The dangling conversation has many variations. Here’s one:
Summer resident: It couldn’t be easy, dealing with all these people all summer long.
Year-round Vineyarder: Well, the traffic does get to me, and working three jobs when the kids are out of school is exhausting . . .
Summer resident: But you’re so lucky to be able to live in such a beautiful place.
Summer resident: I bet you’ll be glad when Labor Day comes, huh.
Year-round Vineyarder: Yeah, it’s sort of a relief.
Summer resident: But if it weren’t for us, how would you people make a living?
Some variations involve only year-rounders:
Vineyarder #1: It took half an hour to get from Radio Shack to Five Corners this afternoon, then when I was finally on Beach Road heading toward OB the drawbridge went up.
Vineyarder #2: No kidding. The other day at the fish market a lady started yelling at the clerk because the oysters weren’t organic. Organic oysters? Summer people, some are not.
Vineyarder #3: Say what you will, we need them.
And here the conversation goes into indefinite-dangle mode.
Even when they bring it up, even if they act oh-so-sympathetic, summer people don’t want to hear too much about what being a year-rounder is like. As a new year-rounder, it didn’t take me long to catch on. Pretty soon I was blowing them off with a pasted-on smile: “Oh, it’s not so bad.”
It didn’t take me long because I’d already learned the drill as a woman. Most men and not a few women would only listen to so much before they got uncomfortable and sent the conversation into infinite-dangle mode with “Well, not all men are monsters, right?” (Uh, were we talking about monsters?)
And as a white, able-bodied person from a privileged class background, I had plenty of experience on the other side too. I knew how to shut a conversation down when it started making me uneasy. I knew how to shut it down in a way that never acknowledged my discomfort, or fear, or anger.
Last week the Washington Post published the results of a Post–ABC News poll about responses to the verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial for the death of Trayvon Martin. From the story: “Among African Americans, 86 percent say they disapprove of the verdict — with almost all of them saying they strongly disapprove — and 87 percent saying the shooting was unjustified.”
For white people, the corresponding figures were 31 percent (disapproved of the verdict) and 33 percent (thought the shooting was unjustified).
Black people and white people don’t live in the same US of A. From the moment we’re born, the color of our skin, and of our parents’ skin, starts creating the US we’re going to live in. Still, no high walls or wide rivers separate these various USAs. Our psychic maps may be different, but we can, black and white, communicate our experiences to each other.
We can, but we don’t. The silence you hear is hundreds of thousands of millions of dangling conversations. Privilege — in this case white-skin privilege — doesn’t have to hear anything it doesn’t want to hear. Privilege can shut down the conversation. Non-privilege learns to be circumspect, even evasive; to nudge potentially risky conversations onto safer ground before Privilege shuts them down.
And before long we’re living in different worlds.
Earlier this month President Obama tried to bridge the worlds by talking about the routine experience of young black men in this country. It was heartfelt, it was brave — it was leadership. I was thrilled. So were a lot of other people. More, I was honored, because the president was trusting me with his thoughts and experiences. To tell another person your truth, your risky, uncomfortable truth, is an act of deep respect.
But some people were outraged. No, I’m not talking about the salivating white right-wing Obamaphobes — they were outraged, sure, but what else is new? I’m talking about the polite white moderates of my acquaintance who generally vote Democratic. Quite a few of them thought the president was being divisive in alluding to experiences that they don’t share. They’re so used to being included in “we” that they feel dissed when “we” is someone else. Why can’t we just be people? they whine.
Because you’re not listening. And because you’re not listening, people aren’t telling you what you really need to hear. And because you aren’t hearing what they’re no longer willing to say, you still don’t get it.