If you’re confused about an ongoing avalanche of incidents concerning race and identity, you’re far from alone. So I’ll try my best to sort out some of this. Too often people leading the conversations don’t have their facts right.

Take one of the many brouhahas involving Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam. In an interview with Gayle King for CBS, he asserted that the first known Africans in what would become the United States were indentured servants who, like thousands of Europeans, entered servitude for a defined number of years before being set free to pursue their version of the American dream. To that Ms. King said, “also known as slavery.”


While the governor is being skewered for sanitizing the truth, he was not completely wrong. The status of the 20 or so blacks who arrived in Virginia in 1619 is a matter of scholarly debate. But Ms. King was wrong, too: Indentured servitude and slavery were not the same thing.

Because the governor is caught up in a scandal involving whether he is the white guy in blackface on his page in a medical school yearbook, people are weighing in on what blackface is. They’re often missing a few critical facts. An actor wearing dark makeup to portray a black character is not the same as racists and fools applying shoe polish and red lipstick to mock blacks as a people with exaggerated sub-human features.

You might think that educators can guide us through these shoals, but sometimes they perpetuate the ignorance. Consider the Michigan professor who has lodged a formal complaint against Wayne State University in Detroit. He says that by hosting a summer workshop for black girls that aims to stoke their interest in computer coding, the university discriminates against white boys in violation of federal law.

The professor needs to go back to school — but not the Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, where a bunch of kids in one of Maryland’s best high schools thought it was funny to trade Willy Wonka-type golden passes giving the bearers permission to use the n-word.

Students at a suburban Maryland high school distributed “N-word passes” that were intended to grant students who received the pieces of paper “permission” to use the racial slur.

Lunacy struck the Grammys earlier this month when Jennifer Lopez performed a tribute to Motown. Because she is Latina, the Twittersphere immediately took her to task for appropriating “black” music. Huh? Smokey Robinson, the singer who helped create Motown, reminded myopic critics that the company was founded “to always make quality music that the world can enjoy.” Motown thrived because of its crossover appeal. “You’re trying to set us back a hundred years,” Mr. Robinson said to race purists. “Don’t call yourself loving Motown if you’re a hater and spreading the same bigotry that you so strongly oppose coming at you from others.”

And while we’re talking entertainment, who knows what the truth will turn out to be with the actor Jussie Smollet? He reported being the victim of a racist and homophobic assault in Chicago, but new information suggests Mr. Smollett may have staged the attack. If he did manipulate a gullible public, he’d be in good company. Think of all those white folks who have claimed that black men of their imaginations killed their spouses and their children or committed sexual assault. White people will likely believe white people who say a black man violated a white woman. Black people will likely believe black people who say, as Mr. Smollett did, that a noose was involved in an assault.

Liam Neeson
(Abraham Caro Marin/AP)

Here’s the thing: For us to “get over it,” as so many readers insist I should do, we have to confront “it.” That requires homework and soul work. We have to be honest, which leaves us exposed.

Consider poor Liam Neeson. The actor tried to explain his painstaking evolution from a period when his rage was focused on black men — only to be labeled a racist. That does not encourage honesty, as some commentators have begun to note.

The problem is there are too few safe spaces. People are quick to judge, quick to label, quick to assume the worst. But without open minds, empathy, an affinity for justice and a willingness to let go of old beliefs, we will never get beyond “it.”

So stay tuned as I keep “it” front and center, hoping to turn diatribe into dialogue.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.