My last blog post, entitled “Fighting for Change” highlighted several encounters I have experienced from childhood through adulthood as an African American in the United States. The sad thing is, I still have racist experiences from time to time. For instance, a store clerk questioning whether I can afford something. Or worse yet, being followed around in a store.
What surprised me the most about my blog post was the number of courageous conversations its sparked with non-Black colleagues.
One colleague relayed the story about growing up in the 1950s and being in an integrated Girl Scout troop with a Black leader. She told me her white friend tried to persuade her to join their all white group. However, she decided to stay in the diverse one.
What touched me the most was the story about a man coming to her house and informing her parents that a black family was looking at buying a house in the neighborhood. The man wanted all the neighbors to chip in to buy the house to keep the family out and preserve the neighborhood. Her father refused and then took the family for a drive to Trenton (across the river) to visit two housing projects.
He pointed out that the grounds and buildings of the “colored” project were clean, orderly, with beautiful flowers growing. Then he drove them to the “white” project which was trash-filled. He said that they should never believe negative stories that white people tell about people of other races. She said, “I am very fortunate to have grown up with that parental influence. I only wish all people could experience the same and pass it on to their children.”
Another colleague and mentor reminded me of the time when I purchased my new Mercedes, and the police stopped me on my way to work and asked, “Is this your car?” I had completely forgotten about the incident and how furious I was when it happened. But she remembered, and said, “I’ve never been asked that question by the police.”
Yet another colleague sent me an email with the subject line, “I am so sorry…” Her heartfelt message said, “…I am sorry that you have had to experience racism throughout your life, and that so little has changed in this country since you were a little girl. I promise you that your story and your experiences matter to me and that you will be one of my sources of inspiration as I engage with lawmakers, elected officials, and community members to fight for racial justice.”
Over the past nearly 20 years, my husband and I have lived in a majority white community, and my experiences have been mostly positive. In fact, I have some of the best neighbors. When we first moved into our house, my next-door neighbors brought over a plant. Needless to say, my husband and I were very surprised, and still remember this act of kindness. Over the years, they have continued to be great. We’ve gotten together for drinks, barbeques, etc. Even through the current pandemic, they have been generous with supplies, food, and even homemade face masks. But until recently, we have never talked about racial injustice. During a recent “social distancing” visit, my neighbor mentioned she had read my blog and was disturbed by the racial incidents. She also contributed to the cause I highlighted in the blog. We started talking about racism in general, and whether my husband felt comfortable walking around in our neighborhood. I told her, while comfortable, as a Black man he can never completely relax. And yes, he has been stopped by the police in our neighborhood before.
The death of George Floyd and other acts of racism have opened painful wounds and have brought to light many injustices. While these conversations are tough and sometimes uncomfortable, I believe they are necessary to promote a shift in our culture. So how can we hold courageous conversations about racial equity? Below are tips:
- Listen & Acknowledge Feelings With Empathy—Racism and injustice conversations are hard for all involved. But it’s important to acknowledge feelings with empathy. Empathy is about feeling the pain of another person. Before speaking, think about what you want others to know and how can they best hear you.
- Don’t Be Afraid To Tell Your Story–The personal story told by my colleague about her Girl Scout Troop and her father going out of his way to show that people are people was powerful and framed her values as an adult.
- Don’t Avoid the Topic—In any change effort, it’s really about changing the hearts and minds of people. Racial injustice is no different, and authentic conversations are necessary.
Remember, it’s not enough to NOT be racist, we must be Anti-racist.