Last year, my cousin and I went to Chicago Ideas Week to see the talk,
Life’s Big Questions. All of the speakers were incredible, but I was blown away by
Jose Vargas. He was articulating, without fear, what many immigrants feel on a
daily basis. He spoke about being afraid in America and the lengths he went to in
order to hide his immigrant status. I wasn’t sure how the audience would take to
a guy like Jose Vargas and the things he was saying. I mean, we were in the middle
of a racially tense America. I was well aware that bringing this type of conversation to the forefront might make people a little uncomfortable, but this dude had guts! He wasn’t sugar-coating anything. He was challenging the audience and they were speechless. I left the Life’s Big Questions talk not only a fan of Jose Vargas, but also
inspired. “We are going to have to do something that we and the country don’t know how to do; which is how to have more honest, uncomfortable conversations with each other,” Vargas stated. I believe this to be true.
After the Life’s Big Questions talk, my cousin and I decided we would attend the
meet-up. It was held across the street at a local bar. We arrived at the dark spot and looked around. There were small, yellow signs sitting on top of the high tables that read, “Chicago Ideas Week.” We made our way over and ordered drinks. After a few moments, a gentleman started speaking to us.
He was tall with shaggy, brown hair and looked like he was in his late twenties. We began discussing the Life’s Big Questions talk and it was clear the man had a lot to say. He finally asked which speaker I liked best. I replied that I loved Jose Vargas’ speech. A quizzical look appeared on his face, “Really?”
“Really,” I said. “I found his talk fascinating.”
“Don’t you think people should keep silent about race? Don’t you think talking about it makes things worse?”
It was an odd moment. His question seemed more like a judgment than an actual question, but I answered him anyway out of politeness.
“No, I don’t,” I said. “I actually think that’s a huge part of the problem.”
A look of disgust appeared on his face. Then, he lifted his eyebrows and shrugged
before shaking his head. He quickly changed the subject. At first, it irritated me. Why did he ask a question he didn’t want to hear the answer to? Was he trying to shame me into silence? What is it about talking about race and ethnicity that makes people like him so uncomfortable?
I am no stranger to this type of silencing. In the past, I’ve been silenced by teachers, bosses, doctors, and others on more than one occasion. It could have been because of my gender or my ethnicity or a host of other details, but the point is, I was familiar. I realized then that it had been a long time since I’d experienced this type of shaming from a younger person. Honestly, it startled me. If I could have this type of interaction with a man open-minded enough to attend Chicago Ideas Week and the meet-up
afterward who was still as closed-minded as he was, then how many other people are dealing with this kind of shutdown in their own lives?
Since then, I’ve noticed many memes around the internet where one hand is being placed over another person’s mouth as a form of silencing: a man’s hand over a woman’s mouth, a white woman’s hand over a minority woman’s mouth, etc. Are we not supposed to have discussions about real issues? I’ve also noticed that there is this explanation floating around online that the reason race issues are so touchy lately is because we keep talking about them. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Do people really believe that? Because if they do, we have a serious problem in the United States where we are not only afraid to talk about racism, but we are trying to stop others from talking about racism. Why? What are we so afraid of?
The reason race issues seem so tense lately is because they are, but they always have been. The difference between then and now is that more and more people have
access to social media and they are using it to gather together, fight back, and
challenge stereotypes. There is a definite inequality going on in the United States that people do not want to admit to and a lot of that has to do with both race and gender. I’m not sure why this is so difficult to talk about. Maybe people feel as if they will
offend somebody with their words. I’m not sure. I believe that words are powerful tools and we need to be able to discuss our thoughts with one another in a
There is an unfair advantage that has been given to the majority in several instances. Again, I am not sure why this is so difficult to admit to. It is the truth. I’m not saying this to be offensive or to make anybody feel guilty or uncomfortable. I am saying it because we have to stop lying to ourselves about who we really are. Until we can
admit who we are, we cannot change things for the better.
We have got to break out of this mindset that talking about issues of race and
ethnicity are bad. Being quiet on these issues doesn’t make them just disappear.
Silencing is not problem-solving. Suppressing doesn’t absolve one of the
responsibility to fix what we are all a part of. It is up to all of us to make this country a beautiful and livable place not only for ourselves but for all of our future generations. We have the power to change. This is the kind of legacy I want to be a part of.
I’m not going to say that there aren’t going to be problems along the way because there will be, but we owe it to ourselves to try to change things for the better. This tension that we are feeling, our children are feeling as well. It’s unfair to leave them with a disjointed country and expect them to fix the problems we’ve both inherited and created.
So, how do we begin to fix this mess? I believe the key is challenging one’s belief
system. Whenever you have a strong reaction to a news story or a conversation, stop and ask yourself, why do I feel like this? Where did these ideas come from? Bring up issues of race and ethnicity around dinner time every once in a while. Use news
stories as a way to begin deep, honest conversations with your family. Listen to your children and respond with respect. Help guide them through the conversation in a loving way. After all, they are the next generation.
What kind of world do you want your children to inherit? What will you do to make this a reality?