Let’s Have That Conversation About Racism

July 22, 2013

People across the United States are hot under the collar these days, and not just because of record high temperatures. No, they are letting off steam over last week’s acquittal of George Zimmerman by a Florida jury.
For many, the blood began to boil about this time last year when word trickled out of Sanford (pop. 53,570) that a Hispanic neighborhood watcher shot and killed a teenage boy during a physical encounter at an apartment complex.
That is not entirely true. The story that caught the attention of civil rights activists and the national media was that a white cop-wannabe profiled an innocent, unarmed, teenage African-American boy wearing a hoodie and carrying snacks. Profiled him as a criminal, stalked him, then shot him dead as the boy tried to defend himself.
Rough justice on a Sanford street demanded quick justice in a Sanford court.
But justice from The Man (and not the man with the gun) was neither quick nor just to anyone connected directly to the case or to the angry surrogates on both sides. Now, the trial has moved from the courthouse to the court of public opinion, and possibly to a street near you.
The chances are quite good that on your street or wherever you get news and information you will hear some form of the word conversation, as in “we need to have this conversation” about some aspect of the story. And, it is usually about racism.
“We should not live in a nation,” one thread of the conversation goes, “where I have to talk to my children about what to do when the police stop them. Or warn them not to do something in public that could draw the attention of someone who might want to do them harm.”
Yes, let’s have that conversation, because that is what we told our daughters as they were growing up. Be respectful to a police officer, we said. Never talk back to a person who wears a gun and badge to work and who can throw your butt in jail.
This conversation could be about race, gender, or sexual orientation; but it is really about prudence, about acting correctly in an anxious situation. And, it is about respect for the law, a respect that transcends race, gender, or sexual orientation.
Because they are daughters, we told them to be aware of their surroundings and not to draw the attention of someone who might want to harm them. So, yes, let’s have the conversation about why our daughters (and their mother) have every right to wear whatever they want to wear, wherever they want to wear it, and not to worry about the twisted freaks at the other end of the bar or the one sitting outside in the van.
This conversation is really about taking responsibility, about not putting yourself into a bad situation just because you have the right to do so. It is about common sense that is not defined by race, gender, or sexual orientation.
And while we are at it, let’s have that conversation about racial profiling, and we can bring in the crack news team at that Oakland, California television station, the one that ran the names of the pilots of the Asiana passenger jet that broke apart when landing. The names on the screen, however, the ones read with perfect diction by the nicely coiffed anchor, were made up by someone who thought it was cute to give South Korean pilots racist Asian names like “Sum Ting Wong” and “Wi Tu Lo” and another than cannot be repeated in polite company.
Let’s have that conversation about how no one in the newsroom, not the anchor, not the writer, not the graphics person, not the producer, and not the director, saw anything wrong before they ran the names.
Let’s have that conversation about how people in newsrooms across the country (mine included) laughed in disbelief (as did I), shared the video with friends on social media (as did I), but did not see the racism (as did I) until later.
Let’s have that conversation about growing up as a Chinese-American kid in a small town with no other kids outside your family who looked like you. Let’s have that conversation about kids coming up to you in school using words and phrases you later see on a television newscast. Let’s have that conversation about being on the receiving end of everything now gently called “insensitivity” on the part of children and adults.
But I guarantee we will not have those conversations, because the chances are good (and rightly so) that you have tuned out by now, tired of reading rants.
Note to protesters: The people you want to have conversations with have tuned you out. They cannot see that what happened in Sanford is personal to you, that it has an importance beyond the actual event, because they are tired of rants, tired of being yelled at, tired of being called names.
And that’s my point. As a nation, we do not have conversations about important issues. We yell at each other; we talk over the other person. And some people get paid well to talk and not listen.
So, yeah, let’s have that conversation, and let’s do it without confrontation.

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John David Powell writes his Lone Star Award-winning columns from Shadey Hill Ranch in Texas. His email address is johndavidpowell@yahoo.com.