What I’ve Learned From People Wanting to Have Open Conversations with Me About Racial Differences
I’m a black man who interacts with lots of different people in many different environments. As such, the racial unrest has made me a prime target for conversations about the African American experience. Two of my colleagues and I (Gena, a black female, and Chris, a white male) recorded one such conversation recently. You can listen to it here. I’m learning firsthand the amount of progress our country needs to make to overcome racial disparity.
I’m convinced more than ever that building relationships must be at or near the very top of those priorities. Through my conversations about racial differences with Chris and several others, here’s what I’ve learned.
1. The lack of awareness and disbelief of many has been surprising.
The black experience in America is extremely difficult to comprehend. The trepidation of an encounter with the police. The thoughts which flood my mind anytime I drive past a Confederate flag. The feelings we experience so often when we enter an environment as the only black person or family present. Being able to relate to the mentality of the black experience is hard. In many of my conversations, I’m realizing how oblivious to it my white friends are.
2. The conversations about racial differences definitely can create a level of discomfort.
At times, I can see or hear the natural urge which Chris and others have had to want to deny my experiences, explain it away, justify the actions of themselves or others, or not accept that the culture created in America could produce such oppression. Some things are flat out hard to hear. Whether it’s social norms, housing policies, or law enforcement, to know that you have willingly or unwillingly participated in oppressing others is a difficult pill to swallow. Resisting the urge to be defensive and prove the opposite is not easy.
3. Relationship strength has made conversations productive.
It was definitely eye-opening to Chris that someone with whom he has had hundreds of conversations and someone that he respects lives such a different reality. We can discuss these realities of being the minority and thinking differently about safety and opportunity because of the high level of trust that we have for one another.
4. There are people who genuinely want to fix the problems but feel frustrated and powerless.
Chris and I have talked about what he can do. That question consistently comes up from my white friends. How can we fix this? I appreciate the desire. I’m not sure if we, as a country or as individuals are willing to put in the long, diligent, hard work that it takes to recalibrate our country on these matters. Everyone is looking for answers.
Before we can truly find answers, it’s important that we understand the root of the problem and its compounding impact. (And if you’re expecting me to state the root of the problem here, then you’re missing the point that there’s long, diligent, hard work needed to recalibrate the country.) Although I will say, I believe at every step along the way, it’s important for my friends to feel encouraged and empowered to call out both blatant and subtle racism in their homes, workplace, and community.
5. My own testing mechanisms for gauging one’s willingness to engage in dialogue.
I believe that Chris and many others truly genuinely desire to learn, understand, and value the challenges blacks have faced. I’ve recognized that being genuine and open and willing to work to be a part of the solution can be two different things. Lots of people are interested in being a “good” person that treats people the “right” way. Being open and willing to understand how you may be falling short of that is another matter altogether. When I trust that you’re open and willing, I become more willing to share the depths of my own experiences.
6. I have mixed emotions about the sudden interest to have these conversations about racial differences.
- Disappointment and Frustration that it’s taken a series of blatant events and a quarantined environment to open the country’s mind to many of the poignant realities of the African American experience. That, in itself, is disappointing and frustrating.
- Thankful for the humble and honest engagement that Chris and others within my work and social circle have been willing to participate in.
- Skeptical. Turning a huge ship like systemic racism requires sacrifice, change, and urgency, a patient urgency. Those that reap the biggest benefits of the current system must be willing to give up some of those benefits. I’m skeptical because I believe that the cost for true equality is greater than some are willing to pay.
- Proud of the effort my parents worked so hard to instill in me to ensure that I knew my value as a human being, as their son, and as a black man. Given that my father was arrested during the Civil Rights movement in the 60s for protesting and that my mother has achieved the title of “First Black Woman to…” for several of her professional and civic accomplishments gives me a sense of pride for what’s possible for a black man in America.
I walked away from my conversation with Chris more convinced that these conversations must happen. They do help me to remain aware of the progress that needs to be made for true equality. They also illuminate the need to help our white friends comprehend the gravity of what’s at stake as a country if we aren’t willing to do the hard work to push for equal value for all.
