Race: An Unwelcome Guest in the Room

In his thoughtful article, “Can My Children Be Friends with White People?” in the New York Times recently, Ekow N. Yankah, with Yeshiva Law School, wrote poignantly of his heartbreak and loss of trust in this fractured political climate. I, too, am concerned that we tell our children – and grandchildren – that the world is broken beyond repair and then say we expect them to fix everything when they take over one day, but with no roadmap because we have lost our way.

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The intimate dinner party was one of those well-intended affairs peculiar to the getting-to-know-you or let’s-reconnect phase in a relationship. The conversation, like the meal, was designed to be spicy but easily digestible.  Later we all moved from the round glass table to our living room with drinks, curled up on the sofa and floor cushions, and took turns strategically trolling through our catalog of experiences hunting for stories and observations that would resonate without rubbing anyone the wrong way.

The final sign of a successful evening was coming soon. There would be a tinge of regret underscoring the start of the long goodbye. An inner nod confirmed that simpatico had been achieved at the gathering.  Then suddenly, something surfaced, and flitted by.

You know the feeling.

I tried not to react or change my tone of voice when I detected the first sense of it, like a wayward lash in the corner of the eye. But it was there all right, inching across the coffee table, weaving through the carpet, boldly crawling into our midst like it couldn’t be caught.

A guest started screaming, scrambled to her feet in distress, threatened to leave. But, I’d encountered this type of intruder many times over the years. This one was formidable, admittedly, and so obvious that it was do-or-die time to spring into action.  Instinctively I reached for a shoe to hit it hard – then reconsidered. Would that just further rattle the guests and ruin any hope of gathering together again?  If I did, would I be accused of overreacting? If I didn’t, would it seem like I wasn’t aware, or didn’t care?

Such are the dilemmas in today’s uneasy times.

This was a scene where the varmint was real and identifiable, but interracial relations are also a lot like that.

Daily, we are hit with examples of racism and bigotry. They are intruders that creep into our awareness and assault our consciousness. No thinking person would not be outraged. No feeling person would not be discouraged. No disparaged minority would not be saddened, fearful and dismayed.

In his thoughtful article, “Can My Children Be Friends with White People?” in the New York Times recently, Ekow N. Yankah, with Yeshiva Law School, wrote poignantly of his heartbreak and loss of trust in this fractured political climate. I am concerned that we tell our children – and grandchildren – that the world is broken beyond repair and then say we expect them to fix everything when they take over one day, but with no roadmap because we have lost our way.

Challenging racism is difficult. Historically, it adapts to the era, taking on multiple, often conflictive forms. Language and images. Class inequalities. Claims of being color blind and suffering reverse discrimination. When bigotry periodically appears to slink underground, seems to dissipate, then rebounds with ferocity like we’re seeing now, we start to believe that no progress has been made. Scholars, however, will tell you that’s the cyclical process.   

Living in the South, I’ve had personal encounters with this type of intruder in various ways over the years – the crawling and the walking kind. With race, it was a climate of apartheid and physical danger in segregation; a struggle with the gap in communicating our experiences that emerged with integration; then research, interviews and books about the topic, academic study, media productions, and public dialogues. People would complain about suffering from racial fatigue then demand that I tell them why the problem wasn’t fixed.

That’s why I was reminded of the dinner party hosted so long ago and how we are social animals. When we sense something encroaching on us that doesn’t belong, the survival instinct kicks in.

I had to think quickly, otherwise the gathering would end.

Growing up, we lived in an aging apartment with sketchy neighbors where you could never be completely safe from an infestation and we lived in a climate where heat was more of the villain than our cleanliness. So, I learned that there is a hierarchy to these trespassers. You can rank them by size. The smaller ones are pesky, always darting around and in the way, and you need to spray often or else they get out of hand and spread. The larger ones are slower but relentless, and often harder to catch out in the open. You can set traps and call in professionals, but the truth is that these are ancient, primordial creatures, around as long as humankind. They are survivors, too.

So we have to keep coming up with new strategies that evolve over time, in addition to the direct attacks.   

If you have some strongly held beliefs that serve humanity, now is the time to act on them. If you are inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision, work towards it. His metaphoric “dream” was not some nirvana: it was a glimpse of hope and possibility in the aftermath of a battle – a breather before the next mountain climb. No one stays effective in the long run who is always operating in the fight-and-die mode.    

