Here we go again, people calling for us to have a conversation about race. But I think it is time to have a conversation about having a conversation. Last year, when Starbucks urged its customers to engage in a discussion of race relations while waiting to be served their first cup of coffee, they pushed the idea to the point that people were making jokes about it, and soon the policy was abandoned. Most of the time, the need for such a conversation is expressed in a general way, it being left to our imagination about when, where, and with whom that conversation would take place. By filling in the specific details, Starbucks provided us with more of an occasion for laughter than conversation.
Of course, race is not the only thing we are enjoined to have a conversation about, but it is the subject most often said to be in need of such. Whatever the subject, though, I still have not quite figured out what that conversation is supposed to sound like, or what it is expected to accomplish. In a way, this talk about the need to have a conversation is akin to the older notion about the need to communicate. Unfortunately, people often communicate perfectly well, and then find that they just don’t like what they hear. It is not that people fail to communicate in such circumstances; it’s that they avoid communicating because they do not want to have an argument. Those who persist in calling for communication, on the other hand, often have a built-in expectation of agreement and capitulation that is not realistic. In a similar way, people calling for a conversation about race assume that the conversation will not consist of anything that is politically incorrect, insensitive, or hateful. And as we have seen, people can be expelled from school or lose their job if caught expressing the wrong views on this issue.
Now, this is not a problem for egalitarians. They believe that all races are equal, especially since they believe race is just a social construct anyway. They love their fellow man, and just don’t understand why we cannot all get along. I suppose these egalitarians can talk to one another and have that conversation, patting themselves on the back for their enlightened views. Other than making themselves feel good, however, I don’t see what that would accomplish.
Then there are those who are racists. Some racists are filled with hate, detesting those who are different. Others do not hate, but merely despise, regarding some races as being mentally and morally inferior to their own. Others still merely have an aversion to those who are different, so that they do not wish to socialize with other races, and certainly do not want to marry them. Finally, there are secondary racists, people who fear the racism of others, and therefore prefer to live in a neighborhood or go to a school where their race predominates, rather than in a neighborhood or school where they stand out as different, perhaps making themselves an object of racial hatred. Racists can and do have conversations about race, but I don’t think they are the sort that those calling for a conversation have in mind.
Most racists keep their views to themselves in mixed company. By “mixed,” I mean not only when they are around people of a different race, but also when around those who are egalitarians. Of course, some racists are bellicose in nature and will not hesitate to express their views regardless of the situation, relishing the opportunity to vent their spleen. But most will be circumspect, waiting until they get a sense of those they do not know very well before expressing their true feelings.
Although some may find this incongruous, a lot of racists are too polite to let on, if they think there is a chance that they might give offense. Around people of another race or around egalitarians of the same race, they will avoid a conversation about race as much as possible. In a pinch, they will lie, for they know what is expected of them. In short, a conversation between egalitarians and racists will either be quite hostile and vehement, if the racist does not care about being rude, or, as is more often the case, it will be hypocritical and disingenuous. Polite racists will feign a politically correct attitude and then change the subject. As a result, conversations about race will not accomplish anything in these situations either.
This leads to an asymmetrical situation. Those who call for a conversation about race are invariably egalitarians. They are comfortable in doing so, because their views on the subject are laudable, and they can simply speak their mind without fear of censure. Polite racists, on the other hand, never call for such a conversation, because they dread having to feign beliefs they do not have. They can fake it for a minute or two, but a long, drawn out conversation on race will simply wear them out and increase their chance of making a slip.
Perhaps those calling for a conversation suppose that if racists are forced to have conversations with egalitarians, they will eventually succumb. Just as getting people to say the Lord’s Prayer in church might be thought to instill religious belief, or getting people to say the Pledge of Allegiance might be thought to instill a sense of patriotism, so too might it be supposed that getting people to say the right things about race will instill the proper egalitarian attitude.
But as noted above, such a conversation is unfair to racists. Therefore, instead of calling for a conversation, which requires racists to be adept in saying what is required of them in different contexts and circumstances, we might instead call for the Oath of Equality, in which everyone recites a rote speech about how everyone is created equal regardless of race, and that everyone should be treated equally, and so on.
Now, just as no atheist ever became a Christian by repeatedly citing the Lord’s Prayer, and no traitor ever became a patriot by saying the Pledge of Allegiance, so too will no racist ever be converted to egalitarianism by saying the Oath of Equality. But then, no conversation is going to change a racist’s views either. At least the Oath of Equality will be less of a burden on the racist, something he can recite with indifference.
By this time it may be wondered why I am being so solicitous as to the plight of the racist. Though not a racist myself, yet I feel their pain. After all, racism is not a matter of choice. By virtue of some combination of genetic predisposition and environmental influence, their prejudice and bigotry is a fact of their character from which no exercise of free will can liberate them. Their need to dissemble requires that they not be taxed with a long conversation about race that can only lead to their being outed in spite of themselves.
The proposed Oath of Equality is a reasonable compromise. It will allow the racist to say the proper thing when called for, without creating for him the undue burden that a conversation would entail, and without putting him at risk for being found out or of inadvertently hurting the feelings of others.