Why I DO Want to Talk About Race

Tom Matlack believes that goodness involves reaching across boundaries to search for truths he did not even know existed. 

Steven Locke has been a mentor and friend to me now for fifteen years. When we first met I was shattered. He watched me cry and gave me a shoulder to cry on. More than anything, he showed me that whatever my problems were, there was a way through them, a way to a better life. He spoke with eloquence, passion, and grace. All things I wanted desperately but had lost all sight of in my travels.

At some point after we met, I think about a decade ago, I purchased two paintings from Steven. At the time he was getting a masters degree from Mass Art (where he is now a professor). One was a portrait on a one foot square piece of canvas of an African American man with his eyes closed, done in deep green and browns. That canvas sat on my desk at work directly behind my phone while I ran a venture capital firm. I stared at it year after year while doing deals, firing CEOs, selling companies, and taking them public.

The other painting is massive—five feet across. In the foreground is a well-dressed African American man with a pensive look in his eyes. Behind him is a white guy in a green shirt with his head turned. The two are not looking at each other, yet what struck me about the picture is about their interaction.

I hung the large painting in my apartment so that first thing every morning I’d walk out my bedroom and walk right into it. And there it stayed for the six years it took me to finally get remarried and move out of my bachelor pad.

One time a child visiting my apartment looked at the painting (you also couldn’t go to the bathroom without noticing it) and asked, “Is that man angry?”

Her comment was innocent enough, but it showed something that was hard for me to look at. “No, sweetie,” I said, “I think he’s just sad.”


For fourteen years, I don’t think Steven and I once talked about race. There were more important things to discuss: my family, his art, how we each were doing. And then I asked him to write something for GMP about race and he replied with his now well-known letter back to me that he allowed us to turn into a post, “Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race.”

I love Steven for what he has taught me in life, not about race. I love his art. And I take him at his word when he said:

“Tom, I have never, not once, thought of you as white. I think of you as a father, a husband, a brilliant businessman, a feminist, a Quaker, and most of all as a friend. You have never treated me as whiteness demands that you treat me. I don’t want to talk about race because if I do, I stop being an artist, an educator, a godfather, a gay man, and most of all, human.”

At the same time, as a man struggling with issues of goodness and fairness and meaning, I find Steven’s art hauntingly beautiful in part because the paintings portray race in a way that I find true and troubling. And if I am being completely honest I will say that while I never judged what Steven told me in my moments of despair as anything more than the unconditional love of one man for another, I did listen particularly carefully when he told me his story for the very reason that I thought that a gay and African American artist would surely have something unique to tell a divorced venture capitalist that might enlighten and inspire me. At the very least it would allow me to see a larger world than the tiny one in my own head.


One of the major disconnects in the conversation we have been having on GMP about race and gender is what it means to be an “ally” of the traditionally disenfranchised. I am all for looking at the data on sexual abuse, on race, on education, and on incarceration to try to understand the larger picture and what can be done to level the playing field and insure justice and safety for everybody.

But on a personal level I don’t ascribe to this idea that to be an ally I have to judge my friends based on relative privilege.  It feels too much to me like I am going into some refuge camp in horn of Africa.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not color or gender or sexual preference or ethnically blind. I actively seek out difference for a selfish reason. I just don’t call myself an ally. I call myself their equal and their friend, often for reasons that are far more human than they are to do with categories, as Steven so eloquently pointed out.


Still, I am fascinated by the experience of what it is like to be black in America, which is why I go out of my way to try to understand it, to make friends with black people, to listen to their stories. Not because they are black per se but because it just adds another layer of complexity, of nuance, of meaning that gets me out of my own head and into someone else’s for a few minutes or a few hours.

I also have a thing for Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Africans, and Chinese people. I also really like Jews, Little People, and drag queens.

Most recently I have surrounded myself with Russians. Don’t ask me why. But a bunch of my friends came to this country from the former Soviet Union with literally nothing.

One day at the gym, I was telling one of my buddies that I had been reading a historical novel about World War One about how millions were sent to the front lines with no clothes to fight a war they didn’t believe in only to be frozen to death.

“Dude, the Russians really got fucked in that war.” I commented to him between sets.

“Us Russians always get fucked,” was his response. We both laughed our asses off.

I also feel the same way about men whose sexual orientation differs from my own, about men who have fought in war, men who have endured prison, who have lost a child, have played in a rock and roll band, or are working on the cure to cancer.