The world is on edge. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others have caused a boiling over of an already heated pot of racial tension that’s been brewing for decades. More than ever there is a need for ongoing, respectful dialogue between white people and African Americans. Things have to change. I’ll say it like this: With all the distrust, tensions, and negative emotions flying between people of different colors right now, we aren’t going to get anywhere without talking and listening.
I recently had the opportunity to dive into just such a conversation about racial differences with two of my friends and colleagues, Gena and Reggie who are African American. Here are a few things I learned:
Open, real conversations require sincere relationships between white people and African Americans.
I’m talking about developing friendships here. I’m thankful for my relationship with Reggie and Gena because it allows us to talk sincerely. It’s respectful, but it’s real. They can trust that I’m really trying to understand their perspective, even if I don’t word things in the right way. And I can trust that they will pull no punches when telling me the truth from their perspective.
There are realities in an African American’s world that aren’t part of my reality. And I have to understand that.
There are things I simply don’t have to worry about because I’m white. I’ve never had to have the conversation with my kids, if you’re out walking and a police officer drives by you, here’s what you do… I’ve never had to wonder if I can get a mortgage loan because of any other reason than good credit. And it’s a mistake to view African Americans through the filter of my own experiences.
African Americans don’t want others to feel sorry for them—they want others to hear, understand, and value them.
To a degree, this is what we all want as individuals. But what I learned from Reggie and Gena is that African Americans don’t typically feel this from white people.
As I listened to Reggie’s and Gena’s stories, there were times when I felt myself getting really angry at the sense of injustice I was hearing. It made me want to do something. I wanted to fix things that I couldn’t really fix. And through the course of the conversation about racial differences, I was reminded over and over again that the focus of my mind doesn’t need to be on righting the wrongs or apologizing for things I had no control over. My focus needs to be on listening to the people in front of me, hearing their voices, and validating their experiences. This is where mutual respect and value starts, I think.
I need to approach the conversation with humility and a spirit of learning.
I have an obligation to become a student of people different from me. There may be some things I hear that make me uncomfortable, some things that make me angry, and even some things I plain don’t agree with. I need to ask more questions than give opinions—be mindful of my words, yet not so afraid to say the wrong thing that it prevents me from asking questions that would help me understand.
I’m also moved to engage in books and documentaries that help me learn more about the history, culture, and experience of African Americans. And there is plenty out there to choose from. (Check below for a list of links to recommended books.)
This is a sad but sincere confession on my part. I’ve never been so interested to understand the African American experience until I began listening—really listening—to African Americans. And I can’t reiterate enough that this seeking to understand, to engage, to listen, happens in the context of developing genuine relationships. People have to know you care before they open up. This is no less true in the dialogue between Whites and African Americans.
After my conversation about racial differences with Gena and Reggie ended, I wanted to talk more. There is so much I have to learn about racial differences. The road to resolving these racial issues is a long one, but maybe it begins with real conversation.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race
No matter what your experience or lack of experience has been when it comes to race, there is no denying that your personal experience impacts what you believe and how you behave. As adults, it also affects what and how you teach your children about race. Additionally, it informs how you respond to others who may not look or act like your children do.
Lots of people are speaking out about injustice, specifically toward black people. If you haven‘t already, now is a really good time to develop a plan of action for intentionally teaching your children that every black person has value and dignity. In a perfect world, we would know that all are created equal. At this moment in time however, there is a major focus on how black people are treated.
A great place to start is with yourself.
Even if you never actually say what you think, how you think about black people will be the basis for how you teach your children to think about and treat them. They are taking in your conversations and watching your every move—even when you think they aren’t paying any attention. If you are comfortable around black people, they will most likely be comfortable. If you are uncomfortable, they will follow suit.
Ideally, teaching your kids about race starts when they are young, although it is never too late. Here are 8 things you can do to teach your children about race.
- Be intentional about creating opportunities for your children to be around and befriend children who are different from them. For example, one mother was looking for a preschool for her son, and she realized that her son would be the only black child there. At her second choice, no white children were present. In her mind, neither of these preschools were viable options because there was no diversity. She wanted her son to see at an early age that not all people are alike and that even though they look different, they can still be friends.
