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Why Are We So Afraid to Talk About Race?

Photograph by Getty Images

Coverage of the Spring Valley High School incident, in which Ben Fields, a white sheriff's deputy, dragged a black high school student out of a chair and across a classroom, was disturbing. But it was the conversations relating to if the student, named Shakara, deserved such treatment in the first place that made me sad.

She is a child. In her classroom.

So, can we talk, you and I? Honestly and openly? After all, if we can't talk about race honestly, how can we expect our children to create real and genuine friendships with people who live different lives from them?

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I've really started to wonder if we can talk with any kind of empathy or even love when it comes to the treatment of black and brown youth.

I'm not saying people shouldn't be honest about their feelings—good, bad or confused. I think we absolutely should be. But I do think that our intentions during these conversations mean everything. And that no matter what we say, how many words we use or what tone we take, our true intentions come out one way or another during these conversations.

I'm tired of being asked to participate in discussions that feel pointless because of a simple refusal to step into the other person's shoes.

We all get frustrated when talking about what racism looks and feels like, given that most of us abhor it. So I'm not surprised that our personal, national and international conversations are filled with angst and frustration.

That said, the underlying tone of the discussion around Shakara's treatment appears to have boiled down to a version of the philosophical theory: "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" In other words, if I haven't experienced it, does it exist?

It's an approach that's often taken during our conversations about racism. Intellectually most people would argue yes, sure. After that, the discussion becomes mired by a desire by those who don't see racism regularly to—and I'll be blunt here—appear knowledgeable and not racist. As a result, they justify their opinions with phrases like, "I'm sure that's true, but I've never seen/heard/experienced it myself." The challenge with that however is this: If they're talking to a person of color, phrases like that disqualify that person's experience and feelings. They don't come across as empathetic or even thought through. Instead they appear dismissive and defensive.

Don't misunderstand me, I have no interest in trying to change minds. We all have a right to our opinions. I'm just tired of being asked to participate in discussions that feel pointless because of a simple refusal to step into the other person's shoes. I KNOW we can do better. I've had honest and empathetic conversations on racism.

One discussion comes to mind with a good friend, who I'll call "Essex Girl." We met in our late teens. We shared a dorm at University. She was from an area of England called Essex, just east of London. It's known (maybe unfairly, maybe not) for the fast boys and girls who love fast cars, cheap booze, bad clothes and a good fight. My friend Essex Girl wasn't quite like that, but she knew how to defend herself. She was into Pearl Jam and wore calf high biker boots. She seemed like the polar opposite to me, a TLC, Lalah Hathaway-loving girl from Hounslow, a town in West London. We were born days apart, raised in the same part of the world but in different cultural contexts. On paper we had little in common.

When we first saw each other, we both knew that one of us had to move out. We assumed we'd never get on. We agreed to try it out for a week. Just to be polite.

A month later we were still living together, having in-depth, late-night conversations about everything, just like most new friends on the campus. During one of these conversations, she revealed that I was the first black person she knew. Like, really knew.

I think she was embarrassed, but I admired the fact that she just wanted to be honest. It wasn't the first time I'd heard that sentiment. But it was the first time that this statement was followed up with a, "Is it OK if we talk about it?" Even though I rolled my eyes when she said what she said, I was impressed at how open and, well, respectful and kind she was about it. So I said yes, not feeling completely comfortable with what could come next.

That conversation alone was eye-opening and deep. We didn't change the world, but we did have a better understanding of our own.

She told me she noticed how differently I was treated in very subtle ways in everyday situations. I was shocked that she realized something was amiss. "Why would she see that?" I thought to myself. Essex Girl wondered how I navigated things. All of this from a 19-year-old woman.

That conversation alone was eye-opening and deep. We didn't change the world, but we did have a better understanding of our own. And we built a true friendship as a result of her ability to step into my shoes and to be empathetic.

During our friendship, she has never thought about changing who she is, or feel intimidated by who I am, as different as we are sometimes. Our conversations (and yes we talk about everything, the stress of motherhood included) are always honest. They're not dominated by race, but we talk about it from time to time. She has never once told me to get over 'it' and wouldn't think twice to smack someone down if I was told (which I have), that I'm "not like the others!"

We now live on different continents. The time difference means we can't talk to each other as much as we like. I may not know what her day-to-day life looks or feels like, but I know that she's showing her children how to love openly, make deep friendships and respect and value friends for who they really are.

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I thought twice about sharing my thoughts here. I know I'll be accused of ignoring the other part of this picture, even though I've taken care to be respectful of the feelings of others in this piece. That said, I'm not prepared to have a back and forth with anyone who won't attempt to empathize with people who are different to them or see them as equal. I am, however open to talking to people whose hearts are open.

So, are you ready to have a conversation?

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