What is there about race that makes conversation hard? It’s even hard among blacks. I heard a black conservative declare the Trayvon Martin tragedy unimportant. The next day, President Barack Obama held a press conference on race. The president also said politicians can’t lead the conversation.
If the president used the bully pulpit to address race, then Americans cannot be silent. Not one American can forego having a conversation about race with himself or herself, his or her friends and his or her family.
What prevents that? We struggle to discuss race because we ignore Shakespeare’s statement by Polonius in Hamlet:
“This above all. To thine own self be true and it must follow, as the day the night, thou canst not be false to any man.” In translation, “Be honest with yourself or you cannot be honest with anyone.”
What stands in the way of conversation is honesty. America won’t admit its problem. Racism is not black people’s problem. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous – before making any statement – must say aloud: “My name is John Doe. I am an alcoholic.” If America would be great, it must say, “I am America. I have a race problem.” All America, not just any of its racial, regional, cultural or ethnic parts, must do this.
The world is dishonest about racism. In Black in Latin America, Henry Louis Gates Jr. discovered that 11.5 million slaves were forcibly brought to the New World and racism is overtly and covertly practiced in all the former slave-holding countries he visited: Peru, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Cuba. He lamented that each country’s darkest citizens were on the bottom economically and socially. Each country’s national position was that it had no race problem.
Each country was dishonest. America, with its slave-holding past, is dishonest. The veil of post-racial nations has been lifted, revealing racism as a national and international problem.
Racism is not innate. Some years ago, I saw a play area in a mall filled with diverse children (under age 2) playing together and oblivious to color differences. I had an epiphany: Racism is learned.
In July 2011, James Anderson was run over face first with a truck by a white youth in Jackson, Miss. Trial records showed that – in his own words – he and his friends went looking for a black person to injure. Where did he learn to hate? He learned it in his home and community.
A decade earlier, Oprah Winfrey went to Jasper, Texas, following the dragging death of James Byrd, to talk and she found a community unwilling to converse. Byrd had been dragged to pieces on an asphalt highway by two white men. Jackson, Miss., still can’t talk about race 14 years later; neither can Jasper, Texas.
If we don’t talk, there will be more tragedies. There is one somewhere every day. It should not take deaths for us to talk about race.
As for conversation, the president is right. However, until whites stop referring to their “black friends,” there can be no conversation. Friends are not preceded by color adjectives. Until the country admits that there is a swath of Americans uncomfortable with a black president and stop pretending that it’s just the lunatic fringe, we cannot have a conversation.
Martin Buber, the philosopher, talked about “I-Thou versus I-it” relationships; the latter are unequal. Conversation requires equality. I tell students, “You are always teaching” because children are always watching. What are we teaching children when we do not talk about race? Our silence will not prevent racists from teaching. Trayvon’s death has inspired us to think. Are you ready to converse yet?
Dr. Jeffrey Dean Swain is vice-president of the International Black Doctorates Association Inc., an Administrator/instructor of law at Florida Memorial University, author and minister.