy Profile

  5. John Rieber
    | Reply

    Bravo for this. I remember the protests at the Olympics, and they do mirror what we are seeing today. They are also vitally important because we have to talk about this subject. Your post is an excellent step in that direction, although you also point out ALL of the obstacles in the way. I posted this story a while back – a trip I took to Jackson, Mississippi – and what I saw there, including a very sobering story from an older African-American cab driver –

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Important article John. Thanks for the link. I was struck immediately by the similarity of the King John Hotel and my NYU dorm at Fifth Ave and 10th St. that was once a hotel. Must be some connection between these two hotels. I’m glad you stopped by.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Talking About Race: Another 50-year look backMy Profile

  6. Carol Taylor
    | Reply

    Like Marian culturally our family is mixed, English, Iraqui and Thai we all learn cultures and cooking from each other does colour or religion which is just as important a subject go into the pot …No, not unless it is a question about how some aspects vary but never any conflict just curiosity and learning.
    I have seen and heard first hand how my dads sisters husband viewed people of colour which seems to be favoured statement…He was born and bred in Kentucky ( my American family connection) A lovely,quiet gentle man who I loved and still do …His very strong views I didn’t…two distinct sides to him….I think that maybe this is what I am witnessing today as a bystander…I really don’t understand the utter contempt and vehemence… Equally, my concerns centre on females and the treatment of in various cultures which are plain barbaric..a conversation for another time.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Carol. Isn’t that the best way to learn about other cultures and ways of being — by being immersed, daily; seeing beyond the stereotypes. I feel that I was very lucky to have been raised in what was then called a “highly integrated” neighborhood. For one thing, and I imagine you find this too, when I hear the stereotypes from people who haven’t had the same first-hand experience as I did, I can do my part to help undermine those myths. Thanks so much for stopping by.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Talking About Race: Another 50-year look backMy Profile

  7. Janet Morrison
    | Reply

    Interesting topic! I look forward to the rest of this series. It has only been the last several years that I’ve realized the advantages I’ve had in life due to white privilege.

    Our school system here in North Carolina was racially desegregated when I was in junior high. The black students were a small minority in that school and in the high school I attended. Looking back on it, I can’t imagine the stress they must have been under every day. A few years ago while I was writing a local history column for the newspaper, I got acquainted with and had the opportunity to interview several of the older African-Americans in our small town. Two of them were parents of classmates of mine. Those interviews were an eye-opening experience for me and I will never forget some of the stories of discrimination they told me. My amazing takeaway from those interviews was that none of them were bitter.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Janet. One of the points I make in Part III (coming mid December) is that we speak of our own, personal experiences. It’s what we know; it’s our experience. I thank you for doing that here and now. What a privilege to hear these stories first hand.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Talking About Race: Another 50-year look backMy Profile

  8. […] educated woman and I am humbled. I will be writing about this in December as part of our ongoing Talking About Race […]

  9. […] up on last month’s Talking About Race post, we’ll look at two rather different ways to talk about racism: as a problem within an […]

  10. […] In October’s opening for this series, Part I, we looked at the word “race” and the idea that there is no biological basis for making distinctions based on something called race. It is the quintessential social construct, as old as the Spanish Inquisition. […]

  11. Elaine Mansfield
    | Reply

    I went back to read the first of this triad and will read the second and third soon. I remember that photo well. “About time!” was my feeling. And I hope I would be brave enough as an NFL player to take a knee. It’s about time! We have pretend tolerance overlaying a racism that has changed, but not nearly enough. My first 12 years were in Missouri where races were neatly divided in two schools and on opposite sides of the railroad tracks. “Black” schools received used text books when the “white” schools were done with them. My mom was from Ohio. She crossed to color line a little, but not much. This is a courageous and necessary topic. Thank you for tackling it. I think things are finally changing because of brave young people. I hope so.

  12. Terri
    | Reply

    I am enjoying this series on Talking about Race very much. You might like this article about the Smith/Carlos protest. I didn’t realize that the third man (an Australian) supported the protest, too.
    Terri recently posted…How an artist teaches a powerful message about racismMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Terri, and welcome. I’m glad you’re here.

      It was good to hear again John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s thoughts on that day and that decision they made (and I hadn’t known they’d been Peter Norman’s pall bearers; I did know he stood with them). I’ve always been bothered by the way the news media of that day (Time and Newsweek included) built on the term, “black power salute.” It certainly took the focus away from the WHAT that they were protesting. Some things change so slowly we can’t even see.

      Anyway, I’m very glad you’ve joined us. And I look forward to hearing more from you.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Talking About Race: Part III — White to WhiteMy Profile

  13. […] Talking About Race Another 50 Year Look Back […]

  14. Thanks for sharing the nice article and make us remind about what we are before.

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