Talk to me

The U.S. has misplaced so many things since the Electoral College chose a carnival barker to lead us. It lost its dignity. It lost its honor. It lost its compassion.

But amid viral pandemic and election-year noise, we the people have found our voice. And, maybe, our soul.

Once again, the world is hearing us, hearing how we make the mess that is democracy into a crucible of humanity. The world is listening to our exuberant protest against racial injustice, and emulating it. Once again, the world acknowledges that we're good at something, and we dare not shut up.

This time, we dare not stop talking to each other about race.

It's the hardest thing we do. No one likes to have difficult conversations, so racism simmers in a country where most people are not racists. Most white people know what to do but they don't know what to say. When to say it. To whom it should be said. Most black people know that most white people are not racists, but they are tired of them doing things that assuages guilt even if their point is nobler.

You can't communicate if you're afraid of offending. You don't try to communicate if you know that someone can never understand what it's like to be you.

This failure to communicate is like a pulled muscle -- the hurt won't heal if the other muscles keep compensating for its weakness.

Meaningful talk requires trust. You must trust that most people who say something offensive deserve enlightenment, not opprobrium. You must trust that most people without your white skin do not envy your color even in the cold shadow of its privilege.

Drew Brees, a white NFL quarterback known for his generosity and decency, was heard loud and clear last week when he said that he could not countenance athletes who took a knee during the national anthem because he had too much respect for the flag and the veterans who fought for it. He got the blowback he deserved. But what might have been another ugly spitting match was actually a discussion in which Brees not only listened, he heard.

"Through my ongoing conversations with friends, teammates, and leaders in the black community," he tweeted, "I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been. ...

"We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform. ... If not now, then when?

"... The black community cannot do it alone. This will require all of us."

Talk helped Brees understand that taking a knee is not dissing America, it is the articulate voice of America.

That was a public come-to-Jesus moment, but we've all had private moments of conversational terror in which we did an end-around the scrimmage, and got past it. For a while.

A black woman with whom I was friendly left our mutual place of employment. A few weeks later, we agreed to meet for lunch. I knew only one restaurant near her house, so, figuring everyone loved the chicken noodle soup and tapioca pudding as much as I did, I suggested Soup Plantation. She paused, then agreed. We met a couple days later, but she seemed cooler than her friendly work-colleague self.

Later, a mutual acquaintance mentioned that she probably was uncomfortable at a plantation.

She heard "Soup Plantation" the way I would have heard "Dachau Diner."

Was I hopelessly ignorant and insensitive? Did she overreact? Does it matter?

I regret suggesting the venue, but what I regret even more is that we didn't talk about it.

During one protest march last week, a news photographer captured a middle-aged white protester carrying a sign that read "I surrender my privilege."

He doesn't get to do that, but the sentiment is genuine. Sometimes even that's difficult to talk about. A black newspaper columnist recently recounted a conversation about George Floyd in which a white woman said, "My soul is aching about what happened."

"You?" a black woman replied. "What about me?"

The columnist advised white people not to "share sympathy."

We cannot discuss race if we do not trust someone to be honest. And if being honest offends, that's part of the deal. It doesn't always end favorably for anybody. But it will never end if we don't grapple.

Speak up in private. Speak up at work. Use your voice to find your soul.

Thousands of marchers all over America are reclaiming our collective soul. Let's not lose it. Again.

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