Jan 18

MLK day post two – “The Conversation”

Category: Uncategorized

I have a number of foreign friends.  With almost all of them I have had “The Conversation” about race in the USA. I’m going to combine the different conversations here because I’ve had “The Conversation” many times.

I was in a restaurant with a foreign friend.  She knew in a general way about the racial problems here but not in detail – no more than the average American knows about the nuances of racism in the Sudan.  Americans just know that the Sudanese are killing each other.

I tried to explain how the races are so divided that in many places the two even have separate dialects, music, holidays, and economics. I tried to imitate the dialects and told her about “Ebonics.” I tried to explain the roots of the blues, and how rap evolved from a fairly innocent regional art form to more or less a representation of gangsta life. I had to explain the word “Gangsta.” I told her about Governor Wallace and Rosa parks. I explained how the civil war was about slavery, but not totally about freeing the slaves. I tried to explain the huge influences of this internal yet foreign culture, how it has been of enormous benefit to the country’s culture (and the world’s really).

In the course of the conversation I had to use the word “Black” and “African-American” several times. I had to explain the “N” word (very quietly!).

Then I noticed a black couple sitting at a table just close enough to hear scraps of our conversation.

They were staring at us more than usual.

“Great,” I thought, “now I’ve broken the eggs.” I couldn’t get up and go over to them and explain.  Maybe they hadn’t heard it at all but were staring at the painting behind me.  Maybe they had heard just enough to understand.  More likely though, they had heard just enough to think the worst. Had I walked over to them to explain, it would have been incredibly awkward, specially if they hadn’t been thinking what I was thinking.  Maybe it would have been insulting for me to have assumed that they didn’t understand.  I don’t know, but they didn’t look happy.

It killed our conversation.  When we left the restaurant I sadly remarked that in America, almost no conversation between members of the opposite race is without racial context. It is a pernicious fact that impedes racial progress.

But the good part – as I’ve grown older, the problems have receded to some degree.  It’s been a long time since I’ve had to endure the the tooth-grinding situation where white colleagues would assume that I felt the same way as them and conspiratorially talk some racist smack, often resulting in the end of friendships.  There are fewer cross-burnings and lynchings.  I frequently see the heart-warming sight of interracial couples. African-americans are seen everywhere and there are fewer “white” communities.  And of course there’s Obama.

But of course there continue to be ghettos, like Camden, NJ.  There are the overflowing jails.  There are disparities in education. It’s not over yet.

So: there’s my experience with “The Conversation.”  I will continue to have it, although it will have to be furtively discussed like a drug deal, proving that the problems here are far from over.

1 comment

1 Comment so far

  1. spleeness January 19th, 2010 10:03 AM

    Yes, the problems are far from over. But it’s heartening to see some progress. I’m sure depending on who you talk to, their experiences differ, but I hope the overall trend continues to go up.

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