Back in the mid-90s, I took part in a unique and interesting project – a “conversation on race.” Some readers may recall that then-President Clinton had urged a “national conversation on race.” A national conversation was a bit beyond me, but a local art gallery decided to sponsor an actual, in-person conversation between blacks and whites that was open to all who wanted to take part.
Now, the first session featured perhaps as many as 100 people and consisted mostly of black people screaming at whites. That didn’t appeal to many people and a lot of them left. Eventually, in the coming weeks, our sessions devolved into 8-10 people, about 6 blacks and four whites. We ended up meeting at a restaurant with a private area for us one Saturday afternoon per month for about six or seven months. Each session lasted between 2 and four hours.
Now, this was called a “conversation,” but it was more like a monologue. The stream of verbiage was very much one-way; the blacks spoke, the whites listened. If the blacks ever asked us for our thoughts or opinions, I don’t recall it. Did they assume we had nothing to say? Did we? Still, it was an education.
Out of all those hours of words, just a few concepts stand out. One young black man, an artist I’ll call Allen, who was mostly quiet, said this: “Race is like a gas in a room.” He said it gently, but his words vibrated with power and passion, so much so that his eyes teared briefly. No one there could have mistaken the importance of race for him.
For me, those few words crystalized, gave coherence to all I had heard those weeks. For the blacks in that room, who spoke as if they believed that their understanding of race could reliably be ascribed to most black Americans, race is the single all-important issue, the fact of life that comes before all others. Like a gas in a room, race seeps into all corners of life; you can’t escape it; it pervades, and poisons, everything.
Also, blacks make up a small minority of Americans and, for the most part, they’re easily identified. You can’t pass on the street someone with, say, a German heritage and know that his ancestors were German. They could be Swedish, Danish, Flemish, Dutch, etc. But you can look at a black person and know they have African forebears. Blacks visually stand out, in a mostly white society, as blacks. That’s one reason that, long after the end of de jure segregation, they tend to live with other blacks. They can avail themselves of the comforting anonymity of the crowd. For decades, those who could “pass” did.
More importantly, black Americans are acutely aware of the black past here and live it, wear it on their skin. Sometime in the past, their ancestors were slaves and more recently, they were treated like dirt by white individuals, white society and white law. Their grandparents learned the hard way to view white people as dangerous to their welfare, to their very lives. White men could beat or kill them with what could be called impunity. White women could cry “rape!” and a mob would come running, and woe betide the black male toward whom the woman’s finger pointed.
All of that and more was true. And for the reason that every parent tries to protect and educate their children, black parents had “the talk” with their kids. The talk was about how to get along with white people in a predominantly white society, to understand the power that whites could wield – the power of freedom or incarceration, the power of life and death. As soon as they’d been old enough to understand, each of the blacks in the conversation had listened to that talk from their parents. Emmett Till heard it from his mother before he left Chicago for Mississippi in 1955. He failed to heed her caution and paid the price.
When an issue has the power of life and death over you, when it’s something you cannot escape, but must grapple with as best you can day to day in a world that sees you and sees you as an alien, then that issue takes on an importance like no other and is not easily set aside. Such, in too few words, was the picture of blacks’ experience of the United States, painted for me in the “conversation.”
But when Allen said “Race is like a gas in a room,” my immediate, unspoken response was “No, it isn’t.” For me, a white person, a member of the majority in the United States, race rarely entered my mind from one month to the next. Oh, I followed the news and was well enough versed in the issues of the day, one of which was race.
I was a liberal and had done the things liberals did back then. I had read books like “Black Like Me.” I admired the works of James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and others. During the 60s, I had been a part of the “counterculture” that paid attention to the likes of Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis and the “Black Power” movement. I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X and followed the life and words of Martin Luther King and mourned and was enraged by his assassination.
My attention to the issues surrounding race and my interest in what black people had to say about it was part of me, but in the end, it was about other people, not me. As powerful, as clear as much of that writing and speaking was, as much as I am a human being, fully capable of empathy for my fellow person, as much as I am indignant about injustice, race still had for me the sense of an abstraction. It was never my lived reality. When I walked down the street, people didn’t give me sidelong, distrusting glances. When I entered a convenience store, the clerk didn’t wonder if I was there to rob him, or, if he did, the fact never occurred to me.
And that, I believe, describes much of the racial divide in this country. Painting with a very broad brush, I can put it into a few words: (a) the issue of race is very important to black people, perhaps all-important, (b) white people don’t fully understand the importance of race to blacks and (c) black people don’t fully understand that (or why) whites don’t understand. Even as we live, work and worship together, even as so many of the barriers to black achievement have been swept aside, even as white attitudes have undergone vast changes, what many, many black people take for granted – that race rules their daily lives – is terra incognita for whites. Blacks often assume whites understand - to them it’s so obvious - but we don’t, because we’ve never lived their lives, never had “the talk” with our parents. And they’ve never lived ours, never been the majority, never blended in with the crowd.
And so we talk past each other, neither race knowing the others’ lives or assumptions about what is or isn’t. That may explain some of the skin-deep superficiality of much of today’s discourse on race. But not all. Far, far from all.