Why We Can't 'Move On' from Race -- And Why We May Want To

"Can we please just move on?"

I heard this refrain running through the endless conversations about the George Zimmerman verdict. You might take it as an indication that everything on the topic of race in America has already been said -- that now we're just talking in circles.

To me, it highlights something different: factors that aren't typically associated with race--and how they strip our ability to have the conversation.

From what I hear, the desire to "move on" comes in different variations and from different places in the heart. For some of the commenters to my blog post about the verdict, it signifies a bone-deep exhaustion, brought on partly by the angry cacophony over race in the public square. This is hardly surprising: anger wears many people out eventually, and when the public conversation devolves to a constant hammering on raw nerves--with little or no evident progress -- many are tempted to think that the effort is useless. (To date, I have been hearing this exhaustion from white people, who have more latitude to "move on from race.") Whatever we think of this exhaustion, it appears to be part of the landscape.

But the urge to "move on" has other foundations, too, and they are more insidious. In short, we want to "move on" from race because we want to "move on" from everything.

This is the "move on" we hear from people in work teams, or committee meetings, or families, or anywhere we have to grapple with a difficult issue. All too often, as the group thrashes out the issue and does its best to hear all voices, someone loses patience and says something like "Enough with the talk! Let's do something and move on!"

This brand of "move on" is the way we live our lives in contemporary America: fast -- with speed and packed schedules as signs of virtue. As I wrote in my last column, today's frenetic pace threatens us with the idea that unless we keep up, we will neither succeed ourselves nor be able to provide for our loved ones. So we do all we can to move faster.

That leaves us with precious little time to resolve even the immediate issues that demand our attention, like strained marriages and conflicts in worship communities. It's nearly impossible to imagine a conversation on such a complex and delicate topic as race ever fitting into the "get it done" culture.

Or into our distracted culture. So many elements of our lives conspire to divert our attention -- whether it's the sound of an incoming text, the latest grumpy cat video on social media, the 24/7 news cycle in which today's tragedy is forgotten in a few days, or the myriad activities that overfill our schedules. The sustained attention for a serious dialogue is often more than our lives let us muster.

Bottom line, the very structure of our culture is preventing us from having the conversation on race we need.

By its nature, this conversation will take time and attention. We will need to find our way through the exhaustion. We will need to listen -- open-heartedly, silently, deeply, with full attention -- to many individual stories. We will need to learn, from these stories and other sources, that the narrative we have grown up with is not everyone's narrative. We will need to appreciate this fact on a deep level. We will need to evolve the language that respects all people and provides a way for all people to speak freely. We will need to see through the stereotypes we have built up over centuries so we can see one another.

Each of these steps could take years. That is what we're up against.

However, the issues around race will not magically go away. They demand the conversation. And the conversation, in turn, demands that we find a countercultural way forward: a way that values slowness, paying attention, connecting deeply with one another, and questing after truth however it comes to us.

None of us, on our own, can change an entire culture. We can, however, choose to move through the world differently. If enough of us make that choice, who knows where the conversation on race -- and many other issues -- might go?