How else to talk about race in America

Published 10:38 pm Friday, July 11, 2014

By Chris Surber

Recently Dennis Edwards wrote a piece titled, “How to talk about race in America.” I want to add to that discussion. It was a good article based on the practical observations of race relations in Suffolk from a man of color. May I even say man of color? Am I supposed to say African-American? Or can I say black?

To be frank, I have no idea how to properly publicly make the distinction between black and white shades of humanity. When Barack Obama got elected I thought I had it figured out. I remember the next day feeling a kind of joy in my heart and nodding with a smile at a black man in a store as if to silently say, “Now we can put all that behind us.” Boy, was I wrong.

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I’ve lived all over this country, but Suffolk has got me more confused than ever and I think that’s where a lot of white people are on this issue. Sorry, I mean Caucasians. Or, no, I mean European-Americans. Whatever. My perplexity on this issue didn’t start in Suffolk. It just got worse here.

When I was a young Marine, the drill instructors dealt with race by making it clear that there are only dark green recruits and light green recruits. But that training didn’t erase what lied beneath in the hearts of many Marines. I remember being on the back of one of the tanks I operated in the mid-1990s. A group of us were shooting the breeze as we pretended to work. Seconds after the only dark green Marine left the tank the black jokes started. I was appalled, and I said so. I left after the silent stares got too awkward. I didn’t know what else to say.

Sometime later that same dark green Marine got offended when he heard me listening to music from a black rap artist, as though I was somehow infringing upon his blackness. Twenty years later, I moved Suffolk. Here I have experienced everything from being the only white preacher invited to a black man’s ordination service at a mostly black church to having a Christian man make it clear that black people don’t belong in “his” church.

I have a few black friends with whom my wife and I laugh and joke and talk completely openly about race. We even have inside jokes that people outside of our circle of friendship would absolutely think to be very inappropriate. We love each other and we can talk openly, but I don’t think that we should keep silent about race until we are good friends. His point is well made and valid, but I’m talking about race with you right now. So was Dennis when he wrote his piece. We need discussion with friends, but we also need a public dialogue like this.

We need to call out racism and voluntary segregation where it exists for the plague that it is. We need to stop fearing it. We need to alter our inner voice on this matter and stop fearing the conversation.

Chris Surber is pastor of Cypress Chapel Christian Church in Suffolk. Visit his website at