Elephants in a Room Full of White Noise: My Big, Fat, Confusing MLK Weekend

As a child growing up in Prince George's County, Maryland, my memories of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday were those of celebration.  Stevie Wonder's Happy Birthday played on a continual loop over my school's intercom system before the morning announcements.  My classmates and I learned songs like Lift Every Voice and Sing and basic choreography routines (i.e. clap sway left, clap sway right) in preparation for the school's MLK assembly (and our music teacher Ms. Harris encouraged some of us to help the more, let's say, "rhythmically challenged" classmates stay on beat).  There were oratory and essay contests, field trips to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, and getting out of spelling word drills to watch the next segment of Eyes on the Prize.

As a college student and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I learned what it meant to observe the holiday through celebration and service.  So we still sang, danced, wrote essays and gave speeches.  But we also gave out scholarships to public school students, picked up trash on neglected highways, and visited lonely nursing home residents.  And every once in a while a great speaker or two like Cornel West or Nikki Giovanni would come through to share their words of wisdom.

This year my MLK holiday weekend began at the Museum of Science's new exhibit called Race: Are We So Different? Honestly, I thought that in some ways, the answer was "yes" but it was clear from the exhibit that my answer was supposed to be "no."  My husband and I visited the museum with friends who are also a married, interracial couple, so I found it comically ironic that we had to drop a "yes, we're together" when the museum volunteer at the exhibit entrance failed to recognize our husbands as the other two members of our party of four.  Once we got inside and looked around we thought "Oh, we'll be in and out of this place in like fifteen minutes max."  An hour and a half later the four of us met up to debrief about the exhibit and our impressions.  Personally, I was struck by how many of the first recorded references to race in Colonial America (and laws instituting racial segregation) were prompted by a fears of interracial marriage between whites and free blacks. At times I found the exhibit depressing, particularly the section about the history of blacks in America.  And I felt the exhibit lacked a certain realistic groundedness as to how race impacts contemporary, American life.  While I can appreciate how humans are more alike than different in terms of gene sequences, and how you couldn't tell the difference between races if we all had our skin ripped off, and how all human beings can trace their origins to Africa, the reality is that while God may not look on the outward appearance, humans do it all the time.

On Sunday we went to church, and since I've attended non-denominational, multi-ethnic churches for most of my life, I'm used to hearing at least an MLK shout-out at church the Sunday before the holiday.  Still, I was surprised when I looked down at my church bulletin and saw the title of day's sermon, Grace and Race: Unity in Diversity.  I have a short attention span so most Sunday mornings at church are a struggle for me anyway, but I made a concerted effort to listen.  For the first time in my life I sit under the teaching of a Korean pastor and attend a church with a dominant/majority culture that is pan-Asian (Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, etc.).  So I when the sermon began going down the path of black-white race relations I started furrowing my eyebrows (think Chloe from the first season of 24).  I thought it was interesting that the sermon challenged us to look at our social networks and evaluate whether we have people in our lives who can impact us that don't look like us.  And if so, we were to ask ourselves whether these people were just token friends or more like family.  But as we walked home I wondered why we weren't challenged to ask ourselves how we'd react if our kids started marrying the kids of those "friends who don't look like us and are like family."

On Monday I attended the 41st Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Breakfast at the Boston Convention Center, an event I've had the opportunity to attend for the last four years.  After a series of invocations, musical selections, and greetings from our esteemed head table (including Senator Scott Brown's "Can't we all just get along?!"), Princeton Professor Dr. Melissa Perry-Harris delivered the keynote address, comparing the political and social climate of 2011 to 1967 when Dr. King asked: "Where do we go from here? Chaos or Community?"  At the conclusion of Dr. Harris' speech, after the standing ovation died down and we had all reclaimed our seats, the emcee took a moment to recognize the speaker's husband who was in attendance recognizing that "behind every strong woman is a strong man!"  In my years of attending the breakfast this is the first time I remembered this happening and as Dr. Harris' husband stood, received his applause and sat down, I secretly hoped that any husband, regardless of his skin color, would receive the same honor and recognition.

So as an adult living in Boston, I've gained a greater sensitivity for how the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday prompts discussions around race like no other day of the year. For the first time in my life I experienced what I call "race talk overload."  For eleven months, three weeks, and six days our society largely avoids substantive discussions around race and then suddenly, race is playing non-stop for twenty-four hours, just like Stevie Wonder playing all morning in my elementary school.  Now I always welcome a good, thoughtful, discussion on just about anything.  Heck, I was raised in a family where our love language is arguing!  But I question whether our MLK race talks accomplish anything other than maintaining the status quo of elephants in a room filled with white noise: meaningless and distracting chatter about obvious problems that no one wants to discuss.  And I yearn for conversations about race that aren't treated like holiday greeting cards at CVS: confined to a particular space for a particular season and then tossed out before the next holiday is even on the horizon.

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