I’ve been getting to know a fellow writer who keeps office hours at a nearby coffee shop. Natasha and I have a lot in common. We’re both novelists. We live in the same neighborhood. Our kids have gone to the same schools. We both had military dads, and moved around a lot growing up.
We’re not identical, of course. Natasha is significantly different from me in one important way: She loves Dr. Who.
I really don’t get that at all.
The day I tried to write my blog post about the Old Courthouse in St. Louis (find it here), the words would not come. The Dred Scott exhibit had gotten under my skin in a way that would not fit my 400-word, rah-rah-the-Midwest format. All my conflicted feelings about the racial unrest in this country stood between me and the page.
For years now I’ve wondered how to respond to this pervasive national hostility. When a white man shoots up a church prayer meeting in South Carolina because the participants are black, what should I do in protest? When a white man kills two Indian nationals in a bar five miles from my house because he thinks they’re Arabs, how should I respond?
Silence truly does not feel like an option anymore. But what can I, a white middle-class micro-travel writer, do to affect these situations?
I took my question to Natasha who, I hoped, as a fellow writer with an online presence, might understand my difficulty. She listened carefully as I related my experiences in St. Louis, and explained my sense of helplessness.
“How do I go from saying, ‘Visit the Midwest!’ to, ‘Racism is bad!’ in any kind of credible way?” I said. “Should I even try?”
She nodded thoughtfully, but didn’t offer any advice.
“A few weeks ago,” I continued, “I read an excellent blog post by Nadine Brandes called, Why I Don’t Talk Politics on Social Media. It articulated so many of my own thoughts on the subject. This quote said it all for me:
‘I’ll talk to you at length about whatever you want to discuss–politics, religion, identity, racism, etc. But if you want to hear from me on a sensitive topic then it has to be voice-to-voice. Face-to-face. Over coffee where we can act like human beings.’”
Natasha agreed. “When it comes to important conversations, social media does more harm than good.”
I fiddled with my coffee cup. “That’s why I’m here.”
Her warm brown gaze grew very still as she guessed my next words. We both knew I was about to say something risky.
I looked across the table at this lovely, intelligent woman with her deep golden-brown skin and smattering of freckles, and said what I’d come to say. “Would you be willing to have an intentional conversation with me about race?”
She was quiet for a long time. Finally, “I’m not sure if I’m the sort of person you want to talk to,” she said. “I’m biracial. I don’t think my experience of race is the typical experience you’re thinking of.”
Typical? I thought this over. “I’m not sure there is a typical experience,” I said at last. “If the color of your skin has made your life different from mine at all, I think we’d have something to talk about.”
To my relief, Natasha was willing to have that conversation. We met a week later in a semiprivate place, to discuss the difference our skin color has made in our lives. I learned many things, three of which I will share with you.
- To begin our conversation, I asked this question: How does the color of our skin affects the way we raise our children? Natasha’s answer was eloquent:
“I don’t think the color of your skin has anything to do with how you raise your children. I think all moms want their children to grow up to be respectable and kind adults who contribute to society, and who help each other, and who are honorable people. You always want the best for them, and you worry for them just the same, and cheer for them just the same as they’re going through their lives, and—No, actually the worries might not be the same. But I think just in general what we put into our children to help them become good people is basically the same.”
- Though we live in similar circumstances, Natasha has experienced things that will never happen to me, because of the difference in our appearance. She has worries about her children that are connected to their skin color. Race still determines how our neighbors are treated in some situations, even in Middle America. Even in 2017.
- When it comes to people of different skin colors, there’s no such thing as typical. We were not pretending to have the definitive conversation on race in America. There’s no such thing. Natasha and I are two unique individuals with specific life stories, and we brought our own perspectives to the subject at hand. By sharing our experiences, we bridged the divide in a personal and meaningful way.
The words we said that day over coffee are not as important as the fact that we said them. We put down our phones, faced each other, and had a conversation .