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A Nation of Cowards: Our Collective Fear of Talking About Race

Today's post is from Thomas N. DeWolf, the author of Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, published by Beacon Press. Tom speaks regularly at schools, conferences, and other events around the country. For further information go to: www.inheritingthetrade.com, where you can also read his Inheriting the Trade blog.

Book Cover of Inheriting the Trade, links to Beacon Press page for bookIt stung in that hotel room in Cape Coast, Ghana when Juanita said (which you can see in the film of our journey, Traces of the Trade) "white people have been cowards."

It stung to hear the words. It stung because they were true; certainly in my case. I just didn't know how to talk about issues of race. I certainly didn't know how to talk about it with people of color.

This week Attorney General Eric Holder, in comments before the Justice Department in regards to Black History Month, said we've been "a nation of cowards," which pretty much includes everyone, when it comes to talking about race relations.

I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with a friend of mine, a woman of color, when she told me that black people--in general--have issues they don't discuss around white people. Centuries of oppression have resulted in instinctual mistrust that renders certain topics taboo. I get that. It makes perfect sense. She said she knows that white people have secrets that they keep from black folks as well. On this, I was dumbfounded, as was our other friend at the table--a white woman--sitting with us. "White people don’t have secrets," I said. "I guess we don't have to. We don't have to talk about issues of race. So we don’t."

I remember another encounter during our family journey where two black men disagreed about who has the hardest time talking about issues of race--black folks or white folks.

It's messy. It's complicated. There are no easy answers. What I so appreciate about A.G. Holder's comments is that he so clearly stated that if we want to understand the heart of our country we need to understand our racial soul. We, all of us, simply don't talk with each other enough about racial issues. When we are willing to be understanding enough, and tolerant enough, of each other we have the opportunity for progress.

"To respect one another we must have a basic understanding of one another."

Amen, brother.

If you haven't heard Holder's words you owe it to yourself to take a few minutes and watch him here.

You may also be interested in Sherrilyn Ifill's post on the debate over what Obama's presidency means for blacks on the left and on the right, Jeremy Adam Smith's post about self-segregation among children, and Laila Halaby's post about how to create a respectful discussion about cultural and racial differences.

This post originally appeared at Thomas Norman DeWolf's Inheriting the Trade blog.