In the previous post, I said I came away from my first Race Talk with some reservations.
Let me start with a story.
There’s no militarism like the old Prussian militarism: the small, almost barren region in the northeastern quadrant of Germany came to dominate 19th-century Central Europe almost entirely because of the skill with which its military forces had conducted wars against France, against Russia, and against Austria. The most epic struggle was conducted against all three at once, with Frederick the Great of Prussia at the helm.
The cavalry commander whom Frederick most relied upon, von Zieten, is credited with having founded an effective Prussian cavalry arm (his appointment shows Frederick’s ability to pick competent subordinates: prior to his having been selected for advancement, von Zieten fought a lot of duels [prohibited to military officers] and received rebukes for these and other insubordinate acts).
His son, well into the 19th century, received near the end of his life a visit from the King of Prussia, basically in honor of his father. The king and the old man went out to the graveyard behind the manor house, where the second von Zieten had put up a stone marker.
“Von Zieten!” said the king. “This marker has a flaw!”
“Your Majesty, the one who will rest under it has many more.”
So, understand at the start that the author of this essay has plenty of his own shortcomings: what follows is a (it is to be hoped) honest effort at evaluation of what I saw and did at the Race Talk I attended on 14 May 2013, the 26th in the series.
Before the talking started, I picked up a paper at my table headed “Follow-up Activity”. “Go out and make friends with a person in your own ethnic group AND a person of color/white in the next month.” This recommendation, I am not making this up, was prefaced “Just for fun”, all in capital letters.
I think I could number my friends on both hands. Acquaintances, I have a few, but friends, not so many. In the course of a year, I might meet a new friend. Or not. The person who wrote this “follow-up activity” lives in a totally different mental universe from the one I inhabit.
But I didn’t have to read as far as the second bullet point to realize that; the first one asked me how many people of color “are on [my] ‘speed dial’ as Real — all caps again — friends. . .?” I have never used a speed dial. I do not bother. I don’t make that many phone calls, to make learning how to do it worth while. And my real friends are not people I telephone a lot. They’re people to whom I write letters. Perhaps once a month.
The person who began and fostered this whole program, of which I was attending the 26th program, then spoke up, starting the program.
. . . .
“Perhaps you didn’t hear me. I said ‘Good Evening’ .”
And the whole room parrotted back, “Good evening.”
The speaker explained that she is or was an elementary-schoolteacher; I was more than a little put off that, in order to make her feel comfortable, I was asked to behave as if I were an elementary-school student. I am not and have not been one for 50-odd years. The whole effort began to seem a lot less serious for me: I still wanted to hear the speakers — my report on that is in the previous post — but I had issues with the way we were supposedly going about meeting the members of our community of diverse backgrounds. It seems to me we need more maturity, not more infantilization — our mass media provide more than enough of the latter on an hourly, daily, weekly basis.
Remember, we’re asked, “just for fun,” to make two new friends this month, and to do so with forethought about their ethnic grouping. What balderdash! I would really have issues with someone coming up and telling me they want to be friends with me — humph — because I have an Italian name. The scenario played out at our table, in personal terms: one of the attendees, during the “small group discussion,” said how many “people of color” friends she had in New York City, as opposed to here in Portland — using just the ridiculous categories that the Race Talk itself used; and one of the other people at the table told her that that sort of talk put her off completely.
Friends are not things, objects to be categorized. Friends are people with whom you share life, in whom you are interested because you love them. You do things, you think about things, you experience victories and defeats with your friend.
One of the members at our table, a fellow named Al Flory, gave a valuable suggestion for making new friends: he spoke of how, at the Vancouver, Washington YMCA, everyone had urged one another to make friends, but that as soon as he had joined a community organization dedicated to improving some community problem, he had more new friends than he knew how to handle.
It was quite interesting. We came to talk about race but wound up considering what meaning our friends have for us. I’d like to make closer acquaintance with Al Flory; but not, I don’t think, within the Race Talk framework.