I love the South. I love Dogwood trees in March, and couples who drive just under 7 miles an hour in order to view them in mind-numbing detail from the comfortable confines of their mauve, oversized, Earth-bound star destroyers.*
(*Note: Please read “Earth-bound star destroyers” as “Buicks” )
I love lightin’ bugs,
drinking insulin neutralizing syrup-tea out of Mason Jars,
and how on fall Saturdays Neyland Stadium becomes the 5th largest city in the state of Tennessee (that is, only when we play Alabama or Georgia, no one shows up for the Austin Peay game).
I love Cracker Barrel,
when complete strangers call me “honey,”
and Johnny Cash.
But one thing I’ve always been at odds with…
(aside from the obvious consequences associated with frying almost everything: HAVE YOU SEEN DOLLYWOOD IN THE SUMMER!? OH, THE RIVER RAMPAGE!)
…is our complete reliance on repression as that which maintains a peaceful equilibrium in our selves, our families, our neighborhoods, our churches, and our passive aggressive comments to unmarried grandchildren in their early 30s.
Whether it’s a 19th century Victorian keeping watch over a tree lined Savannah street, or an exhausted window unit groaning under the weight of an oppressive July afternoon in the projects of South Atlanta, the strained whispers of embarrassed parents to their confused children sound quite similarly:
“We don’t talk about that here.”
“Don’t bring that up in front of company!”
“We wouldn’t have a problem if people like you would stop talking about it.”
So, needless to say, I was far from surprised whenever these eerily familiar responses, reworked to match the needs of the moment, were trotted out in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict.
First, I must say the diversity in implementation was impressive: from friends, family members, and acquaintances, all the way to someone I’ve never met quoting a Bill Cosby meme, my News Feed quickly filled with the same message I’ve heard for years anytime tragedy and social-unrest strikes us unexpectedly:
“We wouldn’t have a race issue if people would just stop talking about it.”
Which was the same message we heard after Newtown:
“Now isn’t the time to talk about gun control, now is the time to grieve.”
Or, put another way: “We don’t discuss politics at the dinner table. EAT YOUR PEAS!”
Which was the same message greeting us when our friend’s drug problem went public in high school, or the girl 2 rows over from us in World Geography got pregnant, or an old friend from “youth group” moved in with his partner:
“Well, bless his heart, he always was a bit strange ever since his mom left. Well, I’ve already said too much. Let’s go to the Lord in prayer for his family.”
The only problem with repression, both individually and communally, is that no matter how hard we push something to the ground, it always manages to leak out through the sides of our straining palms.
My issue with the response to the Trayvon Martin verdict isn’t that people have different perspectives on what happened, why it happened, and what we should do next (disagreement is part of living in a society). My issue is that we aren’t actually allowed to publicly discuss it, honestly, in the full light of the morning without being met with the moniker of “rabble rouser,” “contrarian,” “one of “those” people,” or a perpetuator of that which we oppose.
“There wouldn’t be a race problem if people like you would just move on and stop mentioning it.”
Sure, this logic makes sense in my world.
My church doesn’t talk about race. Ever.
My local politicians don’t talk about race. Usually.
My TV shows don’t talk about race. Seriously.
My TV news anchors on Channel 10, they don’t talk about race, but I did hear they wear shorts behind the news-desk.
Yet, shockingly the problem remains.
I would argue this conundrum (on one level) may be related to the words of individuals (and/or public school sponsored mascots: looking squarely at you “Rebels”) I encounter each day (who also happen to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 99.9% white).
While, on the one hand imploring me to hold my tongue on the internet and the pulpit and the microphoned podium about race, these keepers of the public peace discuss race endlessly to those they meet each day:
Race is an explanation for parking proclivities and late-decision lane changes on the interstate.
Race is that which gives insight into why one nurse is more attentive than another.
Race is an obvious component for who may or may not win The Bachelor.
Race is an important descriptor in determining why one is more intelligent, a good cook, a better singer, a more talented wide-receiver, best-suited for the presidency, and whether or not one should be hired for a gig as a “white gloved, white-coated wedding reception server”.
The problem isn’t that people talk about race too much.
The problem is that people talk about race in the wrong ways and at the wrong times, while demanding silence from the right people or the right organizations at the right times.
In my few years of experience, I’ve found that what we repress always leaks out the back door at the worst possible time in the worst possible way.
Like in the middle of the night on a snack run.
Now is actually the time to begin speaking frankly and publicly with one another about the jokes, the horrifically ill-timed pejorative accents, the rants about immigrants over Thanksgiving dinner, and Christmas morning present opening, and Sunday lunch, and in traffic, and at Target, and at church before and after and during the sermon.
Now is the time to talk about race, and guns, and sexuality, and fear, and violence, and our own participation (individually and communally) in the death, incarceration, oppression, and impoverishment of too many of our brothers and sisters. So that whenever we encounter words and assumptions and stereotypes and destructive correlations and institutionally toxic practices we will greet them each and every time with the gentle but firm reminder:
“I’m sorry, but we don’t talk like that here.
We wouldn’t have a race problem if folks would stop making racist jokes, would stop collating race and violent crime, race and economic recession, race and welfare, race and athletic success, race and poverty, race and intelligence, race and whether or not someone in a hoodie late at night is a friend or a foe. We wouldn’t have a race problem if these individual inequalities and perceptions that remain unarticulated publicly, would finally be called out, acknowledged, and challenged not just in particular people, but in whole organizations, whole institutions, whole schools, whole neighborhoods, whole churches, and whole countries.”
Bless our hearts, honey, let’s all pray.”
The sooner we stop talking privately about race to our friends and angrily to our steering wheels in traffic, and the sooner we start talking about our blind spots and biases and toxic stereotypes in public, maybe we can finally stop murdering one another in the streets.
Pray with me: God forgive us all.
To read more from Eric Minton, click here.