Hey White People… Let’s Talk About Racism

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(A white guy writing about racism is fraught with the danger of saying something completely asinine. I want to acknowledge that on the front end.  I welcome the criticism of anything I say below.  I probably need a lot of help on the issue…)

As I was thinking through what to write about what has happened in Ferguson, MO after a police officer shot teenager Michael Brown, I read a lot of articles in the blogosphere, including the insightful thoughts posted by Tim at BlackCoffeeReflections.com where he says that “I am prone to thinking that thoughtful participation is always better than sitting it out.”

What I’ve noticed in my circles, consisting mostly of white, middle-class americans, is exactly this latter response.  On the Thursday after Michael Brown’s death, one of my co-workers had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned Ferguson in the break room.

I can’t really blame a guy if he’s not on social media and doesn’t watch the news, but I was baffled as to how someone who is likely active on Facebook wouldn’t know about what had happened four days earlier.  Then it hit me as I read Tim’s post: A lot of white America chooses to sit out the conversation on race, especially when there is a current event that stirs up a lot of anger.

Why is that the case?  There are a lot of possibilities, but one keeps coming to mind for me over the past couple of weeks:

White Americans are probably hanging out with other white Americans most of the time. I know we all have that “black friend” and we like to tell people that.  The problem is when we don’t ever engage the important topic of racism with that friend while still using that friendship as a way to talk about how we aren’t really racists.  Instead of conversation, we offer deflection and defending because the last thing we want is for someone to put that label on us.  Of course, the problem with a lack of conversation in this case is that there is no listening.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve used Twitter as a way to “listen” to some of the voices that are much closer to the situation in Ferguson.  This is certainly insufficient, but it’s a start.  Some of the talk about Ferguson is so coated in anger or despair that it’s difficult to hear.  But what should we expect under these circumstances?  A black teenager was killed by a police officer under questionable circumstances in a community where there are pre-existing racial tensions.  There is no chance in hell that people are going to respond to this with perfect rationality.

But in the midst of the emotion, I’ve heard a lot of people making a lot of sense about the ongoing problem of racism in our country.  No one has it all figured out, but I think it is important that we stay at the table and (re)start conversations about it, no matter how difficult it is.

Our ability to find a way forward into healing and reconciliation as a country is probably directly related to our willingness to have that talk, as many times as it takes to open our hearts and minds.

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