Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Race Conversation

I was watching a rerun episode of Seinfeld the other night when a lot of things came into focus for me. I saw my own prejudice, and of many others, come clearly into view. I saw perfectly the issues of race and conversation and how they have so far failed to come together.

But first, some context. Since Barack Obama appeared as a legitimate candidate for president there has been a mixture of excitement and dread among the "normal" thinking people in our country. We are excited about the fact that finally an African-American can run for, and become, President of the greatest nation in the world. There is dread because we know that there are dangers. Many, many people would love to see harm come to our president, some only because of his race.

Attorney General Eric Holder got into the fray a couple of weeks ago when he asserted that USA is a 'nation of cowards' because we have not had a good, positive and productive conversation about race. His assertion was that we are afraid to deal with hard issues and especially one that is so personal to so many.

Holder's comments set off a firestorm of controversy. Talking heads and pundits on the right and the left jumped into the fray. There were opinions spouted every which direction. I believe that most of the response was from embarrassment. People are embarrassed that Holder is right. We have not had these conversations. We are cowards. We are afraid of the truth.

The kernel of this problem, however, is not that we are afraid to deal with racism, but that we are so polite that we do not want to offend others. We want to be sure that what we say is not a problem to someone else. I take great pains to make sure that others do not think that I am a racist. Consequently, I never express my feelings. I do not get to give voice to my fears, anxieties and insecurities. Ultimately, my problems, as well as the problems of many others, are buried and never heard. 

We are a nation of cowards. I am a coward.

And so... Elaine and her boyfriend are sitting in a booth at Monk's Diner, the coffee shop. Elaine is excited because she believes that she is dating an African-American man. This makes her forward-thinking, cool and hip. However, she is not sure that he is African-American. The waitress comes to the table and congratulates the couple for their progressive thinking. It must be hard to be an interracial couple, she says.

That's when the truth comes out. Elaine gets excited because finally she has an excuse to pursue the ethnic heritage of her boyfriend, who, it turns out, is not black. However, he is relieved that he can finally talk about Elaine's 'Spanish' heritage. You see, he believes that he is dating an Hispanic woman. Of course, it turns out that they are both just ordinary, boring white people. 

At the end of this awkward scene Elaine says something that makes up in relevance what it lacks in profundity: "I don't think we should talk about this."

And that's where we are in America. When we are almost to the place where we can make progress on race relations, when we are about to have the conversation we get uncomfortable and change the subject.

It is time that we discussed 'the race card' and all it's implications... for everyone.

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