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One day my husband and I were out to lunch with family members celebrating a birthday. We hadn’t been together in a while, so we had plenty to catch up on. At first, we chatted about traffic, our gardens, pets, and the weather.

As our sharing progressed, we took turns listening to the challenges each of us was facing, which included worries about our children, job changes, relationship updates, health scares, and therapy for our mental well-being.

This honest sharing, beyond the shiny surface of our lives, allowed those closest to us to know us more fully. Without offering solutions, we empathized, asked questions, and showed we could bear witness to their hardships.

It all felt like rainbows and butterflies until my husband, who is black, shared that he notices people are afraid of him depending on how he wears his hats. He adjusts how he wears hats to lessen their fear of him.

My husband has quite a collection of hats and rarely goes outside without one on his head. For this outing, he had chosen a dapper newsboy-type hat with a plaid pattern made from soft shades of brown.

I could feel a shift at the table and an abrupt tense silence hanging in the air. Although we had asked questions about what everyone else had shared, there were no follow-up questions like, “Do you notice this everywhere you go?” or, “Are there styles of hats you avoid wearing altogether?”

There were no empathetic responses like, “I imagine it gets tiring having to figure out what hat to wear to lessen other people’s fear of you,” or, “I didn’t realize that is something you have to do.”

We all knew that the people he was referring to was white people. We all knew he was talking about his experience of being a black man in America.

White people have a history of perceiving black men as dangerous, fearful, and menacing. White people have gotten away with killing black boys and men, claiming they were afraid.

As a white woman, I never enter spaces, worried that others will fear me. My husband has learned how important it is to lower white people’s fear of his blackness. He has learned to do this by being overly cheerful and adept at small talk. And he does this by how he wears his hats.

One family member finally broke the silence when she chuckled, saying, “I wish people were afraid of me.” I knew immediately that her response missed the point altogether.

The lunch proceeded without any additional talk about hat-wearing and fear. My husband had invited us to learn more about one aspect of his lived experience, and we were too uncomfortable to go there.

I was unsure what to say at the moment, so I said nothing. I could have asked my husband questions. I could have asked family members if they thought about what clothing to wear to diminish fear from others. I could have shown empathy. I could have modeled a willingness to talk about how skin color is seen and does matter.

I regretted everything I didn’t do. No wonder black people have shared they prefer to gather in places outside the gaze of whiteness where there is a shorthand to understanding. I wondered how often our actions and words told my husband to hide that part of himself. How lonely that must be.

If a black person shares their experience with a white person, it may show a level of trust or an investment in a relationship seen as meaningful. It is not our job to determine the “truth” of their experience or to even agree with the conclusion they reach about that experience. Our job is to listen and learn.

In addition to my reflections on how I failed in that conversation, I also wanted to talk to the person whose comment seemed to imply my husband was lucky to have people afraid of him.

After giving myself a few days to think about what to say, I called and asked if she was open to talking about our recent lunch date.

I shared my thoughts and regrets. I shared that, in my opinion, her response showed a lack of care and understanding. Over the last few years, she and I have had heated conversations about racism and have even taken breaks from our relationship. I wondered if this would be one of those times.

I was surprised when she told me that she intended her comment to divert the conversation from discussing race. She wanted this birthday lunch to be pleasant and upbeat, not bogged down with brewing family drama or unsavory topics.

I initially thought she had been oblivious, but now I understood she knew what my husband was talking about and didn’t want the conversation to go down that road.

I asked her how my husband, who she has known for nearly forty years, could show up fully human if there were parts of his experience we deemed too difficult. I asked what makes us capable of talking about severe mental health struggles, brushes with death, financial ruin, childhood trauma, and loss of love, but not how racism impacts someone we claim to love.

White people need to dig deeper. Although we are not as skilled at discussing race because our survival hasn’t depended on it, I believe we are capable. We need to talk with other white people. We need to make mistakes and do better.

Until black men don’t need to change how they wear their hats to please us, there is work to be done. And it is our work to do.

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