Ask people that knew me during my formative years for one word that described me best, and nine out of ten times you’ll hear the word “quiet.”
Indeed, I was an exceptionally quiet child.
To this day, although I do speak, should you ever meet me for a one-on-one, make sure to bring a book just in case, as I am far from a natural in the art of keeping a conversation going. After all, I didn’t practice much during my childhood and adolescence, and I generally cannot keep this gaping practice deficit concealed for very long.
Anecdotal evidence suggests I may have been of a somewhat more talkative turn in my very early years, yet I fell ever more reticent with time. Once I entered grammar school, I had adopted silence—or mono-syllabicity in situations where total silence proved impractical, such as when asked whether I wanted vanilla or
chocolate or both—as my predominant mode of communication. Intermittent streaks of loquacious exuberance always quickly gave way to extended mute spells.
In part, my economy of speech resulted from having been an only child. As such, I felt saddled with plenty of default attention even without drawing additional attention to myself by way of speaking up. After all, every time we emit sound—or move, for that matter—we essentially say “Here I am! Look at me!” And that’s precisely what I strove to avoid.
That said, had it been solely for the purpose of deflecting attention, I would eventually have abandoned the silence bit, for I learned that, in a way, being the quiet one in chatty environs attracted even more attention than did chiming in. Rightly or wrongly, silent waters carry an air of depth and mystery—not exactly the kind of impression which to arouse seems most conducive to going unnoticed.
But why else would a child fall silent? After all, I’ve always had a rich and vivid inner life, and I rarely ran out of thoughts, so why would I habitually withhold them?
For the most part, my silence was fueled by a fear of the consequences for saying something wrong.
See, from this moppet’s perspective, the grown-ups (a) wanted me to talk, but (b) only wanted me to say things they wanted to hear—and woe me if I miscalculated and blurted out an opinion, a theory, or a question that didn’t find favor with the adult powers that were, or, God forbid, uttered a playful jest that crossed whatever invisible line they had drawn around me.
In the long run, I found it too confounding and exhausting to maintain two separate reels of material in my little head—one that contained reflections that came naturally to my mind, and a separate one for stuff that would fly with mature audiences—which is why, more often than not, I simply opted to keep to myself lest I incited parental displeasure by transgressing some boundary.
With all due respect to the laudable concept of teaching boundaries, once you plant in someone the seed of discomfort bordering on dread when it comes to speaking freely, not only do you deprive yourself of the chance to find out exactly how that person ticks, but you deprive that person of a potential learning opportunity—for if he doesn’t dare to think aloud, how can you set him straight, i.e., engage him in constructive discussions by providing counterbalancing angles that may cause him to reflect upon and perchance reconsider one or the other half-baked or ill-conceived point of view?
Now, nary a race-related controversy goes by that doesn’t prompt a string of commentators to declare that “we need to talk more about race in this country.”
There’s the problem, of course, and it reminds me of the general dilemma outlined above that I wrestled with in my childhood:
We’re supposed to talk about race, but Lord have mercy on our souls if we say the wrong thing about race, be it something overtly racist, or—more likely and more insidious—something perceived to be racist, or “covertly” racist, or “racially insensitive,” by someone that has misunderstood our words or missed their context or read the headline but not the article or not gotten the joke or whatever, and by the time the retraction appears in small print at the bottom of Section E, our career and our reputation lies in shambles.
Naturally, the sheer intensity with which the boom comes down on any verbal impropriety, real or perceived, in the race arena constitutes a major disincentive for addressing the issue at all, and this goes for racists and non-racists alike.
As a result of this strategy of We want you to talk about race so we can whack and eviscerate you if you don’t quote verbatim from the PC playbook, many people don’t consider it worth the risk to weigh in, worried they might inadvertently hit some clinker that might haunt them for the remainder of their lives, and many of those that indeed hold confused and misbegotten opinions about race keep them bottled up, thus depriving the rest of us of the chance to offer targeted assistance toward modifying their mindsets in meaningful ways.
So let’s talk about race.
On second thought, let’s talk about pancakes.