Private Conversations On Race, In Public

Read Michele Norris' Essay

Michele Norris writes about why she wanted to explore the issue of race in this presidential election and why NPR chose York, Pa.

If you wonder why it's hard to talk about race with people of other races, consider how the simplest racial encounters can be intricate affairs.

Suppose that I, a white man, absent-mindedly bump my shoulder against a black man on a narrow sidewalk. I turn to say, "Excuse me." He says, "No problem" — and there really is no problem. It's a totally normal encounter.

Yet I know that I am especially quick to say "Excuse me," and his expression suggests that he's especially eager to assure me he's not offended. It's as if we both instantly recall centuries of trouble and pain. We both try to make sure we do not invoke that history — to make sure that we remain two people on a sidewalk in the present day.

Think of the complexity of that five-second encounter, and then think of 15 Americans of different races who agree to face each other and talk for hours in York, Pa.

Something has become apparent during those discussions: African-Americans in our group speak more comfortably about race.

That's not to say that people of color know all the answers, or that white people don't. Our white participants are often extremely thoughtful and brave, too. Listen to Nancy Snyder describe her adoption of a black child. Listen to Jeff Lobach, a lawyer, speak as precisely and dispassionately as a Supreme Court brief. Listen to everybody, in fact.

People of all races have made more insightful statements than we can fit on the radio.

But race is a tough subject. It touches everything. It takes time to learn the language to express what's on your mind. It takes time to be sure that you know your mind, that you're not just repeating something safe that you heard somebody else say. It takes time to have the confidence to speak up. Say the wrong word, and somebody might accuse you of being an appalling human being.

So it's not surprising that some of our white participants speak carefully. Measuring every word. Pausing to consider that word before saying it. Or maybe putting a statement in the form of a question, which is safer than directly expressing an opinion. People walk carefully through what my colleague Michele Norris calls a "minefield."

When I listened to our black participants, I sensed that some were accustomed to the minefield. I sensed the many conversations that must have come before our meetings in York. Certain people were fluent — and confident — and even funny in a way that suggests the subject often comes up at the dinner table. Or in a class they'd taken, or on the steps of the church. They seemed to have intently followed news stories that touched on the subject, and also had personal experiences that informed their views.

Calvin Weary, an African-American high school drama teacher, is comfortable joking about outrageous racial stereotypes. When a question is put to him, he's liable to say that "we" had just been talking about that "at our meeting."

"Our meeting" — as if America's entire black population waits for the white folks to go home at night, and then black America drops by somebody's basement. As if, beneath cigarette smoke that floats in the glare of a bare light bulb, they discuss the day's news and refine their plans to take over another piece of American life.

Metaphorically, of course, Weary's joke might reveal a certain truth. A certain kind of conversation takes place among minorities when white people aren't around.

That's the view of an African-American former colleague who gave me advice as we prepared for our sessions in York. She said that there is a conversation among black people about Barack Obama that is different from what you hear in mixed company.

For example, she explained, some African-Americans are determined to do nothing that could possibly embarrass Obama in front of white voters. They want to avoid agitating for black causes, or forcing Obama to take a stand on some racially polarizing issue. This notion has sparked intense debate with other African-Americans who think Obama should be held accountable like anybody else.

Whatever you think of that dialogue, it sure sounds interesting. Broadly speaking, I'm not sure that white Americans discuss racial issues quite so freely.

When race does come up among white people, in my experience, it's easy for people to say a handful of safe things and then stop talking about this dangerous subject. If you're white, there is a formula for you to follow. First, you reflect on your youth. You note that, for whatever reason, you were brought up in a home without prejudice. You may offer an anecdote about how your mother believed in civil rights or how you, yourself, stood up for a black kid in school. Finally, you report that you try to see people according to what's inside them, just as your family taught you.

This is all great. But it might not be the whole truth. It doesn't capture the full range of a subject that has shaped our nation and that affects us day after day.

Whether we are white or black, do we really know ourselves? Do we really know our history? Do we know what influences us? How often do we encounter a person of another race in our daily lives? If the answer is "not often," how did our lives come to be structured that way?

We are forced to confront those questions when talking with people of other races in that York hotel. Even the black participants who seem comfortable with the subject may be thinking new thoughts in this unusual setting. They, too, often slow down and think. They may rephrase, revise, or completely contradict what they previously said.

It's fine with us. We're there to listen and learn.

It takes time to find the words.

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