Naomi Tutu, human rights activist and daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, visited campus on Thursday, Feb. 21 as part of the IPFW Omnibus Lecture Series.
The title of Tutu’s lecture, “Hard Conversations: Talking about Race and Racism” did not lie. Right away, Tutu told the audience about a group of people that sits near the top of the list of things that frighten her the most, and it’s a group that many people might fall into: those who say that they don’t notice race and all they see are people.
“It is not about pretending that race does not exist. It is not about pretending that we don’t notice the differences in our communities. It is not about trying to say to ourselves and to others that there is nothing different about us,” said Tutu.
Race is something that is impossible not to see, said Tutu, but fear about bringing up the issue of difference can lead someone to pretend to be blind to it.
“And if it is not fear about the conversation, then it is in fact racism that underlies that very statement. Because if you were willing to accept me for who I am, for all of who I am, for all of what I bring, then there isn’t a part of me that you would have to ignore or reject….” she said.
Asking why we can’t all be like children, because children don’t notice difference, is another statement Tutu said avoids the issues at hand.
“The reality is … children notice difference. And they query difference. But for them difference is an opportunity to learn something new about the world. It is an opportunity to expand their horizon. It is an opportunity to revel in the differences they see,” Tutu said.
Being like a child, however, isn’t a bad way to start, she said. She recommends people start by asking questions they have been told they should not ask.
A willingness to admit one’s own prejudices is also a vital step to have those hard conversations. At the very top of her Tutu’s “scary list” surpassing those who say they don’t see race, are people who say they don’t have prejudices.
“I promise you, you cannot have lived in our society, you cannot have heard the messages about others and not have a prejudice bone. It might be just one, but I promise you, it’s there,” said Tutu.
“To be in conversation, we have to start at least from that place of recognizing that, yes, I do have a prejudiced bone in my body,” she added.
Those may be hard facts to accept, and it may be even more difficult for those who have said Tutu’s top two scary statements. And conversations about race, as she said, are “dangerous” because society has made race an “all-defining issue.”
“In these conversations we have to be prepared to deal with the hurt, the anger, the tiredness, with the guilt. We have to be prepared to have ourselves challenged,” she said.
However, in the end, Tutu said having these conversations starts the healing process, helps people learn about themselves and is the first step to ending racism.
“That is why I ask you to have the courage to be part of these most difficult conversations, because these most difficult conversations are for us the most glorious opportunity.”