Why We Talk About Race

 

Mornings have never been my specialty. I didn’t get whatever gene that is—the one that lets you roll out of bed in the morning all fresh and excited about life. I’m already on my second cup of coffee, and my brain still hasn’t reached the point where it functions properly.

I pull into my friend’s driveway, push the lever into park, and slide out of the car with about as much grace as a baby giraffe discovering what it’s legs are meant for. I’m going to have to pretend to be more awake than I am, which will take a considerable amount of effort. I gulp down more coffee, questioning why I agreed to make plans this early.

The answer is Char. She’s one of the most convincing people I know. Her energy sucks you in and before you know it, you’re somewhere doing something you never thought you’d be doing and you’re loving every single minute of it. Today we are taking a spontaneous road trip to the mountains, and despite my sleepy-self, I’m excited.

I let myself in and find Char bustling around the house grabbing a few last minute essentials. Words fill up the background space—a voice is coming through her phone speakers, sounding tight and flat, like when you try to push something through a tiny space and it comes out all slow and squished on the other side. It’s a podcast, and I manage to catch a few words, causing the wheels in my groggy morning brain to churn a little bit. Race. Black. Stereotype.

I try to align my thoughts so I can focus on the words, but at that moment our friend Shannon walks through the door and I’m distracted. Shannon’s a few stages ahead of me in this whole awake process. She greets both of us with a hug and a wide smile.

By this time Char’s ready to go, the podcast is turned off, and the three of us hop into the car and hit the road. I’ve got the back seat to myself and you’d think I’d be tempted to stretch out and catch a quick nap except my brain is awake now, tumbling over those words. I want to talk about it, I even open my mouth to say something, but I hesitate.

Char and I have been friends for awhile, and we’re pretty comfortable with each other. We appreciate the other’s quirks and personality, but we don’t often talk about the fact that I’m white and she’s black. It’s not that we couldn’t, I just don’t want to be rude.

But I want to talk about it. Culturally our country is tense to bursting when it comes to race issues, and not only am I concerned, but I have questions. And they’re not questions a newscaster or a politician could answer. They’re personal questions about a race different than my own. Like—“how does this symbol make you feel, and why does it make you feel that way?” Char can answer those questions.

I decide to bite the bullet and just ask.  I go for the nonchalant approach.

“Hey Char, what were you listening to when I walked in this morning?”

Pause.

“It was a podcast about the Baltimore riots. But actually, I almost turned it off when y’all came in.”

There’s no hesitation now.

“Why would you do that?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t know if that was something we could talk about.”

This statement sits heavy on me. Deep inside my chest it feels wrong. This isn’t something you sweep under the rug. This is something we should be talking about.

Well…” I hesitate a bit. It’s a little awkward. “Can we talk about it?

I think that’s all Char needed. An opportunity. Because as soon as I ask she’s gone. Her voice moves up and down with passion, and I’m swept away by the beauty of her cadence, almost too swept away to listen. I quickly check back in.

Are we bringing some of this stereotype upon ourselves? Yes. But this is post Civil Rights movement racism. It’s undercover—uncover racism. It’s not overt. It’s a slow moving thing, but it’s still there.”

I think in this post Civil Rights race era we—as a nation and as individuals—are afraid. We’re afraid of being labeled racist. We’re afraid of being inflammatory and taking things too far. As a white female, I am hesitant to engage my black female friend in a conversation concerning race because I don’t want to be offensive. But if we don’t talk about it, if we ignore and don’t engage, than we’re missing a sizable part of who we are as people and who we are as a nation. I think this is part of our problem.

Char is black. It’s a piece of her identity—a big piece—and it helps construct the beautiful complexity of who she is. But Char is also a myriad of other wonderful things. And just as I appreciate her spontaneity, I want to appreciate this part of her as well.

 

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