The “S” Word by Crystal Valentine


Can we ever disentangle race from the conversation?

We have a saying in our house: don’t tell me what someone said, tell me what you heard. The difference may be subtle, even almost imperceptible, but we’ve learned that the distinction is an important one. In a perfect world, the line between speaker and hearer is straight, with messages being transmitted clearly from point A to point B. In the real world though, the line from speaker to hearer sometimes spans a vast chasm, distorting the words as they travel across time and space. What the speaker says is their truth, and on the other side, the hearer is left with their own. Neither truths can be taken away. At least this is what we say in our house.

It sounds simple enough, right? (Okay, full disclosure: my “kumbaya” approach has only achieved a 34% success rate at preventing fist fights between my sons.)

Reality be damned though, I am a woman of high ideals. Filtering the world through these ideals prompted questions during a recent conversation with Onnesha. Questions like: what role do misunderstandings play in fanning tensions between individuals of different races? Can we ever disentangle race from conflict or is it unavoidable? And how can anyone claim to know with certainty that race is a factor in their treatment (absent of obvious racial slurs or overt discrimination, of course)?

I’ll be honest: hearing the words “It’s because I’m black” is a good indicator of whether I remembered to put deodorant on in the morning. It makes me sweat. I think it makes many white people sweat and fumble for words. “I don’t SEE color.” “I once dated a black person.” “Pure black people man is all ah man know.” (I channel the 90’s Canadian reggae artist Snow in his song “Informer” when I’m feeling awkward.)

It’s not that I deny the possibility or the existence of racism. It’s just that when faced with complex scenarios, my mind attempts to filter information through my experiences and my world view; to separate the wheat from the chaff if you will. My first inclination is to gather more information before jumping to any hasty conclusions.

So I ask questions. Lots of questions.

Is it possible that the cops got called to break up the party because there were drunk people yelling in the street, and the race of those individuals was not a factor on the part of the caller?

Is it possible that the overly attentive retail employee was socially awkward, and is not aware of the history of black shoppers being mistrusted and harassed during their time in retail environments?

Is it possible that many (white) people mean well, but don’t know when they are being offensive, or insensitive, or hurtful or tone deaf? (Asking for a friend.)

Onnesha and I talked about this at length. With patience and grace on her part, she gave this socially awkward white girl a space to explore these questions and ideas. Then she gave me a thought to chew on, which I’ve been processing for the last several days: the notion of a “subject matter expert” (a person with extensive knowledge on a topic, gained through their lived experience. Thank you for letting me explain this on my fourth grade comprehension level.) I’ll never be a subject matter expert on being black in America, but I can relate to this title in regards to moving through society as a woman.

As a woman, I have had the opportunity to bear witness to the nobility, kindness and goodness in humanity through a woman’s eyes. But as a woman, I have also experienced harassment and the abuse of power that men wield, both subtle and overt. This knowledge of good and evil, specifically as women experience it, can’t be deleted from my hard drive.

Suffice to say, we are no longer in the garden and we can’t return. Understanding how impossible it is for me to extricate myself from my identity as a woman, in all the glory and pain it has caused, may give a glimpse into the ridiculousness of asking black individuals to extricate themselves from their black identity.

And what is the root of the enmity between the black and white communities, after all? Why do we process half time super bowl performances through such different lenses? I’m no expert, but it seems that it traces back to that old family secret that none of us like to talk about.

The topic that my Uncle recently posted about on Facebook, stating, “No person alive today is responsible for what happened to other people hundreds of years ago.”

The infected wound that still oozes and aches. The big, nasty “S” word.

We have to talk about slavery.


Read Onnesha’s blog for this conversation at the following link:

About Getting Over Slavery by Onnesha Williams

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