Race and Politics
I was having a good week this week. After some busy travel weeks, I was back in the office getting stuff done. Writing some good blog posts. Facilitating conversations. Mapping out future crazy travel weeks. The usual. Then I ran into a couple of conversations online with some friends of mine about politics and race. It was like a punch to the gut. It always is with me. It depresses me, and I find myself reeling from it, trying to figure out what to say or how to say it. I hate that feeling. It's not that I don't want to talk about the topics. I desperately want (all of us) to talk about them, actually. But here's the problem.
We suck at talking about both race and politics.
I mean we REALLY suck. We're horrible. There are literally very few things in this country that we could possibly do worse than the way we engage in dialogue about race and/or politics. That depresses me. I know that's a generalization, and there are definitely exceptions, but here's what I notice when race or politics come up in a conversation:
- Nobody asks any questions, people only make statements.
- People are angry. It is often disguised, but I feel like it's almost always there.
- People get impatient. Why is this conversation taking so long?!
- Nothing anybody says EVER causes someone to reconsider what they already think or believe.
I think the problem has to do with the fact that human beings count on the world being the world. By that, I mean we can handle a certain amount of ambiguity and complexity in our world, but only up to a point. At some point, we have to be able to know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and if you start giving me a story implying that's not true, I will actually jump up to defend my world. Sure you may think sunrises aren't as pretty as I do, and we may argue about what time the sun set yesterday--those are easy conversations to have. But don't sit there and tell me that the sun does not rise in the east. I'll lay out all my facts to support it, and if you keep telling me that it doesn't, I'm bound to get mad at you. I will become incensed by your stubbornness. I'll end up repeating myself over and over and then stop talking to you.
Sounds like race and politics discussions, doesn't it? So the sun rising is one thing, but how do race and politics qualify as "rocking my world" conversations? With race, I get it. To some extent, people of different racial and ethnic groups in this country do live in very different worlds. I can give you a white person's perspective. As a white person, I was given a fairly simple story about race. I grew up with the idea that race was not that important, at least not in the present. Historically, of course, it was important. In the past. That's when those bad people did those bad things like being racist and enslaving people. But thank goodness we're past that. Race just isn't important any more. We're better than that now.
But I've been fortunate enough to develop some close relationships with people of color over the years--so close that they have shared with me a sometimes painful and VERY different experience around race in this country. I was able to hear a different story about race. One where race matters every day, one where they are dealing with things and responding to things that I simply don't see in my "world." It has been very eye opening for me, helping me to better understand my privilege. I am thankful that they trusted me enough to open up like that and share their world with me. There were times when I didn't quite buy what they were saying at first. But I stuck with it. Eventually I got that the sun doesn't really rise in the east, at least not in the way I thought it did.
But most of us have not had that shift. And with race, I can see why. We've got centuries of oppression and slavery at the start of this world-conflict, and it's understandably hard to move through all that. And it kind of makes sense that a dominant group would be conditioned NOT to see its own dominance (it makes it easier to maintain). So this one's going to be a long road, I think.
But how on earth did we get to this place in American Politics? Sure, politics is by definition adversarial, but how did we get to the point where liberals and conservatives simply can't talk to each other any more? Where we are angry all the time? Where what the other side is saying simply doesn't matter to my thought processes? Where each side continuously hurls simplistic cause-and-effect chains at each other that never connect?
That's a big question, I guess. And I'm not an expert on politics. I've been cynical about politics for some time now, actually, so I've disengaged. I definitely don't know how we got to this place. Maybe that's part of the problem. Maybe more of us need to get together in order to start some genuinely new conversations about politics. Conversations that are NOT about defending our worlds. Maybe more of us need some forums where there is enough trust and compassion and calmness to actually open up to the possibility that our respective "worlds" may not be 100% complete or accurate. Where being right isn't the issue. Where we actually want to spend some time learning more about positions that don't initially make sense to us.
I guess that's setting the bar pretty high. I hope we're up to it.