June was quite a month for race relations in the United States. Hard to believe at the beginning of the month we were talking about the pool party in McKinney, Texas, where officers were called to a scene that quickly intensified and turned into chaos. Next, we talked (at length) about Rachel Dolezal, the woman who was born white but lives as a black woman. She gave us a whole new definition of the “authentic self.” In a podcast with host Marc Maron, our president used the N-word in the course of the interview (in a perfectly acceptable way, I might add). Then there was Charleston, South Carolina, where nine worshippers were gunned down at a prayer meeting at Emanual Africa Methodist Episcopal Church.
When it comes to race, no one wants to talk about it. But, if we are outraged enough—if it gets picked up by social media and the 24-hour news cycle—we talk about it. The conversation never happens, but the cycle of hate repeats. The last two years have seen their share of black males killed at the hands of white cops. We can reach back further to race discussions around Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012. Remember the “beer summit” at the White House with President Obama, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Sgt. James Crowley? That was 2009. After Hurricane Katrina, I thought the conversation would happen. Nope. Not in any serious, meaningful way.
Since the Charleston massacre, the climate today is noticeably different. Maybe I’m still swept up in the recent legal victories for Obamacare and same-sex marriage, coupled with the outpouring of grief from the funeral service for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney. The solidarity of responses across all races has been remarkable. Who wasn’t moved watching President Obama sing “Amazing Grace”? I’m seeing changes happen that I never thought I’d see in a lifetime. It’s more than just 100 likes on Facebook. This is deeper than that.
Are we ready to have a real conversation about race? In order for that to happen, we have to be honest about what’s happening. Having an African American president, famous celebrities of color, and godlike basketball players does not mean we’ve come to terms with our history of slavery. The confederate flag flying over the South Carolina State house is testament to that. Maybe the conversation starts with our own cultural biases and admitting we have them. These come out of our own upbringings, our communities and cultures. This is different than the institutional racism which creates large socioeconomic disparities in education, employment, politics, and the judiciary system. Both are problematic, but these days I’m not sure which is easier to address.
I am reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen for the second time. Her prose poems shed light on incidents and scenarios that have happened to me and people I know, the covert discrimination that I have experienced in my professional career and personal life. It’s more insidious and subtle than many realize, and if you’ve ever been “the other,” then you are always left guessing about the motive. All of this to say that I think poetry and art can create a space of understanding among people who are open to it. I think SolLit: A Magazine of Diverse Voices is one of those spaces, and for me that’s a start.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that there are people of all races trying to start the conversation. This I see on a daily basis. I see it in classrooms and coffee shops. As a society, we’re hungry for change. It’s more than putting up with our differences; it’s the simple kindnesses that happen when we see—really see—each other as people, not as “the other” or “those people.” Many are ready to share their stories. Most important, many are ready to listen.
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