The Awkward Conversation
Allow me to tell you a story, one that serves as an analogy for the awkward conversation that often ensues when a white person and a person of color discuss the topic of race and racism. It goes something like this: A woman, standing at a train stop with a blindfold on, asks a man tied to the tracks when the train will arrive. The man on the tracks responds, “I don’t know, but I’d rather be in the train than under it.”
To which the blindfolded woman says, “Then just get on the train like I plan to do.”
“But I’m tied to the tracks!” the bound person says.
Here, the conversation starts to get weird.
“Well, I didn’t tie you to the track. You probably did something to deserve being tied there.”
Frustrated, the bound man says, “Will you just take off that blindfold and help find something sharp?”
Then the conversation gets weirder.
“Excuse me, but I am not blindfolded. I myself have never been tied to a track, and I don’t believe that anybody, including you, couldn’t just stand up and get on the train if they really wanted to.”
My name is Billy Palmer. I’m a 44-year-old person of mixed race. I’m brown enough that most people don’t assume my white heritage from my mother’s side. I have a son dark enough for me to worry about the same things my mother worried over.
I realize that not all white people are oblivious to the very different world in which people of color live, just as the woman in my story couldn’t understand the man tied to the tracks. But after all my years of frustrating conversations with white people about race, I am as astounded as ever that the same conversations are continuing into 2016.
I can hear you thinking: “But not all white people….” Believe me, I know!
I am fortunate to have a couple really great friends from my early 20s, both white as the day is long. (Don’t worry, they know how white they are). We found comfort and safety together. We talked honestly, feeling no need to protect each other from one another’s truths. We said some stupid things to each other about race, and class (we were different in that way, too). We sometimes offended each other. We sometimes felt embarrassed of our own ignorance.
There were also “Aha!” moments that would make Oprah proud. It took patience and love on all sides. We remain great friends because of this. I’ll never forget how it felt to have white friends who were comfortable hearing things I would otherwise only say to other black people. I grew from that. I learned that discomfort is okay and necessary. We are all affected by systematic racism, just in different ways.
There is fear behind our inability to talk about racism. It keeps us, as a whole, from moving forward as a country, beyond the same circular conversations. I think white people worry about saying the wrong thing, being called a racist, having their unconscious racism seen.
People of color all know the danger of being seen as a racist, always feeling like the “Angry Hyphenated-American” who immediately loses her or his voice once the wrong thing is said. It’s a frustrating thing, to see the trains come and go as the decades go by. We watch the *Emmett Tills, the little girls at the Sixteenth Baptist Church, the Trayvon Martins and the Tamir Rices get left on the tracks, under those trains and while we avoid the important conversations about what killed them, another train is bearing down.
The *George Wallaces and Bull Connors of yesterday and the George Zimmermans and Timothy Loehmanns of today are allowed to exist in the awkwardness of our silence. Are we brave enough to become the train whistles that stop the silly, circular dance that leaves people of color tied to the tracks?
Emmett Till: 14-year-old boy lynched in Mississippi; accused of flirting with a white woman (1941).
Girls of 16th Baptist Church: Birmingham, Ala. church bombing killed four girls, 1963.
George Wallace: four-term segregationist governor of Alabama, 1963-87.
Bull Connor: public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Ala. who enforced segregation and denied civil rights to black citizens. He employed fire hoses and attack dogs against civil rights activists. Active 1930s-70s.
George Zimmerman: shot Trayvon Martin, a black boy walking through a white neighborhood after dark in Florida (2012).
Timothy Loehmann: Cleveland police officer who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice (2014).
Billy Palmer is the vice president of NeighborWorks Salt Lake’s board of directors, a community-empowerment and affordable housing organization. Last year he received a Dorothy Richardson Resident Leadership Award for his contributions as a community leader at the annual National NeighborWorks Community Leadership Institute conference. (2014