Goodness, to me, involves reaching across all those boundaries to find the interior truth of someone who might look completely different but has overcome challenges that I didn’t even know existed. Until I asked.


Among the most difficult online conversations arising out of my piece about dudes being good was the charge that I had been racially insensitive at worst and a downright racist at best. Coming, as it did, on top of charges by feminists that I had my head places somewhere near by small intestines, I didn’t have it in me to respond in full. But now I have had time to think about it more fully and talk to a number of friends of a variety of races.

To recap the debate: Hugo wrote a piece supporting the idea that it’s okay for women to assume all men are rapists until proven otherwise (“Would you allow your daughter to get in a car with a strange man?” he asked). Ultimately, I reverted to attempting to prove how wrong his point was by asking if we should then assume all black people are criminals too; Sarah Jackson took offense and things spiraled on yet another front.

I am not going to recant what I have said (as has been requested) but I am going to try to explain it.

To my mind this idea of asserting collective guilt is a very slippery slope. On the topic of rape I have to point no further than the Duke Lacrosse hoax to see that someone with “privilege” who has clearly done some pretty stupid things does not mean that person is guilty of rape. In fact, in my work with GMP I have been approached by countless men who have been victims of rape or domestic violence. A close friend, after reading Hugo’s piece, told me that his mother shot and killed his dad. What am I to make of that in a world where all men are presumed guilty?

What particularly upset me was this question of who I might let my daughter get in the car with because the chain of logic led me directly to the idea that not only should my daughter not get into a car with a man but make damn sure that she not get in a car with a black man. I was thinking of GMP partner Jackie Summer’s, “Slow Motion: Skylarks, Prison and Social Progress”.

Racial profiling is something we can all agree is wrong.  So how can it possibly be the case that gender profiling is okay? That was my point. Not that racism is okay, just that sexism is NOT okay.

For the record I advise my daughter not to get into a car with any stranger—no matter their gender, sexual preference, religion or race. I don’t care if the person at the wheel is a friendly-looking Martian.

And when she chooses her friends, I advise her to do the opposite. Make sure she finds people who are different, who can broaden your horizons, who inspire and enlighten her, even if they happen to be Martians.


“Contact” by Steve Locke

About Tom Matlack

Thomas Matlack is a venture capitalist.


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  2. John Patrick Cleary says:

    Remember the original premise, Steve Locke’s response was headlined-simplified as “why I don’t want to talk about race”. To then have an in depth analysis of race misses the transcendent advice of the artist/human that the focused conversation stands in the way of progress (random association heisenberg’s uncertainty principle). Instead I would suggest looking at one of the men in the background of the painting, listening to the feelings it evokes and then have a conversation……with yourself.

    • “Instead I would suggest looking at one of the men in the background of the painting, listening to the feelings it evokes and then have a conversation……with yourself.”

      I keep returning to the image over and over. It is complex and dynamic in the dialogue of the three characters.

      Being Gregarious, I would welcome the opportunity to have dialogue with all three, but when I consider that dialogue and how it would unfold It comes in many questions, except for one character – the Guy on the left in the green shirt. The question is simple – “What are you up to?”.

  3. DavidByron says:

    To my mind this idea of asserting collective guilt is a very slippery slope.

    Yes. That is a big sign to me of political hate. I have about eight characteristics I look for and that’s one of the better ones for avoiding false positive. It’s a big deal.

    But more generally it is linked to tribalism. It is a rejection of liberal justice which says that a person is guilty for their own crimes and not anybody else’s crimes. Collective guilt says that a person is guilty simply for belonging to a hated birth group.

    Profiling is very similar but I don’t think it is nearly so bad. In profiling you are making what I guess the supreme court might call an “administrative convenience” of treating a bunch of people worse because it makes it easier for you. It’s easier to pull over only Latinos than it is to pull over everybody. It’s easier to frisk only black people than everyone. It’s easier for women to take precautions about strange men than to fear everybody. This sort of behavior is illegal for the state under the 14th amendment’s guarantee of equal treatment because it places an unfair imposition on the targeted group for little rational purpose. Actually fearing only men doesn’t even have a little rational purpose, but it certainly places an unfair imposition on men.

    Profiling isn’t collective punishment. Profiling doesn’t assume that all the target group are guilty. Profiling just says that it doesn’t matter about harming all the innocent members of the target group.

