There it was again: a plea for a national “conversation on race.” I groaned. I rolled my eyes. I felt the urge to stand up and head for comfort food.
The plea was heartfelt and, in the wake of Charlottesville, understandable. Conversation, better than confrontation. Everyone stays sitting down. No tear gas.
Unfortunately, most pleas for a conversation about race, however well-intentioned, don’t really mean a conversation. They mean a sermon.
I’m not against that. Where I worship I hear a lot of sermonizing about race. It’s pretty good, and I’m grateful.
Or perhaps they mean a lecture. Or better yet, a twenty-five-part PBS series by Ken Burns. Perhaps a therapy session with an empathetic facilitator. Maybe Oprah, or what’s her name—Hillary Something.
Perhaps, after Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, also Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, et al., they mean something else. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates warned his fifteen-year-old son that white America has given its police departments the go-ahead to destroy him. Coates had the good sense, as far as I know, not to call for a conversation.
Murder doesn’t call for a conversation. It calls for an indictment. Coates wrote a brilliant indictment, and never mind some of its claims. White America promptly awarded him the National Book Award and a $625,000 MacArthur “Genius Grant.”
Where indictments are needed, let’s have indictments.
Conversation is something different. Especially, as some ultra-optimists suggest, “honest conversations.”
I don’t pretend to be a great conversationalist. I do know a few things. For one, accusations don’t make for good openers. (“You’re murdering my family. Let’s chat about race.” “You don’t really care about black lives. Pull up a chair.”)
For another, there has to be some degree of equality among conversation partners. Not the talkers and the talked-to. The experts and the dummies. The victims and the perpetrators.
Some people, like Uncle Fred, and some ideas, like Uncle Fred’s theory about the Federal Reserve and international banking, may have to be ruled out of bounds. That applies to declared White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis.
On the other hand, conversation cannot occur in a minefield: You know, say the wrong thing and your reputation will be blown to smithereens.
The key to conversation, as many have said, is not talking. It’s listening. Listening, and not just politely waiting for the other people to be quiet so you can hold forth. Listening, because you are genuinely curious about who those others are, you are genuinely modest about your own knowledge, you are genuinely convinced that you can learn something.