"It's time we had a conversation about race!" So declared a schoolmate from my high school days during the heated discussions that consumed Facebook after the Zimmerman Verdict. The President of the United States echoed the same sentiment in a speech a few days later. A conversation about race. Sounds simple enough, but what a fraught concept. Such a conversation is as likely to go off the rails in irate recriminations and circular arguments as it is to result in deeper understanding and a chorus of "Kumbaya."
I've been thinking about the idea of such a conversation for much of the past week. Picturing the good friends I've met along the way, black and white gathered in a room to have that conversation. What might be the ground rules for such a dangerous discussion? What guidelines might ensure that we actually gained some mutual understanding? This what I came up with:
1. Thou Shalt Accept that it is Okay to be Angry. For this first rule, I turn to the first precept of Marriage Encounter: Feelings are neither right nor wrong. If it is true in marriage and it is also true in the uneasy union of black and white. In our Conversation we will not judge or reject feelings. If someone is angry let them be angry. If someone is confused or frightened, let that feeling be. We will not tell someone they are "wrong to feel that way" or attempt to comfort someone with the words "Don't feel that way." "But some feelings have no basis in reality, no factual support!" some might protest. But that's not how feelings work, they come unbidden and need no rational basis. They are what they are and they should be respected as part of our common humanity. One might be more educated or more talented another, more knowledgable or more articulate, but nobody does anger or sadness or joy "better" than another. In the realm of feelings, as no where else, we are all the same.
2. Thou Shalt Take a page from the late Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Seek first to understand then to be understood. This means taking the time to truly understand the other person's point of view--not just the fact of what they are saying but what things look like from their perspective. Put yourself in their shoes.
3. Thou Shalt Not Throw Racial Stones (unless you are without sin, and let's face it: none of us are). We will get much further in the Conversation if we avoid calling each other racists and instead focus on the much more difficult job of considering our own racist attitudes.
4.Thou Shalt Assume that almost every person you'll encounter wants to get along. Sure there a few die-hard racists, Klan members and neonazis and such, but most people actually want to see each other as an equal, to feel that we can be not just friends, but brothers and sisters. Assume that about the people you are in conversation with, even if the ideas they express seem hostile.
5. Thou Shalt Recognize History Matters Right Now. The events may have happened 50 or 150 or 500 years in the past but their impact is still being felt today. In the scope of history slavery happened last week, Jim Crow yesterday, and the civil rights movement this morning. You can't expect to have the tragic results of this shameful chapter in our history erased in just a generation or two. Perhaps if we'd gone directly from the Civil War to the civil rights movement and reached the point we were at in 1972 in 1872 instead, we might have a better shot at consigning the legacy of legal slavery and the defacto slavery of segregation to the dust bin of history. Much of the uniquely American issues of race are tied directly to these historical antecedents.
6. Thou Shalt Understand that Most Racism Does Not Come from Conscious Hatred. Instead it is unconscious and unintentional and is often the product of stereotypes and fears that are hard to articulate. That doesn't make that racism any less hurtful.
7.Thou Shalt Remember: Wishing people were color-blind doesn't make it so, pretending racism doesn't exist doesn't make it disappear.
8. Thou Shalt Acknowledge Racism is Universal. But American racism is uniquely ugly beast. I won't say that there's no other racism similar to our brand. I imagine that there might be similar type in South Africa. I remember reading Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner and finding his description of the relationship between the majority Pashtuns and minority Hazara eerily similar to white/black relationships in the U.S. What makes American racism particularly ugly is that it is rooted in the systemic, instutionalized subjugation of one group by another based on skin color. Many of our worst stereotypes, ugliest assumptions, and basest fears about each other have historical roots in systems that are long gone but whose ideologies live on hiding out in the darkest corners of our hearts. They spring out unbidden when racial discord makes the news or we find ourselves at gas station in a rural southern town or on a nightime street corner in a certain part of town. Having lived internationally I can tell you that your "regular racism" is usually based simply on the fact that the person is a foreign "Other", an immigrant or a minority in a dominant culture. This racism stems from ethnocentricism, ignorance, and a lack of understanding of a foreign culture. The man who looks down on the immigrants or minorities in one country may just as soon find himself on the receiving end when he visits the country next door. Not so in America.
9. Thou Shalt Not Invite Everyone to the Conversation. But we need to be extremely cautious in deciding who to leave out. Simply being upset or emotional doesn't disqualify one from participation. Holding views that I am uncomfortable with or that I don't understand doesn't disqualify one from participation. But if you have someone who is so angry that they can't speak rationally at all, if you have that rare person who openly expresses straight up hate, you might want to tell that person the Conversation is being held on Thursday when it's actually being held on Friday.
10. Thou Shalt Remember that what unites us is greater than what divides us. Biologically race doesn't actually exist. We all bleed the same. We all have the same basic physical needs. We all laugh, cry, dream, love, hate, sin, and stand in need of redemption in the exact same way. Simply remembering that as we look at each other across the table during this exceedingly difficult Conversation will make it a lot easier.