    (The other seven signs of political hate would be discrimination in law, prejudicial attitudes, presenting the target group as dangerous, presenting the target group as sub-human or lesser, creating lies about the target group, creating a revisionist history about the targeted group, tolerating or encouraging violence against the target group)

    • David Blaine says:

      Gee, David Byron, that last paragraph sounds like what most countries do during war time. Or to start a war.

    • Julie Gillis says:

      Thank you for this comment David. It’s really helped me understand your point of view and I mean that in all seriousness.

  4. Anonymous Guy says:

    I gotta be that thing in the punch bowl here and ask what look like stupid questions:

    How do you really know what group a person is a member of? If your friend never talked about being “black,” then how do you really know he was “black”?

    If I set out to collect one of each person for my multicultural charm bracelet, how would I know someone is African American or Mexican or white or transgender or Buddhist if that person did not self-identify that to me?

    Silly questions, but we have to be frank about the answers.

    We can’t assume what a person’s identity is just from the way that he/she looks or talks or dresses. Please.

    Who knows, you could be missing out on some great cultural crosspollination from people whom you assumed were “white” but were not. I have some friends from South America who are tired of being misidentified as Mexican because they have Hispanic last names, as if there are no countries south of Mexico. “For the millionth time, I don’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo!”

  5. I have this in common with Tom, this actively engaging people who are different than I am by race, gender, culture, religion, age, etc. I don’t think I do it well because when these differences are pointed out, conversations often usually die. I’m uncertain why, but I assume it’s something missing on my end, some lack of understanding. I too seek this type of interaction for selfish reasons. I want to learn from people who are different, not people who are most like me. I really don’t care about the differences per se. If I could adopt one short slogan as a credo, it would simply be, “Tell me your story.” I think that resolves many issues. If you want peace, actively seek friendship with those who society says are your enemy.

    • Julie Gillis says:

      It’s possible that the conversation may die out if you are seeking people out for selfish reasons. People don’t like to be used as a “lesson” for someone, and they usually can tell when that is happening. I’m not sure if this is what is happening for you, so the rest of my comment is generalized based on similar experiences I’ve seen.

      People of color, different heritage, religion, gender, class etc are not tokens or game pieces to collect just to benefit someone who is curious about difference. That in and of itself is a great example of the oft maligned word “privilege.” People of color do not exist to be teachers, or educators for whites. They are, in and of themselves, fully engaged human beings. If they choose to become friends with other people, people different from them I’d say it’s probably because they find things in common with them! Reasons most everyone becomes friends.

      Now, that being said, I don’t think it’s wrong to enjoy the fullness of life and be open to having friends from a wide variety of experiences and backgrounds. But I do think, at least for me personally, that to go out and find them….Like if I said..wow, I think that chola girls are fascinating! I think I’ll go and find me one to learn from!…I think that’s insulting and I would suspect the chola girl would too.

      I think its essentializing (there’s that damn word again!) a group of women, seeing them as an object to teach me. It’s not their job to teach me. Rather, I should expand my range of activities, interests and so forth and if a chola girl and I find things in common to be friends about, then we can start the conversations around race, culture, etc that might exist between us as equals.

      I do think we should actively seek friendships with people, but to me that entails actively being part of the culture the people you want those friendships with are in and engaging with the culture as to find real things in common, not just cherry picking people to learn from because they are diverse. It is a slower way to make those friends and connections to be sure. It’s a lot quicker I guess to just go find a gay person to learn from and so forth. It’s harder to start living a bit more in queer culture, but I think the resulting friendships are stronger and things are learned on both sides more organically.

      • Julie Gillis says:

        Also, a personal example from my own life. I study, focus on, and produce shows about sexuality. As such, it’s not at all uncommon for people who see my shows (who are very different than me) to approach me and ask me out for coffee or email me. Often this turns out to be a Q and A session where they want information on polyamory or other things. I used to go into those coffees thinking they were interested in me as a friend, but I’ve learned that 9 times out of 10 they are simply information gathering and asking me to spend a few hours of my life (for free) to fill them in on things that they could have googled. Or they could have gone to a local poly meet up, gotten to know people and participated in the community. FYI? That’s how I did it. I googled, read, researched and then met people in their community and got to know folks.

