I don’t know how to talk about race.
I wish eloquent words on the state of race in America would flow freely from my fingertips and grace this space with wisdom, knowledge, and insight. Instead, I’ve spent the last four weeks staring at a blank screen, endlessly trying to find the words to explain how I feel about something that so thoroughly complicates the American Experiment.
I’ve never been one to believe in writers’ block. Much of that comes from being raised by a single mom who made her living off freelance writing. If she didn’t write, we didn’t eat. Her theory has always been just sit down and write. If there’s something to be said, the words will come.
In this case, there certainly is something to be said. We’ve seen strife take to streets in Ferguson and we’ve been reminded of L.A., Miami, Oakland or, even worse, Selma. We’re reminded that – whether we believe in its validity or not –race is deemed a major factor in the volatile tension lurking just below the surface of our society. Yet still, I can’t seem to find the right words.
I could use this space to pontificate on how, growing up in a place where the street names change to distinguish between what used to be white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods, I’ve seen the lasting effects of racism and what it does to a city. I could tell you that I’ve learned from history and have worked hard to rise above it. But that wouldn’t be entirely true. There are still sections of my city where I don’t go – where no one I really know goes – and they’re black areas of town. It’s not that I avoid them for that reason, but in all my years of living in Atlanta, few things have taken me there.
I could waste your time by trying to seem humble and carefully explain that, as a white male, I know enough to know that I don’t know anything about race. That any opinions on the matter are best left expressed by others who have more experience facing racism. But that’s not helpful either. While I do want to hear from others, I also have opinions, questions, and comments to contribute.
I could point to articles like the one that appeared last month in New Republic detailing “how the civil rights movement ends” through the nouveau racism of redistricting and voter ID laws. This could lead to a whole discussion on how lawmakers continue to subtly force racism into our society. But articles and discussions like that still don’t paint the whole picture. In every encounter deemed racist, there are at least two parties, each with its own account of the event, and in the 21st century, each likely to claim that their actions were not motivated by race, but rather several other factors that would still lead them to the same result if race were taken out of it.
That’s the real issue and the irony of racism. That it’s complicated. An issue that stems from judging someone by how they look on their surface becomes so thoroughly complicated by a myriad of issues just below the society’s surface. In my experience, rarely do things come down to just race. Rather it’s because of differences in culture, socioeconomics, politics, or any other number of unspoken indicators that determine whether or not we’re comfortable with a person.
For example, I actually don’t think that many people dislike Obama because he’s black. They dislike him because they were bound to hate anyone even remotely liberal during a time when conservatives are fighting to find their voice in a changing political landscape. What we’ll never know though is if Hillary Clinton or John Kerry would have been met with the same vitriol. However, I wonder if attacks from conservative groups would have resonated so well with either of those two. Is it possible that despite not consciously caring if he’s black, many still subconsciously found it easier to dislike him or feel uneasy because he immediately seems different from the majority of the country?
Despite not initially caring about race, despite it not being the main issue in our minds, does it still cloud our judgment even if we don’t admit it to ourselves? Does it cause us to make snap assumptions because it allows us to suppose things we think to be true about all people of one color?
Take Tim Scott, the junior Senator from South Carolina, as the counter point. Scott is a Republican who embodies much of the party’s purported values. He’s a self-made family man who wants to reduce spending and reform taxes. Scott is also black, but the fact that he is hasn’t stopped white Southern conservatives from rallying around him.
Does Scott’s experience show that people don’t care about race, or at least not once they agree with him on enough other issues? Or is Scott the exception in that he has a platform to show who is and that’s allowed others form an opinion not based on his skin color?
There are numerous other scenarios – from prison incarceration rates to babies born out of wedlock – from which we could pull statistics and trends, but this isn’t an issue we can solve with numbers on a page.
The way we solve it is talking to one another. Until we do, we’re forced to walk on a surface with nothing but tension underneath. Eva Patterson, president of the Equal Justice Society, sums it up this way:
“Race is the great taboo in our society. We are afraid to talk about it. White folks fear their unspoken views will be deemed racist. People of color are filled with sorrow and rage at unrighted wrongs. Drowning in silence, we are brothers and sisters drowning each other.”
There are a wide variety of perspectives to be heard on the issue and, as I said, it’s complicated. As a nation, we’re just not good at discussing complicated issues. But, we should still try. Let’s try and hear one another out. Try to be slow to conclusions and give one another the benefit of the doubt. If it means awkward phrasing and long pauses, then so be it. But if race is something that keeps pushing us to violence by trying to ignore it, we owe it to ourselves to start the discussion. Even if we’re not sure how to talk about it, we must at least start asking some good questions and seeking answers.