Take a deep breath, the hard work of talking race in the US

I think it’s safe to say that tensions are running high across the United States this week. Between the relentless heat pounding parts of the country and the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, we are all feeling the tension and with that tension it brings hair trigger tempers. Can I suggest that we all step back and take a collective breath, breathe it out slowly and repeat at least two more times.

It used to be that the social code in our society demanded that there were a few subjects that we never discussed publicly namely, sex, religion, and politics. For some of the more sensitive or volatile among you, may I suggest that we add race to that list as well since we rarely discuss it in an open and honest fashion thus when cases such as Trayvon Martin make it to the mainstream media and our collective minds, many of us are all caught with our metaphorical pants down by our ankles and our private bits blowing in the wind.

At the not really ripe age of 40, I can recall one other specific time when race was on everyone’s mind yet true discussions were not really had…remember our ole pal O.J. Simpson? I remember the day that verdict was announced, I was eating lunch in a downtown Chicago steakhouse and was one of only a handful of Black patrons in the restaurant. It was a moment, I won’t ever forget. It was chilling.

Yet all these years later, despite so many surface changes when it comes to race in this country, nothing has really changed. For the most part, Americans live racially segregated lives either by choice or chance.  Unlike just a few decades ago where racism was the law of the land and outright bigotry was accepted, that is no longer the case. But while laws change, that doesn’t mean attitudes change, instead for many of us our bigotry is simply stuffed down and out of sight. We as a collective body have not unlearned racism; instead we painted over the ugly and unsightly wallpaper of our racial houses with cheap paint. Every few years we paint over it some more, telling ourselves that racism is gone and that all is well; our walls are in good shape. However as anyone who has ever dealt with painted over wallpaper can attest to, what you really do when you paint over the wallpaper rather than painstakingly removing the wallpaper and fixing the walls is to create a mess that eventually someone has to deal with.

In essence that is what this Trayvon Martin case has revealed to our nation, our racial walls are not in good shape, they are raggedy. Raggedy though is not always a bad thing, sometimes raggedy is what we need to get to the root and actually make true systemic change. In order though to be raggedy and make change we have to want it. As I learned in a diversity class many years ago in graduate school, we must be willing to open ourselves up and lay bare things about ourselves that are scary. We need to be willing to question our assumptions and if need be throw them in the garbage and start over from scratch.

This week, I have seen so many people of color namely Black people lay prostrate in order to be seen as fully human, I have also seen many white people get angry or ignore the pain of others. This unwillingness to engage even if there are missteps are part of why America finds itself in what I am calling a continual Do the Right Thing loop every decade or so.

Talking about race is hard, even in families such as mine that are multicultural; race talks are painful and at times polarizing. I am well aware that my use of social media to discuss race and specifically this case has been alienating to both my white friends and family members.  Last night my ex-husband called me to discuss this and while we do not see eye to eye about the case, as I told him he is entitled to his beliefs on the matter. Truthfully we are about 180 degrees apart on this case but I needed to hear him out and ask that he hear me out. Respectful discussions that respect the individual are the beginning of the process of change; not the tit for tat comparisons that often seem to substitute for real discourse in this ramped up digital age.

There also times when silence is not golden, and with a non-stop talker in my house, I enjoy silence but there are times when silence sends the signal that the pain of others is not worthy of your consideration. It is okay to admit to being helpless and not knowing what to do, but if one wants to create change when it comes to our collective racial walls, tell me that. Really, I want to hear it and as other mothers of color are expressing this week, they want to hear that too. This is a time where we can learn and help one another out, hell, I have a big mouth and plenty of thoughts I would be happy to give you some suggestions on what to do.

Note: As this blog grows it is clear that while it will never be a commercial space, it is a safe space where many feel they can come and read something meaningful. My inbox has far more emails in it than it used to have and it is clear that running this blog is more than just throwing a post up. After much though I have decided that I am going to bring the tip jar back, as always while a tip is a lovely gesture it is not expected but much appreciated. This space is a personal labor of love that I do because it gives me pleasure, so no pressure at all.



4 thoughts on “Take a deep breath, the hard work of talking race in the US”

  1. Sorry I’m late to the party, but Shay…the truth you speak never fails to move me. Seriously.

    As the daughter of a Jamaican mother who came here in 1976, I agree with what you’ve said. My mother is now almost 60. She is truly an old-school Caribbean woman, despite the number of years she has been in the US. And despite how intelligent she is, there are certain things she never taught me about racism and what I would experience growing up.

    I don’t know if it was naivete…maybe she believed that my light skin and “white” accent would provide immunity to discrimination. Or perhaps she wanted to shield me from harsh reality. But I will tell you that when I finally realized that people didn’t see *me*, they saw only a minority with funny hair, somebody unlike themselves who was unworthy of being treated with fairness and respect, my world came tumbling down around me.

    And to this day, my mother is still of the mindset that while racism is indeed a problem, it doesn’t really affect us. This frustrates the hell out of me because I could never tell her what kids were doing/saying to me in school. I could never tell her how my self-esteem and mental health were being harmed. I could never tell her about how my first real boyfriend’s mother treated me, like I was too inferior to date her son. I could never tell her about how I was treated like a criminal simply for walking in public places. I could never tell her about how the property manager at my apartment complex refused to allow me inside the gate because of my so-called “attitude” when I’d never spoken a word to him, then he lied to the police claiming that I threatened him. You know what my mother said when I told her I was treated unfairly? “Stop playing the race card”.

    My own mother said that, the one person who should have understood my position as a mixed/Black woman in America. I wasn’t playing any card…I was trying to open her eyes to the reality that being Jamaican doesn’t make us immune to experiencing racism. We live in Florida, where Trayvon Martin was killed, and folks love to make it seem like this is an ideal state where racial tension doesn’t exist. It certainly does. I’m just thankful that I’ve never come into contact with a dangerous person like Zimmerman and I’ve never been pulled over by police.

    She (my mother) believes that if you are honest, hard-working, pay your bills on time, follow laws, etc…you’ll be OK. But as we know, some people will overlook that and they will discriminate anyway. They will hate anyway. I am a small, short, petite woman who is not aggressive and the property manager claimed he was afraid of me because I supposedly “threatened” him. Apparently we’re all mean and scary in the eyes of bigots. So I couldn’t agree with you more…talking about race is very important. It is painful, but it needs to be talked about.

  2. This was a powerful piece. Difficult reading but you said much of what needed to be said. I worry more about the men in my family. When my husband left to go for a walk today, I reminded him to take care.

  3. I had a lot of fears about this case, about the state of the United States and how united we actually are. I think a pundit on cable said something that really struck me as poignant and something we — as Americans — never discuss. It doesn’t matter the race of Zimmerman, we’re talking about the race of Trayvon and the fact that everyone is “just a little racist” toward one particular race regardless of what race *you* are and that’s wrong and unfair and unjust and unacceptable.

    And it’s something I will never accept: that there are two countries in this one that should be united — two versions of justice. Trayvon did not have to die. This should not be an awakening.

    • It really shouldn’t be an awakening but sadly it is for many. There are two countries within the one in part because people choose to not pay attention. I hope things will change though I don’t know if that will ever occur in my lifetime.

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