It’s always a tricky bit of navigation when your friends say or do something ignorant. I remember a couple of occasions in church, I was attending a mostly white church at the time, and one of the members patted me on head. On another occasion, the pastor compared me to “a faithful dog” from the pulpit. For better or worse, I chalked those things up to well-meaning, but ignorant gestures. Perhaps she didn’t get the memo that the whole rub the head of a black guy has some pretty racist origins or maybe he didn’t get that comparing black folks to animals might not play well considering a history or dehumanization. I often got the “you’re the whitest black guy I know” (which I often heard as “you’re the only black guy I know and I only associate with you because you sound and seem to act a lot like me so you don’t scare me”) because I don’t “sound” black.

Which is why it didn’t exactly shock me that Senator Harry Reid had described Obama—as reported in the new political gossip book, “Game Change” by John Heileman and Mark Halperin—as a “light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” There was a steady chorus of people who bought into the idea that “the first black president” is actually not black.* The comments were being made on both sides of the political aisle and from across the spectrum of race. The “am I black enough for you” debate even raged in the black community (Reverend Jesse Jackson says what?).**

Race is the third rail in politics, in the church, and, well, most of our lives. If there is to be any hope of reconciliation, there has to be a sharing and hearing of stories and some of the conversations are going to be tough (and, as a friend of mine points out, you can’t have a conversation about anything by starting it with “Your voice doesn’t count.”) Now, I know some Republicans want to make hay of this incident, calling folks on the seeming-hypocrisy of Senator Trent Lott having to step down over his comments versus the gymnastics folks do to defend someone they like. And they’d have a point, except that conversations about race shouldn’t happen in a vacuum, but rather have a context. (Though, seriously, Senator Lott, how do you think trying to spin someone’s segregationist past is a good idea or that it wouldn’t get you into trouble? But again, if you have built up a lot of good will, you can step into such firestorms to make the point you thought you were making because friends can have those kind of tough conversations. If you don’t have that kind of good will built up…]

Every few years we have these sort of dust ups, so we were about due. Not too long ago we had Don Imus referring to the women of the Rutgers basketball team as “some nappy-headed hos.” After so many offenses, he rather struck me as an equal opportunity offender, but it led to the conversation about how there are some words and phrases “off limits” to certain folks in certain contexts and the situation resolved by the offended parties speaking up and reprimands given.

We also had Kelly Tilghman, play-by-play announcer for The Golf Channel’s PGA Tour broadcasts, while bantering with Nick Faldo about young players who might challenge Woods suggesting that they “lynch him in a back alley.” In short, it’s stupid and you can’t say it. However, I don’t think she should have been suspended. I think her apology should have stood on its own, she should have been simply reprimanded, and the conversations had about why what she said was a poor choice of words. We can’t police every bad sentence, because that would stifle conversations that still need to be had.

“I’ve apologized to the president, I’ve apologized to everyone that within the sound of my voice that I could have used a better choice of words,” Reid has said. Apologies happen for a reason. Sometimes folks simply don’t get that what they did was hurtful or demeaning and their apologies should stand and be accepted on their face value (even if the incidents themselves aren’t forgotten because we know that forgiveness takes time). Just like folks ought to be judged by their deeds and track record.

Just because folks are your friends doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of saying and doing ignorant things. Just like I’m sure there will be another RaceFail conversation in the genre fiction world as we muddle through what it means to live with one another, deal with the history of hurts with of one another, be different from one another, and respect one another.

*Now, I can’t wait to see the gymnastics folks do if President Bill Clinton’s alleged comment about President Obama—“ a few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.”—prove to be accurate. After all, President Clinton was widely held as our “first black president.”

** Better to discuss this than the reality of what it means to be black in America, dealing with what W.E.B. DuBois called the “double consciousness” of black folks. How many of us may “act” or “speak” one way when we are in professional settings and then another when we’re at home or in a “safe” place.

[That and sometimes our “friends” are just too ignorant for words: "I'm blacker than Barack Obama. I shined shoes. I grew up in a five-room apartment. My father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived," ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said to Esquire Magazine. "I saw it all growing up."] With a h/t to the blackfolks LJ: