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Annette John-Hall: Professor finds it hard to keep silent on race

I just got off the phone with my pal John Jackson, feeling a little guilty for aiding and abetting him in blowing his race diet.

I just got off the phone with my pal John Jackson, feeling a little guilty for aiding and abetting him in blowing his race diet.

Not that he ever wanted to make a lifestyle change. Jackson reminded me that it had been two months since he broke his self-imposed race fast, in which he tried not to talk about race, read about race, or think about race.

An exercise that must have required supreme discipline, given that Jackson is an African American professor of anthropology at Penn who makes his bread and butter talking and writing about racial and cultural identity.

Yet for 40 days, Jackson tried not to speak or see race anywhere, not even in himself.

He tried to be what everybody thinks we ought to be, in this curious age of Obama.

You know. Post-racial.

At first, he'd forget his resolution, but his class would remind him. At faculty dinners, he'd walk out of the room when the subject came up. He'd shush his wife when she wanted to talk about it. And in class the topic couldn't be entirely avoided, but he tried to "close down the zealousness" of his students.

But race was everywhere. "We reproduce it every day," he said. Glenn Beck. The Louisiana judge who wouldn't marry an interracial couple. Discrimination at McFadden's.

I'm here to report he got through his diet having shed a few pounds of intellectual weight. Which, for any thinking person, is not necessarily a good thing.

So when I offered Jackson up a racial smorgasbord of topics, he happily indulged.

He was starving.

Because as he quickly discovered, a steady diet of racial deprivation can never satisfy.

Race sabbatical

In August, Jackson, 39, announced on his group blog, Brainstorm, which appears on the Chronicle of Higher Education's website, that he would be taking a sabbatical from race.

Within this summer's echo chamber full of tea-party rhetoric, birther lies, mosque protests and Dr. Laura invective, Jackson had had it up to here with all the racial - and racist - talk.

But what really got him were the venomous comments he'd get, always under the protective shield of anonymity, from folks online who'd invariably call him racist just for writing about race.

(And I thought I was the only one.)

"People are sensitive to the very invocation of race," Jackson says. Any time you bring it up, they say, 'Why is it always about race? Why can't it be about something else?' "

"We're living in this topsy-turvy universe where the folks who demand we not talk about it are the ones who are thinking about it the most," Jackson adds. "The 'color-blind' folks are more obsessed with policing discussions about it than having a civil discussion."

So Jackson - did I mention he's also the author of Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness? - tried to comply.

But his critics want him to be color-blind on their terms.

Which means de-colorizing history and glorifying some aspects of it (the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, states' rights) while dismissing what was significant to his own history (slavery and Jim Crow, along with ongoing institutional discrimination).

He said, "They talk color-blind rhetoric, but they only talk about the history that allows them to sleep better at night.

"Being color-blind is not seeing better," Jackson says. "People want to pretend we can be in a present without a past."

Good and bad

After a couple of months' reflection, Jackson believes that complete "de-racialization" isn't reasonable:

"What it made me realize is that there's so much concern about not seeing race and not talking about it that at the end of the day, it almost felt dysfunctional to me."

As Americans, the professor says, "we don't have to see race in every corner, but we shouldn't be afraid to see it. We should see it as a multilayered, multicultured landscape."

What we need to do "is think of inclusive ways that we're alike, not play this zero-sum game where we view each other as some kind of threat."