Talk About Race? Relax, It’s O.K.

BECCA KNOX AND GEORGE RICE “There’s a more readily accessible conduit into the conversation about race if it begins with Barack Obama,” Mr. Rice said.

THE awkward conversations usually start with something like, “You look like Tiger Woods.”

Or, “Your last name is Rice — are you related to Jerry? Condoleezza?”

In bolder moments, maybe after a few drinks at a cocktail party, a white acquaintance might say to George Rice, 45, who is biracial: “You don’t seem that black. I have no worries with you.”

In what Mr. Rice calls the “everydayness” of race relations, his interactions with whites can be stilted and strained, even when there is no overt racism.

Even Mr. Rice’s wife, Becca Knox, 43, who is white, said that despite being married to a black man for six years, finding a comfortable way to talk about race with people of other races, particularly African-Americans, that is sensitive but not self-conscious, candid but not offensive, is still “a constant, constant struggle and process.”

But over the last few months, both Mr. Rice and Ms. Knox, who live in Washington, have been struck by the slight easing of these examples of what psychologists describe as “interracial anxiety” between blacks and whites. That is because there is a now an omnipresent icebreaker: Barack Obama.

“There’s a more readily accessible conduit into the conversation about race if it begins with Barack Obama,” said Mr. Rice, the executive director of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials — International, a professional law enforcement group. “In my experience over the last few months, it’s easier because it’ll begin with who he is, the differences between his parents, what he had to deal with.”

In his one major speech on race relations during the campaign, during a furor over remarks by his former pastor, Mr. Obama chided anyone so naïve as to think that “we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy.” He warned that race is something in American history and life “that we’ve never really worked through.”

But in the person of a president-elect who is the son of an African father and a white mother, Mr. Obama does seem to have inspired many to take a step on the road to improved relations — namely, conversation.

Cross-racial discussion about the topic of race seems to have become more common, and somewhat less fraught, with the rise of Mr. Obama, according to historians, psychologists, sociologists and other experts on race relations, as well as a number of blacks and whites interviewed around the country.

“All this exposure to this very counterstereotypical African-American has actually changed — at least temporarily — what is on the tip of the tongue,” said E. Ashby Plant, a psychologist at Florida State University and an author of a new study examining the impact of Mr. Obama on the attitudes of whites. “It may have very important implications.”

In Dr. Plant’s study, 400 white college students in Wisconsin and Florida were asked, between Mr. Obama’s nomination and his election, questions like, “What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of African-Americans?”

The unpublished study found that the answers revealed little evidence of antiblack bias, in sharp contrast to many earlier studies (including one by Dr. Plant) showing that roughly 80 percent of whites have some degree of bias.

Polls have captured increasing optimism among Americans about the future of race relations. The day after Mr. Obama was elected, a Gallup poll found that 67 percent of Americans believed a solution to black-white racial problems would eventually be worked out. Gallup said that it had been asking the same question for four decades, and that a poll last summer also reflected substantially more optimism than previously. The polls did not account for the race of respondents. A New York Times/CBS News poll in July showed sharp differences between blacks and whites on a similar topic: Nearly 60 percent of black respondents said race relations were generally bad, while only 34 percent of whites agreed.

Psychologists and sociologists have long drawn a link between the amount of anxiety that occurs in interracial interactions and one’s previous exposure to the other race; a guiding principle of desegregation was that it could help detoxify race relations by making whites more comfortable with blacks in daily life.

Christophe E. Jackson, 28, a black Ph.D. candidate in biology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, who is also pursuing a medical degree, recalled that in the past he had uneasy conversations with white students and colleagues about affirmative action. He believed that many whites thought he had an edge, and were sometimes blunt about saying so. But Mr. Obama’s campaign and election seem to have changed those perceptions.

“Before Obama, there was always this thing — ‘He’s a black doctor,’ ” Mr. Jackson said. “But now I’m going to be a physician who also happens to be black. That’s become the perception now, which is really nice.”

At the same time, some African-Americans said they were skeptical that Mr. Obama’s presidency would meaningfully whittle away at the discomfort between races, or decrease the frequency of their own sometimes painful interactions with whites. Some said the president-elect’s sheer star power, their growing sense that he is viewed by whites as an individual who transcends race — a Michael Jordan or an Oprah Winfrey — would do little to improve race relations.

