For the second time this year, a high profile person has been fired for confessing they sometimes get nervous around folks of another religion or race.
And that’s sad, because Juan Williams’s comments, like those of Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod last spring, actually point to a model for discourse about “difference” that would be really useful.
The model is called truth.
What’s Really Going On?
Let’s take the example of race (near and dear to my heart, since it’s not unusual for white women to clutch their purses when my husband walks by them wearing a ball cap).
Only three people in America can truthfully claim they’ve never felt nervous around people of another race — and I don’t know them.
By itself, that’s not a big deal. We all have silly reactions sometime. But when Person A gets that little twinge of fear and decides to take it seriously, as if it proves Person B is really dangerous, the stage is set for, at “best,” the insult that Living Colour immortalized in their song “Funny Vibe,” and at worst, terrible hate crimes like the murder of a NYC cab driver who told the wrong person he was a Muslim.
Why We Need to Talk About This
That’s where Williams and Sherrod come in. Both of them admitted to uncomfortable feelings about people who were “other,” but each of them then clearly stated that their feeings were something to fight against, not indulge.
Isn’t that exactly what we all, at our best moments, would say? Yes, I have those feelings. Yes, I have those prejudices (how could we not, given our environment?). Yes, I have those fears, but I don’t believe them. I don’t act on them, and that’s a powerful choice.
A Moment on the Street
Almost 30 years ago, when my now-chi-chi neighborhood was still pretty sketchy, I was walking down the street late one night and saw a young black man coming toward me. I studied him as he approached, and though he didn’t look at all threatening (believe me, I checked), I still felt a twinge of the fear that’s so well known to single women and survivors of street violence.
Obviously my feelings showed, because as this young man passed, he said (in a sad, bemused voice that I’ll never forget), “Wow! You’re afraid of me.”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “I’m really sorry.”
Then we both went our separate ways.
A Gift We Can All Give
I felt at the time, and still do, that the candor with which this young man spoke to me was an incredible gift. By naming what he saw on my face, he wasn’t calling me out — he was calling out the irrational fears I’d already been fighting. His words gave me an opportunity to rise above my discomfort, to address him with respect, and to apologize for the “funny vibe.”
It’s rare that public speaking is concerned primarily with truth. Often, the focus of a public speech is to paint a pretty picture, to show everyone in the best light. I could have ignored this young man’s truth-telling, or tried to deny it or make excuses.
But I’m glad I didn’t. Because how, if we’re afraid to state the simple and most obvious truths, are we ever going to move past them?