How to get along

Published 8:28 am Saturday, February 28, 2009

Suppose that a husband, every time he hurt his wife’s feelings, intentionally or not, told her huffily: “Get over it. You’re being oversensitive.”

She’d never “get over it,” bitterness would set in, and the relationship would deteriorate.

Suppose the same wife continually wore her feelings on her sleeve, looked for a slight behind her husband’s every remark, and accused him of evil motives every time her feelings were hurt, which was often.

They’d be on a fast track to divorce court.

The point is that insensitivity and distrust are equally harmful, will cause friction in any relationship and will, over time, sever it. Therein lay the crux of the modest racial tension that exists in Franklin, where a divisive school board appointment and the political drama surrounding it last month sent some people of both races into a tizzy.

Now that a few weeks have passed and the passion has subsided, there’s an opportunity as a community to learn from the experience. Some folks — black and white — will choose not to. They’d rather be indignant and bitter. Such is their prerogative. They’ll want to stop reading here, for the rest of this column is for those interested in improved race relations and in being part of the solution.

But for the fact that a decent man, David Benton, was at the center of the storm, I found the controversy over his reappointment to the school board enlightening, educational and even useful.

As an out-of-touch white guy, I learned much about the prism through which some of my black friends view my race. To illustrate the problem of low parental participation in the city schools, I too might have talked about “chicken dinners” and their value in enticing people to a function. Or maybe I’d said barbecue or hamburgers. Point is, I wouldn’t have given much thought to the food type in making the point.

Those of us who work for community newspapers, for as long as I can remember, have referred collectively to announcements about civic, school and church events as “chicken-dinner news.” That news comes to us from people and institutions of all colors. I’ve never pondered the possibility of any racial undertones in the jargon.

As a result of the Benton debacle, I accept the fact that some black people whom I respect find “chicken dinner” offensive. If I’m inclined to use it in public dialog or in this column going forward, I will know to resist the urge, to clarify the context or to accept that some will find it offensive.

To borrow from the modern vernacular, it is what it is. I won’t be indignant, and I won’t tell anyone to “get over it,” primarily because that emotion and those words won’t do an iota of good for my relationship with my black friends and black readers.

To those same friends and readers, I will say this: If you look for opportunities to be offended in this life, you will find them. Racism, thank God, isn’t what it once was, but it still exists and always will, though each generation will become slightly more enlightened than the last. Too much real racism, both overt and subtle, exists for anyone to have to seek it out. Life will be much more joyful if you save your anger for those who deserve it.

Most important, for both races, is to find value in and be respectful of the dialog, which should include space for one to say he’s offended and the other to say he meant no harm — and for both to accept the other’s sincerity. From the conversation — whether in a private setting or in council chambers at City Hall — will come better understanding and a more harmonious future for our biracial city.