In her later years, my wife’s grandmother suffered from dementia. She was the same extraordinarily sweet, wonderful person she always had always been, but her short-term memory faded and her filter disappeared. For a time she lived with my wife’s family. Their formal dining room became her bedroom — it was easy to keep tabs on her from the adjacent kitchen.
She would go to her room to watch the TV news, and as my wife did her homework in the kitchen, she could hear Nana talking to the news anchor or reporter as she watched. “That’s not your real hair…. That cannot be your real hair…. That’s gotta be a wig…. That can’t be your real hair….” <pause, when apparently a new person appeared on screen> “Boy, you are fat…. You are really fat…. Fat, fat, fat….” <pause> “That’s not your real hair…. That cannot be your real hair….” And so it went. Not hearing a single word of what the anchor was saying.
I couldn’t help but to think of Nana when watching Mayor Duggan’s speech. Folks outside of Michigan (and many within) probably would have guessed that the mayor of Detroit was a black guy named Kwame McColeman or something and got stuck on the fact that Duggan is white (completely missing the point of his speech).
It’s the irony that got me: Duggan trying to de-emphasize racial differences only to have people pay attention solely to his racial difference. But talking about race in America is tricky. It can be awkward, feel uncomfortable, even seem counter-productive. And often, people do completely miss the point. (President Obama can’t get near the subject without being accused of “playing the race card.”)
But if you listened to the speech I think Duggan is on the right track. The most important thing is to keep the conversation open so that all can be heard. Set goals where “everyone will be equally valued and everyone will have real opportunity,” but realize that it’s a process. And maybe one day when all of our filters have disappeared, we will be focused on Duggan being a pudgy bald guy and not the color of his skin.