In 2005, as the curator of Texas Tech University’s first Black History Month Art Exhibition, I was asked to make the opening remarks:
Welcome to TTU’s first Black History Month Art Exhibition! By exhibiting our work together here, we have created a place to tell a tale not always heard. A culture can limp along relying on the brain pool of only some of its citizens, or it can give educational opportunities, access to political power, and means to financial success to all of its members. By engaging its total brain pool rather than part, a culture can glide swiftly to a better place.
I’ll tell you a story: A few years ago I was giving a speech, saying the same things I am saying today. A hand went up in the
audience, the hand of someone who was obviously a member of a discriminated-against group.
“Yes?” I said.
“I am uncomfortable with you speaking for me.”
The room fell silent. It felt like people were thinking, “The white guy just named the elephant in the room. Isn’t it his job to pretend the elephant isn’t there? And she just called him on it! What’s going to happen now?”
I said, “Well, let’s look at this from your perspective. You have three—only and forever three—choices. You can be prejudiced. Or you can be silent, which in a prejudicial culture is a vote for prejudice. Or you can speak against prejudice.
“Now let’s see how many choices I have. I too can be prejudiced. Or I can be silent. Or I can speak against prejudice. Do I have fourth choice? No. No matter which end of the stick we hold, we have the same choices—only and forever three. I hope that helps you to see that I’m not speaking for you. I’m speaking for me. Thank you.”
The room was silent. Was I bombing? Was the mostly minority crowd ready for this white guy to talk about the elephant? And not only talk about it, but be so relaxed about doing it?
Then they began to clap. Their applause grew louder. And louder.
I sat down. The event’s host rose to thank me. At the mention of my name, the audience started clapping again. During the reception that followed, the host approached me and said, “I want you to do this again next year.” That is the only time I have been invited to make the opening remarks to an event twice in a row.