Using the "n-- word" in front of me is not a good strategy for endearing yourself, and so I'm more than a little surprised at myself for writing to you during these "30 days to 30" of meaningful influence. We were discussing the recent neighborhood break-ins, and you made it clear that you believed the thieves were black. "Now I'm not racist," you said, "but there's black people and then there's n-------s."
You were not the first person to ever say such things in front of me. My home state of Indiana has a nasty legacy of racism that often works its way into conversation (this is an extreme, but not isolated, example). Even my own grandmother, unhappy that we had hired Miss Dorsie to "look in" on her as her memory and health failed, would trouble my heart by saying things like, "I think that black woman you hired is stealing my candy." (She actually came to love Dorsie very much, but that is worth its own story).
Even so, your words shocked me. Our conversations to this point had been bland and neighborly: the success or failure of tomato plants, varieties of dog food for a shiny coat. But that evening, I was in turmoil. Normally when you talk--for you talk a great deal--I nod and smile, but of course I couldn't keep smiling. Turmoil: what should I say? what authority do I have to say anything? God, forgive me.
Afraid to tackle your word and assumptions directly, I think I mumbled some story about some neighborhood teens who had done an excellent job cutting my grass, to which you responded that they were probably casing my house in preparation to rob me. At the point I created an excuse to leave the conversation and finish my walk.
That conversation left a bad taste in my mouth. I was ashamed of myself for not saying more, but I also could not imagine what I could have said. The simplest, and perhaps the best, would have been "Please don't use such language in front of me." But a thing is no less hard because it is simple and good.
I spent a week reflecting on the many ways in which cowardice enervates virtue; if nothing else, I should thank you for prompting that stern lesson.
I am really writing, however, to thank you for not letting the story end here. A few days ago, as I was taking Cora out on a run, you called to me from your backyard. Heart sinking, I stopped. Without any preliminary small talk, you said, "I haven't had any peace since we talked last week. I'm sorry for the words I used. When I spoke, your face just fell, and I thought, 'Would I have said that in front of my daughter? Would I have said it in front of my black friends?' And of course the answer was no. Your face--it just fell. I'm so sorry."
This was a much more tender shock. I lingered for a while, and we talked about words and their power, and you, perhaps in a lopsided effort to show equal-opportunity suspicion, suggested that perhaps the thieves were a white family that had been renting a house nearby.
It was a strangely redemptive answer to the the worries that had been nagging at me. One apology cannot heal all things, but it helps. It helps me remember that patterns of fear and suspicion change slowly, but they can change. Perhaps for now only your language has changed, but that may herald more. It helps me remember that I have my own prejudices--racial, social, economic, religious--and that I must never let those unthinking, unloving assumptions control my language. It helps me remember that the Holy Spirit can speak through conscience, through sad eyes and troubled faces, even when his servants are tongue-tied.