        Now, it’s not an insult to be considered some kind of authority figure. Except I”m not an authority figure. And it isn’t an insult to be asked questions. But it is dismaying to be only wanted for a set of information which they could have easily gotten from the internet, they could have done the work on their own. It is dismaying to realize it isnt “me” they are interested in, but the information. I don’t want to be their cool “sex positive friend.” that they might utilize as a witty story at a cocktail party yeah?

        I’d much rather be close enough to them to be invited to the cocktail party.

        So, what I do now is either offer my consulting services or point people to a few basic links and then say, if you want to hang out and get to know each other in different ways, let me know. So that’s just a personal example of being on the receiving end of things.

      • Thanks for your reply Julie. I guess I should expand on what I meant by selfish reasons and learning from others. If I met someone interesting, for example a musician, and I had true curiosity about her experience, I might befriend her with the hopes of learning her story. Not because she was different by race, gender, etc, but because of those experiences she had that were different from mine, and interesting to me. That part works well. Getting into any kind of discussion about feminism, racism, etc usually doesn’t work. As I imagine you gathered, I’m also white, male, middle-aged, and privileged. But I believe that everyone is prejudiced. The word holds many connotations, including positive ones. Affirmative action is an example of prejudice in favor of historically repressed ethnicities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I also agree with you that I have lived a privileged life, but I can’t say that I climbed over anyone else to get it, it was a function of when and where I grew up combined with who my parents were. I’m sure a lot of people would trade places with me, but many others would probably laugh at that idea, never wanting to live where and the way I do.

        Thanks for giving me more things to think about. That was helpful.


        • Julie Gillis says:

          My only thought here is that I try to befriend people to whom I can also be a friend. If I have nothing to offer that musician, other than my interest in her career, it’s not really a friendship. If we meet and talk and have a strong connection on a number of levels then bam, mutual friendship. But if we meet and I pursue a friendship purely for my own interest in her career, while knowing I really had nothing to offer her back (or seeing that she was bored with me 😉 I think it would be better to ask for an internship at the symphony to meet a wide variety of musicians, one of whom I might have a real connection with WHILE learning about the world I’m interested in.

          Best of luck and thanks for the kind reply, Dave.

          • David Blaine says:

            Well, exactly. A mutual friendship. Dumb of me not to put it that way. Often there is something I can offer in return. I guess I made it sound like I was just a bloodsucking eel!

            • Julie Gillis says:

              Not dumb! Why I asked and clarified my own position! I think there is nothing wrong with wanting to know more about another culture, diversity, stories so long as the reaching out is done with ethics, honor, and humility, and with something to give in return.

    • tom matlack says:

      David in essence that is what GMP is all about.

      “Tell me your story”

  6. I like to think of race and gender as belonging to different country clubs. Oh sure, they all play golf but are they really the right people to be seen with? I mean, seriously.

  7. Tom – I always wonder why some are determined to use Profiling? It does have it’s place, but is also so prone to overuse, simplification and abuse.

    It seems that they can profile anything, but always do it in the most Heartless of fashions!

    As a gay, disabled, multinational, abuse surviving male, I have yet to find anyone of these inveterate profilers who has the heart to get past one group to profile – and get to the heart of individuals. Some make such mileage out of profiles and wonder why they travel forward so little on the back of them.

    “A journey is best measured in friends rather than miles”.
    Tim Cahill

  8. What’s really interesting about this piece, Tom, is that while Steve Locke never thought of you as a “white” man, it’s clear you never thought of him as a “black” man either.

    Content of character before color. I think this is what MLK had in mind.

    • Justin Cascio says:

      It’s not so clear to me that Tom doesn’t see his friend Steve as a black man; one of the points he makes is that he actively seeks out black people to befriend, so that they will show him a world that is different from his own. I like that Tom admits to the joy of connecting with other people, even if he regards it as a guilty pleasure. Perhaps Steve enjoys the relative exoticism of a Quaker venture capitalist for a friend.

    • I had a problem with the fact that Tom did describe Steve as being a man. Yet all the white men were introduced as merely ‘dudes.’ I felt Tom was attempting to make up for something. Why are some tags regarded as harsh, like ‘white man,’ for some reason when I refer to a Mexican National as a Mexican, not a Latino, I’m frowned upon? There is what I call, a “bubble wrapped” mentality running wild lately when it comes to spoken and written words. Yet there are evil actions occurring in broad daylight with straight faces and we seem to all be okay with it, when compared to words. It worries me for the future.

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