call the question
How is your day going?"
The conversations usually start with that. Generously, at the other end of the zoom or phone, the interviewee shares something about their day: work, family, errands, weather. We’ve been introduced by a friend of a friend or acquaintance, and so I ask them to share how they know so and so. They share funny and inspiring stories about our mutual friend.
I ask them what their visceral reaction was when they first heard the prompt, "imagine a U.S. without racism." Five months and 60 interviews into this project, roughly 80% say their first thought was something along the lines of "it’s impossible." Approximately 15% say their first reaction was, "I like the sound of that... but it won't happen in my lifetime." The last 5% -- so far only three people -- have said, "I can imagine that," or "to imagine anything is not difficult," or "I believe we can get there."
The interviewees then share their experiences with and opinions of racism. They vent painful stories from their past, confusing experiences of the present, thoughtful philosophies about human nature, and occasional anger. By this point in the conversation, imagining a U.S. without racism seems an impossible task for most. But then I propose, "Let's imagine we have magic - very powerful magic -- and tomorrow, we wake up in a U.S. without racism. What does that feel like?”
They get quiet and imagine.
"I feel free."
"I feel a pervading sense of ease."
"I feel safe."
"I wouldn’t feel categorized."
"I could be my full self."
"We would talk."
"I could breathe."
"I wouldn't be worried all the time."
Variations on these feelings were voiced by folks across the political spectrum -- from devout progressives to strong Trump voters -- from people living in all the different time zones in the U.S., from high school students to octogenarians, and from a diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds and gender identities. They all imagined that in a magical U.S. without racism, they would feel free.
Can we reverse-engineer this?
Can we hack the system?
Admittedly, these are only 60 voices so far, and while they come from a diversity of backgrounds, they are still choosing to talk with me. Perhaps those who turn down the interview would imagine something else.
One of the interviewees whose initial reaction to the prompt was "Are you crazy!?" later said, near the end of our conversation, "But I believe in the magic you're taking about. If there are enough people and there is a critical mass to at least call the question, I believe people will listen. But you got to call the question. A lot of times before we call the question we call people out. When you call people out, we create sides. But if you call the question, you set the agenda for the discussion. Even if it's just that night's discussion."