The only question that matters

Published 10:08 pm Saturday, December 14, 2013

By Dennis Edwards

I made a new friend recently. “Sarah” reached out to me in an email. She took issue with my thoughts in a column a while back. Her honesty was refreshing and genuine. She didn’t call me names. She just called me Dennis.

We’ve been having candid, fascinating email discussions about race.

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In one of them, Sarah admitted she locks the car doors every time she drives by a group of black men near a tunnel to Norfolk; that she gets nervous every time men of color, wearing their pants below their bottoms, pass her on the street; and that she’s suspicious when she sees a couple of boys from the hood riding bicycles in her neighborhood.

There was no need to get angry with Sarah about her honesty. Many folks who look like me feel the exact same way about things like sagging pants.

Sarah and I talked through the kinds of fears and differing views people who don’t look like each other often have. We didn’t call each other names or disparage each other.

In an effort to explain the rippling effect of the kinds of the divisions sweeping the country, I asked a question I’ve never thought to ask before: “Have the guys wearing their pants the wrong way, the men near the tunnel entrance or the boys on the bicycle ever harmed you in any way, stolen from you, done you physical harm or robbed you?”

“I have never had any negative experiences with black people,” she replied. “My fears are totally a result of seeing reports on TV and the newspaper.”

It took courage to admit that, the kind of courage I appreciate, admire and respect. I wonder if it is possible Sarah speaks for more people than we realize?

Then Sarah wrote something I didn’t expect: “Your provocative question, ‘Have I ever been harmed by a black person,’ led me to ask my three now grown children if they ever had any unpleasant experiences. They all had in high school. Very minor, from hair pulling to pushing and girls in the restroom blowing smoke in my daughter’s eyes. They all felt that it was because they were white. It was no big deal and they did not respond in any way.”

My reaction: “Both groups have had some kind of experience good and bad. Seems your children haven’t had any really negative experiences since HS. Those kinds of things happen to everyone at that age. Like your children, black students had other experiences based on the color of their skin, experiences your children might not have known about.”

Sarah has taken the conversation to friends around the lunch table. She debates her position and listens to theirs. But she’s talking, listening and learning how folks around her feel and why.

I’ve never met Sarah, but she’s my friend, my newest hero. Not because I agree with her on everything, but because she has the courage to honestly ask and answer the only question that really matters.

Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchor. He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at