Why we don’t always feel like talking about race (and what to do about it)

Post Author: Nicole Martin

Picture of the author, Nicole Martin

The author, Nicole Martin.

The time is ripe for race talk. The problem is, some people don’t always feel like talking. A variety of recent events have added to a surge of desired dialogue on the black experience, but after years of talking, some black people are too tired to engage. As an African American clergywoman, I feel this tension nearly every week in some tangible way. There’s always some group seeking insight on what it means to be black, including Presidential candidates vying for the “black vote;” Christians debating on whether black lives, blue lives, or all lives matter; new research within my community on the psychological outcomes of blackness; and so much more. While this is extremely fruitful, it can also be extremely taxing, especially for those of us who are able to articulate our lives in ways that others can understand.

I sensed this for the first time growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood. Like most young children, I never had a concept of what it meant to be black until a white student pointed it out to me. “Why are your hands two different colors?” they asked while laughing on the playground. I had no idea what they were talking about. In that moment, I looked at my hands from front to back, and sure enough, the insides of my hands were lighter than the skin that covered my body. I was never good with comebacks, so I just put my hands in my pockets and walked away. This was the beginning of an intense process of discovering that my hair, lips, body, speech, food, and family would all one day be spaces of curiosity for well-meaning white people.

By the time I got to college, I was used to it: I was used to explaining why I was different. I had learned enough about white culture that I was able to use things that were familiar to them to explain what was different about me. I understood that most dolls don’t have hair like mine, which is why they wanted to see how mine felt. I knew that most white families don’t sing together as an expression of community, so I got it when they assumed all black people know how to sing since my family did. From these experiences, I learned how to articulate my differences, which often made me the “expert” on all things black for my non-black friends.

But, after years of sharing and explaining, justifying and repositioning, masking and correcting, I get exhausted. I admit that there are days when I don’t feel like talking about my blackness anymore. There are days, even months, when I’d rather cocoon into my circles of family and friends, where everyone looks like me and the only battles I have to fight are sexism and ageism. It would be easier that way, but for me, it’s not God’s way.

I have come to realize that following Jesus is hardly ever about being comfortable. To me, being a Christ-follower means that I am part of a global family that has been reconciled through the cross. Since that is the case, I am called to extend this witness in the world as a bridge-builder, a reconciler, and an advocate for unity and justice. In other words, if I really follow Jesus, then I don’t have a choice to sit silently. I must be committed to sharing with and hearing from people who aren’t like me, so that I can be more like Him.

If you’re reading this column, chances are that you, too, have experienced the tensions of reticence and readiness, caution and calling when it comes to racial discussions. Wherever you are, whatever you do, don’t give up! Keep pressing forward in the journey, because I am confident that we will all emerge better than we were before.

If you are a person of color, like me you may struggle with exhaustion and conversation fatigue. Understand that this is a normal stage, but it does not have to be a signal to stop engaging. You can continue in the journey of racial reconciliation by keeping your mind on a few important realities:

  • Your story is important. You are the only one who has lived your life, and if you don’t share your experiences, no one else will. There are people who genuinely want to hear what you have been through and may be shaped by your perspective.
  • You can gain more than you give. This is the true joy of race talks. While we may enter expecting to give more than we get, we always leave with unexpected gems. Believe that God can surprise you with more than you anticipated.
  • Offensive comments are not the end. It is so hard to rebound from offensive comments, especially when they are spoken as truth. However, we can commit to rise above the offense by creating teachable moments and refusing to give in to negativity.

If you are white, you will at some point run into a great person of color who just doesn’t feel like talking that day. This can be painful, especially if you are deeply committed to cross-cultural dialogue and community. Here are a few tips that may help along the way:

  • Start with a friend. Authentic relationships are the best way to deepen understandings about race. If you don’t have any cross-cultural friends, start with someone you see on a regular basis and get to know them for who they are.
  • Ask permission before launching in. Assume that the other person may need mental time and space to prepare for conversations about race. Don’t be offended if someone doesn’t want to talk, and be open to a flood of emotion from those who do. All experiences of race are personal and should be treated as sacred ground.
  • Privilege is a reality, but it does not have to be a barrier. Many white Americans have never had to talk about their race because whiteness is normalized in our culture. Recognize this as an example of white privilege and be willing to put that aside. By owning your story, you may also be surprised about what will emerge.
  • Find common ground while honoring difference. Conversations begin with commonality, but depth comes with difference. Saying, “I know exactly what you mean” or “That happens to me all the time” can be seen as minimizing the lived experiences of another. Be willing to suspend assumptions in order to receive the fullness of what others will share.

There’s something powerful about the fact that Jesus chose to come into the world through a marginal community and still interact with varieties of others. Since this is the case, part of following Jesus means living in constant contact with “the other.” If we can live this way, we will not only honor the beauty of God’s diversity, but our own lives will be enriched as well.

May God give all of us strength to talk when we don’t feel like it, to listen when we don’t understand it, to press through what feels painful, and to refuse to give up on this hard, sacred, and meaningful work of racial reconciliation.

Nicole Martin serves as the Executive Minister at The Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is the author of Made to Lead: Empowering Women for Ministry (Chalice Press: 2016). You can learn more about her work at Soulfire International Ministries.

Image by: Nicole Martin
Used with permission
1 reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *