Dangling Conversation

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.

And another:

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.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
This entry was posted in Martha's Vineyard, musing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Dangling Conversation

  1. Juleann says:

    Hal’s point is well taken . . .

    I believe this specific case will go on to the federal courts continuing the discussion of civil rights.

    Please don’t forget that the lack of meaningful immigration reform also reflects deep-seated protracted racism. The Democratic party has (yet again) gone to sleep on this one, allowing militarization of the border to define the bottom-line. I find this issue — and the recent vote on the Farm Bill — to be more disheartening than the Trayvon Martin verdict. Together they reflect mean-spirited stinginess towards millions of people — while making sure that Corporate America gets paid handsomely. And corporate america is who really pays the Vineyard’s bills. If we are really being honest, really talking about uncomfortable truths.


  2. Hal Davis says:

    The issue, as Obama pointed out, as have others, involves inequitable racial outcomes under Stand Your Ground. As he and others pointed out, Trayvon Martin was also standing *his* ground. Had he been the survivor, would the Sanford, Fla., police and prosecutors shrugged and njot charged him?


  3. Shirley says:

    You are right, Susanna……


  4. Sara Crafts says:

    Good article, Susanna … hate to play the spoiler, Sharon Stewart, but I do think the Trayvon discussion, after seizing us all for a week or so, has been left to the black community to pursue, with the usual suspect white “liberals” as I think we were once called (now with canes in our hands and lines on our faces; who remembers being at the March on Washington?), joining in at the back of this march. I’m not surprised by the statistics, the same statistics crop up time and again when race is involved in any controversy. It’s so incredibly disheartening.


  5. susan robinson says:

    This is the best of anything I’ve read in a long time.


  6. Sharon Stewart says:

    I don’t understand those white statistics. Did we not follow the same story? I suppose there is such a think as viewing the world through a racist lens, but I was not exposed to it when I was growing up in Canada (though I daresay there’s pockets of it here now). I let facts stand for themselves whenever I can (perhaps because I’m a scientist). Anyhow, I don’t think America is letting the Trayvon conversation be shut down, and this is a good thing. He is a symbol now, and his tragic death will be a turning point, whether white people approve or not.


    • You’re more optimistic than I am. 😦 That WaPo-ABC poll broke the results down further by party affiliation (Democrat, GOP, Independent) and by politics (liberal, moderate, conservative). Democrats and liberals were much more likely than Republicans and conservatives to disapprove of the verdict and to believe that the shooting was unjustified. Even allowing that African Americans are much more likely to identify as Democrats than as Republicans, this suggests that plenty of white people do get it. The U.S. isn’t having just one conversation about this. It’s having at least two. One assumes that injustice was done. The other bends over backwards to pin all the blame on Trayvon Martin. Very few people are participating in both conversations.

      I’m not sure how I’d answer the question about approve/disapprove of the verdict. I disapprove of the outcome, but given Florida law, the evidence presented, and the fact that Trayvon wasn’t there, I can’t fault the jury for reaching those verdicts.


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