For some in my generation advancing age has become a softener of the hardened places, pulling us away from the headlines to re-access. The loss of a loved one or a career. Financial crisis or divorce. Severe health challenges. They all tend to awaken us to the commonalities of our human frailties.

I’d love to have some intimate dinner parties these days with people on the other side of the table where we could share some of our truths, even when they differ – as long as the essence of those truths did not wish others harm. I know these types of conversations about race are possible. In my Race and Change presentations we come together in dialogues like well-prepared meals and a guest list that continues to grow.

My personal life has become simple. The Southern background has prepared me well.

We were schooled from childhood to stay alert to the “us” or “them” nature of these intruders. They thrive on fear and revulsion. They test you, coming out when you least expect it, flying across the room as you chase them, and scurrying away to the corners of life until the light is turned on. Heck, they’ll run you crazy if you don’t watch out! To combat racism and bigotry you have to do the same – make them unwelcome in the room. Smart folks know to keep a can of spray nearby.

AGING GRACE: Growing Up in Our Sixties

Remember our twenties, the know-everything years?

We charged into adulthood believing we were destined to run the country – and the world – so much better once we got in power. At the very least, we wouldn’t make the same mistakes as our parents. A month after my 20th birthday I got married, certain it would be forever, priding myself in waiting two years longer than my mother when she took the unsuccessful plunge. Brimming over with book learning, post-adolescent freedom, and Civil Rights Movement fervor I smoked, drank, wrote, challenged racial and gender barriers, and had two children before the decade ended. I preferred the company of people several years older than me, but not necessarily to listen at their feet. I couldn’t shut up; I had so many revolutionary ideas I thought they needed to hear.

Once the thirties kicked in we seemed to warp into a do-everything blur of responsibilities and quests, bending and breaking rules in our professional and private lives. We chased “what next”, “there must be something more,” and “maybe this is it” experiences, often losing track of ourselves in the process.

And then came the forties; how quickly the pages turned.

Nests emptied, or filled – or both. Marriages and partnerships were reassessed. We started losing people who were dear to us. Life forced us to let go of some things; others we couldn’t wait to cast away. Many of us crashed, and burned, and resurrected– more than once – before the decade of reshaping was done.

In the feel-everything fifties we started spiritual triage on our finances, our health, and our relationships. Maturity began to peel away that shield of invincibility. Now we’re making peace with the dichotomies of life.

The sixties is the decade of aging grace.

Yes, we may feel sandwiched in between the expectations of ailing parents and adult children, between the societal pressure to look and act forever young and to just disappear. Yes, we can’t do it all, and maybe we shouldn’t, even if we could. As a generation we’ve changed some things, and we’ve made some mistakes. Growing older means we accept that we will never fix everything. But that doesn’t mean a solution isn’t possible, or that we don’t keep trying.

In many ways our survival this long through society’s shifting uncertain sands has given us the firmer footing needed for navigating today’s richly troubled soil. The challenge now is how to pass some of our knowledge along.

Every generation has the same burden – the problems of its “historical moment” as Robert Penn Warren called it in Segregation: Inner Turmoil of the South, a little-known homage to racial change, controversial in its own turbulent time. The noted poet and novelist and son of the South wrote the 65-page collection of reflections in 1956 during his travels through southern states in the U.S. in the wake of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision which kicked off the civil rights movement of our era. Stopping at stores and cafes and homes, he held impromptu conversations with people on both sides of the color line on their misgivings about what the future held for race relations.

They wrestled with conflicting attitudes and so did he, going from being a proponent of segregation to declaring that desegregation was inevitable – strong fighting words from a White southerner of that time. He saw a pattern of brutal assaults, public outrages, and discriminatory practices, as a moral problem that keeps us locked in a “national rhythm of complacency and panic.”

In the end, he concluded, the best we can do “Is try to plug along in a way to make [the younger generation] think we – the old folks – did the best we could for justice, as we could understand it.”

Perhaps our role as the generation that survived the turbulent 1960s is to impart lessons we have learned, and cautionary tales. Our children may not get it – yet – but just give them a few decades. Besides, that’s why they made grandchildren for us to regale.

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