How to talk about race in America

Published 6:46 pm Saturday, June 21, 2014

By Dennis Edwards

Wherever I go these days, people want to know how to bridge the gap between themselves and folks who don’t look like them. Younger couples, in particular, don’t want their worlds to remain lily white or totally black.

The people who talk about a desire for a more diverse circle of friends want to know how to reach out to blacks and what to say to whites.

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Suffolk’s troubled past with race and segregation has left deep scars. I’ve noticed the absence of black middle class families downtown, except during special events.

You can’t ignore the absence of whites in certain places. Fear and distrust have created divisions that contradict our experiences at work, in schools and in a growing number of churches.

One of the great benefits of integration has been its ability to show us that we are all pretty much the same. We all want the same things for our families: a good education, access to a better standard of living, equality of opportunity and a safe environment in which to raise our children.

Now we can add another standard. It seems we’d all like an atmosphere in which we can trust each other.

Trust is tricky. It comes from relationships based on friendship. Friendship evolves from common interests, challenges and experiences. In short, friendship comes out of life and living, and so do our opportunities to bridge the racial gap.

Those who stubbornly want to argue politics, who look to make points assigned on a given day by Fox News or MSNBC, need to understand there’s no place for that in authentic friendship.

Friendship has nothing to do with whether we agree about welfare, the economy or jobs. Friendship is about the common experience of raising a family in uncertain times, working through maintaining a marriage when the kids are driving you crazy or building a business in a bad economy.

Men and women relate to each other as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. We all have siblings who’ve transformed into strangers, teenagers who are driving us crazy, bosses who do the same thing — and every couple is trying to maintain that spark of romance while children demand every ounce of their time.

The secret to developing a relationship with people of color and people not of color is to talk to each other about everyday stuff. Don’t be afraid to admire the way someone handles his children or manages her yard. The common denominator is life and what we do with it, not race.

However, the relationship that troubles me the most is the relationship between black men and white men. There always seems to be a competition going on, and an attempt to garner some edge. Part of that is alpha male issues. But all of that is unnecessary.

Here’s where we can learn from women. They bond and get along over being women, shared challenges and mutual interests. Men do that in athletics and then do something different in the professional world.

Some on both sides perceive the other as inauthentic. The only way to change that is to see, acknowledge and learn from each other’s strengths.

It’s OK for a white man to admire a black man and vice versa. But it’s not OK for either to decide the other doesn’t belong where they are. Those signals are always detected, and neither group will accept that idea.

So how do we talk about race? We don’t until we know each other well enough as friends, until we can put the questions in the context of a desire to understand and not criticize each other. Race is always easier to discuss among friends.

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