This post continues a thread of discussion I launched yesterday. I’m trying to think through how we can have more effective conversations about difficult subjects without alienating each other or entrenching ourselves. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.
It was just a simple dinner party – my dad, a couple who are his friends, my friend K, and me. Four of us who have known each other a long time sitting down in the couple’s formal dining room – a collection of oyster plates hanging on the walls – while we chatted about life and such. Normal, simple, nice.
At some point around dessert, the husband asked me how my book was coming. I told him the usual, “Slow but well,” and he asked how I came to write the book. I told him about how I had realized sometime in my 20s that the people I rode the school bus with in high school might have been descended from people who were enslaved on the plantation. I told him that it seemed important to me to understand why I had not thought of this before, why the entire history of slavery on these places had gone largely unnoted by me, how I felt ashamed about this fact.
The wife wondered if anyone had ever written a book about all the forms of slavery in the world. I told her that would be a multi-volume set but that I suspected someone had studied slavery that way. That I, however, was interested in chattel slavery in the U.S. because that is the history that affects me, affects all of us today.
We began talking about race relations today. The couple mentioned things about people not wanting to take advantage of the things offered to them – by people, they meant “black people,” and I noted that access isn’t always that easy. I talked about the legacy of slavery, about our continuing societal imbalance of power and economic resources when it comes to people of color, about how white privilege blinds many of us to the challenges others face. They discussed how their ancestors had immigrated and assimilated just fine (their white ancestors), and how in the military, there were expectations handed down and black people met those just like anyone else. I told the story of my black student Chris who wanted to know why “white English was the right English.” They stressed standards and expectations. I suggested privilege and asked who set the standards.
At this point in the conversation, I started to cry. For me, crying is the normal response to anger and frustration. It’s not a practice in manipulation (as some people – often men – see it to be) – it is simply my natural response to strong emotion. Now, I’m not saying it’s the best response – it often ends conversations or puts people ill at east. But I’m also not saying it’s the worst response either – it causes people to see how deeply invested in something I am and show that there is a real consequence to conversation.
However, in this case, the people we were talking with simply shut down.
If I had it to do over, I would try to contain my tears. I would have come to the table with more statistics about the achievement gap and access to education and technology. I would have researched the history of race relations in the military and come with stories. But to be able to engage the conversation when it came, I had to go with just what I had available in my mind . . . and it wasn’t enough. Maybe nothing would have been enough.
Since that day, my respect for this couple has faltered. I have trouble seeing them as the wise, open-minded people I saw them to be before this conversation. I am sure their opinion of me has changed as well; perhaps now they see me as emotional and naive. I know they see me as too young to know how the world “really works,” but then, they saw me this way before. Perhaps I should have taken that into consideration as this conversation began.
This is the kind of setting that seems ideal for hard conversations – friends, casual conversation, a relaxed night . . . and yet, still, here, I don’t know that we heard one another. I certainly left thinking about the idea of privilege and how I might be making excuses for individuals who didn’t need to have excuses made for them. The conversation did change me; I wonder if it changed them.
So today, in the midst of thinking about how to have these types of conversations effectively, I wonder how you would have approached this situation. How would you have continued this dialogue? What might you have done differently if, indeed, you felt as I did?