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Better Left Unsaid? : Not discussing race may allow us to avoid unpleasant situations. But some wonder if we can ever move forward without confronting our fears.

January 30, 1994|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are no manuals. No widely syndicated columns offering tried-and-true advice, no well-worn para digms from which to trace a trail. If Thomas Brothers commissioned a clear map of the territory, retail-outlets--the country and world over--would struggle to keep it on the racks.

Many wander through this maze--foggy as it is forbidding--and it often seems impossible to find the way out. Stumbling free, one hopes never to repeat the trip.

For all the well-meaning attempts to build bridges, the discussion of race remains, even now, taboo--off-limits like personal finance queries or religious discussions among strangers.

Race is the crashing crystal at the well-appointed dinner party at dusk. The only difference is that, afterward, seldom does anyone offer to help clean up the mess.

*

In San Francisco's North Beach, shortly after 5 p.m., five women install themselves at a cocktail table. The drink is wine; the topic, women's issues. Conversation blooms surprisingly exploratory, commensurately emotional.

One shares details of her rape, more than a dozen years past. The others are compassionate, holding the speaker protectively in their collective gaze. Until, that is, she mentions that her attacker was black.

Conversation careens into a wall of silence. Eyes shift to goings-on outside or are suddenly transfixed to the table's water rings. The women--two black, three white--shift in their seats until one voice (a black woman's) gingerly pulls them from silence.

"I felt prickly all over my body. I felt slapped, personally chastised for bringing it up," says the woman, who is white. The experience has permanently altered the way she tells the tale. Since it was never discussed, she can only ponder the details, the roots of silence:

"My perception was that the discomfort was about something I said. I guess they felt that I was feeding a stereotype." Not harboring race-based resentment, she says, she was simply blindly grabbing at details, filling in the picture. "I made (all the women) uncomfortable and I felt bad for bringing it up. It had the effect," she says with a leaden laugh, "of the sinking of the Titanic."

Altering a few details, this scenario is probably uncomfortably familiar. Maybe you were there, maybe you spoke the words. Or maybe you were on the receiving end. If so, you've probably had time to ponder the possible outcomes and decide which is worse: A storm of words or a blanket of silence?

Slogans of peace and harmony that haunt the recent past ring hollow, sometimes inspiring a cynical chuckle. The reticence to broach matters of race and have adult--and, quite possibly, charged--discussions only underscores a nation's failings and the arduous work ahead.

"The inability to talk about race in anything resembling honest terms compounds the very misunderstanding that renders silence necessary," writes Ellis Cose, contributing editor and essayist for Newsweek, in his book "The Rage of a Privileged Class."

"For those blacks and whites who come into closest contact, it stands as a huge barrier to their ever truly accepting one another or finding common ground."

Like a tumbleweed, the subject of race gathers all sorts of cast-aside delicate issues in the course of its travels: class or privilege, or an exact definition of who and what is racist. People prefer not to have that tense, if not unpleasant conversation. Instead we walk in circles; talk in metaphors. The avoidance at times is as intricate and showy as a modern dance phrase.

"There are no social graces when race is concerned," says Patricia D. Johnson, 35, a counselor who specializes in interracial/multicultural issues. "I know when I walk in a room and start talking about it, people bounce off the walls or the room goes silent. But I realize that is so unconscious. . . . People just are so afraid."

The fear manifests in various guises, finds roots in fertile ground. There is fear of committing a faux pas; fear of the consequential reprimand--just for starters.

And some feel most uncomfortable tackling the subject in racially or ethnically mixed groups, fearful they lack not just the knowledge, but the language to do so as well. In his collection of essays, "Race Matters," professor and theologian Cornel West says most Americans "remain trapped in the narrow framework of the dominant liberal and conservative views of race in America, which with its worn-out vocabulary leaves us intellectually debilitated, morally disempowered and personally depressed."

Still others ponder whether they may harbor deep-seated racism that might leap from their lips at an inopportune moment, or that a comment may not be perceived as "politically correct" enough.

More and more often, well-meaning souls are afraid to step into that fraught arena, Johnson has found. For some, the tentativeness is so great, they subconsciously choose not to address, let alone recognize, the matter. Rather, they deny its very existence.

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