Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Embracing Race Consciousness

BOND: Let me ask you some questions about race. How does race consciousness affect your work? Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race or society or both? Is there a distinction and is there such a thing as a race-transcending leader?

IFILL: To the last question, no. There is not such a thing as a race-transcending leader. And if I’ve learned anything in the last year or two when I was working on this book I wrote, it’s that there’s no reason for there to be a race-transcendence. The question I — I get this question a lot from audiences — “Why do you even mention that the president is African American?” they want to know. They don’t understand why it matters. “Didn’t we just get past that?” And my answer is always this — “Why does it bother you to talk about race unless you consider race to be a negative?” If you consider race to be a positive, as I do, a wonderful characteristic which makes you who you are, which gives you a set of cultural norms and backgrounds, which doesn’t make you — it’s not a threat. It’s not taking anything away from anybody else. It’s just part of what shapes me. Why wouldn’t we talk about it? Why wouldn’t we talk about gender? Why wouldn’t we talk about anything else?

And, to me, it’s an enhancing. It would be enhancing if we as a nation and as a world, I guess, could talk about race in a way that wasn’t about blame and redress and argument and guilt. That’s what people are scared of when you bring up race. They’re afraid you’re going to accuse them of something, whether you’re black and you’re being accused of being insufficiently black or whether you’re white and you’re being accused of being racist, whether you’re Latino, whatever it is, race is a factor and we should just embrace it as a factor, not everything of what we are.

BOND: Do you think that sometimes they believe that the mentioning it at all is a threat?


BOND: Not that you’re going to threaten them later? First, put it on the table, then I’m going to accuse you of something, but just the fact that I mentioned it. Why is that?

IFILL: There was a very funny headline in a blog right after the president spoke up about Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s arrest and said it was a stupid effort by the Cambridge Police and everybody got worked up that the President had said this. And the headline the next day was, “Breaking News: The President’s A Black Guy.” And that got to the heart of whatever everybody’s discomfort was, which is he was speaking as an African American, but the deal that we thought we’d cut with him was that he was going to be nothing. He was going to be other. He never said that. Nobody else ever said that. And there’s no reason why he should be that. This is part of what his experience was and he was speaking to that, but once he betrayed that race consciousness, a lot of people were made nervous by that. Some of my best white friends, some of my best friends are white, as they say, and they were made nervous by that and I don’t know why we should. I have to live inside this skin and inside the circumstances that my skin color creates for me in this nation, and it doesn’t necessarily — I don’t consider it all to be a bad thing. In fact, I consider it to be pretty darn good.

BOND: Right.