Paula Deen certainly learned the hard way that you have to be careful when you speak about race. After last week’s revelations that she has “yes, of course” used the N-word and made other racially-insensitive comments, many people are wondering whether Deen is racist and debating whether Food Network should have dropped her television shows. But amidst this controversy, there is a teaching moment not to be missed. Even if you don’t use racial slurs and don’t have a prejudiced bone in your body, speaking about race is not easy. It’s time we did more to improve everyone’s racial literacy.
The concept of racial literacy is often attributed to sociologist France Twine. She studied mixed-face families in the United Kingdom, and observed how parents of half-black children empowered their children to counter racism. She coined “racial literacy” to describe socialization and training that “parents of African-descent children practiced in their efforts to defend their children against racism.”
I interpret racial literacy more broadly. To me, it’s not just about preparing minority children to deal with racism they may face in life. It’s about empowering everyone to more constructively engage with racial issues.