“I think they will see Obama as the star,” said Gilda Squire, 39, who owns a public relations firm in Manhattan. “That’s already begun, if you ask me. Yes, we’re celebrating the historical event and it’s a major feat, I get it. But in terms of the day-to-day, I don’t know.”

“I remember people saying Michael Jordan’s ‘not really black,’ ” Ms. Squire added. “It’s like Obama supersedes race. And this doesn’t mean that Gilda Squire who lives in New York City isn’t going to have to deal with the issues of racism every day.”

Denene Millner, 40, who is black and moved to a small town outside Atlanta from northern New Jersey three years ago, has been debating her husband, who is also black, about whether an Obama presidency will smooth interracial communication. He thinks so, she does not. She often experiences what psychologists call “strategic colorblindness” on the part of whites, even among her friends, who can be so uncomfortable talking about race that they think the most sensitive approach is to avoid the subject entirely — such as not describing African-Americans as black in conversation.

“I can’t stand it when folks feel like they have to watch what they say around me,” said Ms. Millner, a columnist for Parenting Magazine and a book author. Recently a white friend from New Jersey was visiting; Ms. Millner wanted to have a movie night where she screened her favorite black films. She started a discussion about the difference between bad black movies (“Soul Plane” tops her list) and good ones (“Love & Basketball” is her favorite), but her white friend became flustered and embarrassed.

“She turned 40 shades of red,” said Ms. Millner, who said she later worried that she had been too blunt. “This is a learning experience for both of us.”

Two studies on strategic colorblindness conducted by researchers at Tufts University and the Harvard Business School (the former appeared in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in October, and the latter in Developmental Psychology in September) concluded that whites, including children as young as 10, may attempt to avoid talking about race with blacks, or even acknowledging racial differences, so as not to appear prejudiced.

The studies also found that blacks viewed that tactic as evidence of prejudice.

“There really are still some issues that have to do with the historical legacy of race and racism in this country, and we can’t deal with those in a serious fashion if we have this hypersensitivity whenever race comes up,” said Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, a history professor at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and the author of “Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution.”

Mr. Obama “was so careful not to let his candidacy use those usual messages about race, so he really stands for something different,” Ms. Lasch-Quinn added. “This shakes up the status quo because here we have someone who is willing to talk about race, but doesn’t talk about it in the usual ways. Once we have one person doing that, we now have a model for how other people can do that.”

During his campaign, Mr. Obama almost entirely avoided the topic of race, as did the other candidates, continuing a tacit understanding among national leaders dating from the close of the civil rights era that race is just too explosive an issue for public discussion. The one exception was the speech last March in which Mr. Obama was forced to defend inflammatory statements by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Mr. Obama described the nation as still deeply beset by black anger and white resentment, especially older generations, who might not express themselves freely among co-workers or friends of the opposite race, but give vent when safely among members of their own race.

In the end, Mr. Obama was elected with 43 percent of the white vote and 95 percent of black voters.

The actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, whose work has often focused on race relations, said she was heartened that the historic victory didn’t somehow make it seem like the race problem in America has been solved, and that people of different races are still soul-searching about how to talk to each another. She was encouraged, she said, by the notion that Mr. Obama’s election had appeared to ease some interracial tension, adding: “But I don’t think that’s just the white man’s work. Plenty of people of color still have great anxieties about white people.”

On the morning after the election, Kristin Rothballer, 36, who lives in San Francisco, kissed her female partner goodbye on the train while commuting to work. A black woman who sat down next to her turned and said she was sorry that Proposition 8, the amendment to ban gay marriage in the state, looked like it was going to pass.

“We grabbed hands,” Ms. Rothballer recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, I really want to congratulate you because we have a black president and that’s amazing.’ ”

“Our conversation then almost became about the fact that we were having the conversation,” she said.

Something moved her to apologize to the black woman for slavery.

“For two strangers riding a train to Oakland to have that conversation about race, it wouldn’t have been possible if Obama hadn’t been elected,” she said. “I always felt open with my colleagues, but to say to a stranger on the train, ‘Hey, I’m sorry about slavery,’ that just doesn’t happen.”

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