I was recently chatting with a white male neighbor who suddenly launched into talking about a book he had begun to read for his book club. The book focused on race and racial issues in the United States. I had not read the book and was not familiar with it, so I could not speak to it and I told him so. Despite that, my white male neighbor, pressed on with the discussion that he decided he needed to have with me.
He: Have you read this book?
He: I think the author tries too hard
He: Yes, and in my book club, there seems to be a majority belief that I don’t agree with.
Me: Hmm, but I’m thinking “uh oh” as I sense a rather large elephant standing nearby
He: “Yes, the author really doesn’t provide evidence.”
My neighbor then reads aloud a sentence or two from the book.
The sentence he reads aloud doesn’t help me to understand specifically what he’s referring to, as I haven’t read the book and have told him so, but I sense that there’s an elephant standing beside us, a really big one.
He: “Race has happened all around the world. Many societies had slaves.”
I’m thinking “Here we go again, another white man explaining away slavery in America and its connection to race relations and American society in the 21st century and ignoring the construction of ‘race’ for political and economic purposes, and so much else.”
Me: “Slavery in the U. S. was for economic gain.”
He interrupts me, excitedly.
He: “Yes, it’s about capitalism!”
Me: “Slaves were treated as property, not people, as inhuman, they were objects to be bought and sold.”
He: “Yes! Capitalism and the things that have led to the terrible political things today.”
I’m still feeling the elephant standing on the sidewalk next to us. It’s still quite large.
Me: “Race and racism are two different things.”
My neighbor seems to be using “race” and “racism” interchangeably as he attempts unsuccessfully to make another point about the global historical slave trade. He finally gets to the truth or to what he really wants to say.
Him: “I’m afraid to speak up in my book club. White people need to talk to other white people about this.”
Me: “White people are afraid to talk about race because they are afraid that they will be seen as or called racists. That stops any conversation that could be had and prevents anything from moving forward.”
He looks at me with surprise, as if I have just awakened him from a nap.
Me: “Have you seen the film 13th?”
I’m thinking that because the film so brilliantly and clearly connects the 13th amendment, history of slavery and the prison industrial complex of the present, this might help him to gain some footing on the issues he seems to be floundering in. Plus, guys usually like history. Ava DuVernay made that film with great intention, and it’s perfect for conversations like these and the ones that my neighbor wants to have with other white people.
He: “Yes, we had to view it while reading this book for the book club. It was too heavy; I can’t watch it again.”
Me: “Hmm.” While looking at my phone, I say, “Okay, well I have to get going now.”
He: The mind can overcome this.
Me: “Not without heart.”
He: “Okay, goodbye.”