no cigarette required

There was a moment in the Democratic Presidential Debate Sunday night which I’ve been pondering since. A question that dogs me. It was this: Don Lemon of CNN asked both candidates to name their racial blind spots. You can grade their responses for yourself, but I think they both stumbled. And I’ve been asking myself since then what my own racial blind spot is, or more likely, what they areplural. 

My first instinct was to discount the question. “Blind spots” seem by definition to be things we don’t know, can’t see. “What can’t you see?” is a question with no answer, unless someone with vision is standing with me to describe it. So the only way to name my own blind spot is to trust my guide to tell me what I’m missing. I am thankful for those in my life who have helped me along the way, and trust there will be others to come along as well. I hope I am always open to their experience and wisdom.

My second instinct was to re-tool the question. Perhaps “blind spot” isn’t the right phrase. Maybe “shortcoming” would be a better descriptor for me. What are my racial short-comings? That may be a question I am more able to ponder, though it is still painful to consider. I know I have them. I just have a hell of a time mustering the vulnerability required in naming them out loud.

In any event, the question was Mr. Lemon’s and I have no right to judge or rewrite his question. So perhaps my shortcoming is the inclination to answer the question I wish had been asked. Certainly there has been no shortage of that in any of the debates.

Still, I give the candidates credit for trying. I had the feeling they wanted to be honest, wanted to bare their souls, to stand with, rather than over and against. For that, I’m appreciative. I’m also white, which I know affects the way I hear the question and evaluate the answer.

While I search for insight, I also ponder the meta-question. The process. And that’s the conversation in my head I’ve been encouraged by a colleague to write about.

So, there’s a story I’m remembering. It may be urban legend, or based on some real encounter. Khrushchev and someone, Nixon, perhaps, or Kennedy or Eisenhower or Cronkite. I was young. But here’s what happened: someone asked Khrushchev a thoughtful question. And Khrushchev calmly lit a cigarette before answering. Slowly, deliberately, he lit a cigarette. And then took a long drag and expelled the smoke. Then, he answered the question. When the story was told to a young me, it was with the revelation that the cigarette wasn’t the point; the point was having time to think.

Quiet has been a theme for me this Lent. Specifically a hunger for it.

I’m not sure we are always willing to give one another time to think. At the debate, candidates had 60 seconds or maybe 90 seconds to make a coherent statement of national importance. The only way to do that, we think, is to know in advance what we will say when the expected questions come. It leaves no room for the unexpected, no time to think. In fact, we criticize candidates who need time to think, supposing that it means they don’t know, aren’t prepared to be commander in chief. But I think of the state of the world, and I would really like to know that we can count on our leaders to be thoughtful people, ready to sit quietly and work it through, whatever it is.

So I’m thinking about how often we fill the emptiness, as if stricken by an allergy to quiet, how often we talk over each other, or how often we assume that needing a moment to think is a character flaw, indicative of a lack of knowing. Khrushchev lit a cigarette. And the one asking the question waited respectfully.

What are your racial blind spots? It is a serious question that needs reflection, and I would applaud the candidate or leader or colleague or average voter willing to ponder it at length.

It’s a difficult topic, a painful topic, but we won’t get anywhere with platitudes or memorized answers. We need to hear, to think, to consider and reconsider. Such is the stuff of learning.

What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be white? Or gay or straight or transgender or from the South or from Middle East? There no way to know unless we talk. And listen. And think.

So that’s where I am. And if you are willing to be in that conversation with me, I’ll welcome your kind and gentle insights.

Help me see. Expect me to stumble. And give me time to think.



About Deb Conrad
I’m Deb Conrad, pastor, teacher, photographer, writer, antique-lover, cat-mom, wine-drinker and old-house-seeker. I have a bike by Burley and knees by Stryker. I play guitar marginally, bowl when I can. I live in Flint, Michigan, with previous lives in SC, NJ, PA, MD, Washington DC, TX, CA and KY. I founded and still help run UrbanSpirit, a poverty education center in Louisville (link below), where I meet interesting people and try to do what I can to change the world. I'm pastor of Woodside Church in Flint, a groovy place if ever there was one.

2 Responses to no cigarette required

  1. lenoraland says:

    Wow, Deb, this was a wonderful post. I’m from Flint originally, though in Chicago now, and I’ve been watching the story unfold there with horror and sadness, and also a keen sense of my own failings…I wrote my own Lenten reflection about some of that here. Thank you so much for your words, for taking the time to think them through and craft them, and for the honesty and confession woven into them. I would love to visit/know more about your church. (I’m also in a groovy little church in Chicago, LaSalle Street Church, and always looking for like-minded folks…). Peace. Lenora

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