An Invitation to Civic Conversations
I have been thinking for some time about the notion of an invitation, and I began to wonder if anyone had invited me to say what I have to say. Most white people, like myself, probably assume that others want to hear what we have to say. That’s why we talk and write so much. I came to realize its not so simple, especially if you want to engage in a conversation with others. I tried to imagine how such a conversation might begin. Here it is:
I would like to share my ideas about how we should live together.
You want to talk to me about how we should live together?
Did I invite you?
Well, no. I do assume we have to live together. Right?
No, not really, and I am not sure if you know what you are asking.
What do you mean?
Do you know enough about me to know whether or not you want to live with me?
Probably not, but I could learn about you if we engage in a conversation about how we want to live together.
Do you really want to learn about me?
Of course, at least as much as you want to know about me?
I already know enough about you.
How can you say that? We have not started sharing.
I know that you think you can engage in a conversation with me whenever you want to.
I guess so. What is wrong with that?
It indicates that you don’t really understand our social differences. Did you notice that I am a different gender and skin color? We really do live in different social worlds. I would never approach you as you have approached me.
Because you remain unaware of things that are different for us, so I cannot really trust you.
My goodness, I didn’t know that. I assumed that I could express my ideas and then you would respond with your ideas, and we could then continue an interesting exchange of ideas.
Sorry, I know I will lose if we engage in such an exchange of ideas. You are really good at dealing with ideas.
You make that sound like a liability.
It’s only a liability when it diverts us from paying attention to what is preventing us from developing a relationship.
I thought we are relating.
Well, we are talking, but so far we have been sending messages to each other, not really engaging in the creation of a conversation that unites us—a conversation that allows us to really see and feel each other’s presence.
What needs to happen for us to move into that kind of conversation?
I need to invite you.
People need an invitation to their common humanity. Without the invitation, we remain trapped in our social differences.
And what is preventing you from inviting me?
As I said, it is a matter of trust.
Listen. We really are in this together. We are both persons who at this moment are engaged in this conversation.
We are not in this together. I live in a legacy of violations of our common humanity through racism sexism, and imperialism, and you do not. In fact, your family has benefited from these inequalities.
OK, I can admit that. Still, I didn’t choose my parents any more than you did. I am not responsible for how things happen.
I am not blaming you. Your privileges make my realities invisible to you. I am expressing the need to repair the violation of our common humanity. Without repair, we will never really be able to invite each other into a truly civic conversation.
I find this really humiliating.
I’m not guilty for what happened years ago. I wasn’t even born, and my parents may be white, but they worked hard for what they got.
Let me ask you something. What makes you feel humiliated?
I feel so presumptuous.
What does that mean?
I assumed I could help improve things. I do have resources. But I didn’t have any idea you would give me so much flack. It’s just uncomfortable.
And why do you feel that way now?
It’s the way you look at me.
You mean the way you see yourself in my eyes?
I don’t know, I just feel vulnerable.
I will not harm you.
Will you protect me?
We have had to protect ourselves from the likes of you for a long time.
I am sorry.
We both live in a violent world, a world that harms some much more than others. These violations of our common humanity need to be repaired.
So, what should we do?
Can I ask you a question?
When you were growing up, did you Mother tell you that you were special?
Well, you are not special. You’re one of us. Just another person
(long pause) That’s a weird idea. I was just accepting the idea that we are different.
We are different, and we are the same. To engage in a meaningful conversation, we must be open to learning what this means. Can you do this?
I can try?
So what do you say?