- Teach your child about character and respect. Make sure they understand how to behave respectfully toward those who are respectful and how to respond kindly to those who are not.
- Model what it looks like to be treated with respect and hold them accountable for treating others in that manner to reinforce what you are trying to teach.
- Make it a point to be friends with families of different ethnicities. At the heart of understanding others is being in relationship with them. Engaging in someone’s world that is different than yours can help your child understand what it is like to walk in another person’s shoes. Having empathy for others is powerful.
- Don’t tolerate prejudice. When you see it, say and do something to address it. Teach your children how to productively use their voice when they see injustice.
- Be an askable parent. So often, we don’t talk about racial issues because we are afraid or it’s uncomfortable. Silence and assumptions are not helpful in the effort to end racism.
- Watch movies like “Remember the Titans” or read books that open the door for discussion about racism.
- Instead of trying to convince your child that we are all alike, celebrate how we are different, and how those differences contribute unique things to our world. A young white boy asked his black friend about getting a perm to make his hair curly. The black boy told him he didn’t get a perm, that his hair was that way when he was born. While their moms got a good laugh, it was also a teachable moment.
To end racism, we must have a continuous conversation and a commitment to be part of the solution. In doing so, we have the potential to leave a legacy that future generations can appreciate.
VIDEO: Watch as Julie Baumgardner and Reggie Madison talk about the 9 keys to having great conversations with your children about race.
How Relationships Can Transform Race Relations
Sam Collier didn’t have his first white friend until he was 21 years old.
“It wasn’t until I had this friend that I realized how different our worlds were. He didn’t understand my world and I didn’t really understand his,” says Collier.
It might be helpful to know that Sam is one of five children. However, when he and his twin sister were born, his dad was not in the picture. His mother gave them up for adoption, and a couple eventually adopted Sam and his sister.
Sam grew up surrounded by people who looked just like him in Decatur, Georgia. His dad owned a barbershop and his mother quit a corporate position at FedEx to focus on raising both of them.
Today, Sam is a communicator at Northpoint Ministries as well as the Director of City Strategy for The reThink Group. He is also a nationally-syndicated tv and radio host (A Greater Story Podcast; reaches 100 Million Homes weekly), a top 20 Gospel Billboard producer and the founder of No Losing, Inc. In these roles, he has empowered over 80 thousand young people to have a winning mindset in life to achieve their goals by creatively making education relevant to youth.
At this point in his life, Sam has many white and black friends. Sickened and sad over the events surrounding the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, he believes he is in a unique position to help both black and white people come together and learn so we can all do better with race relations.
Relationships Are Key to Understanding and Change
“Black people have been screaming for many years that something isn’t right, thinking that white people were hearing them and beginning to understand their plight,” Collier says. “In reality, that’s probably not the case. In many instances, I think white people don’t understand Black culture. Honestly, a lot of us don’t really understand white culture. Even though we have been trying to communicate, it’s as though we are on different radio frequencies and both white people and black people have missed each other.”
Collier believes that relationships are the bedrock of change for race relations. They are an essential piece of the strategy when it comes to antiracism. After protesting and marching shook the nation in the 60s, MLK built a relationship with a “white” President. Together, they worked to fight evil.
“The first step that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught during the Civil Rights Movement was information gathering,” Collier says. “Before you try and solve a problem, you need to get all the information. Seek to see it from every side. We have to get people coming together, listening to each other and coming up with collective solutions for better outcomes for everyone. This is how you shift a nation. Enough voices saying the same thing, running after the same problem, fighting for the same solutions, refusing to quit until the battle is won. Relationships lead to conversations, conversations lead to strategy, strategy leads to action and strategic action leads to change. There is power in conversations birthed out of personal relationships. We have probably never been more postured for this to be able to happen.”
Relationships Can Lead to Lasting Change
Additionally, Collier encourages anyone who is a person of influence in any sector in life to talk with those who are feeling the impact. Lean into the pain of why we are where we are and then seek solutions.
If you are white and don’t know anyone in the black community, reach out. If you are black and see an opportunity to influence a white person seeking to learn through friendship, don’t be afraid to enter in, if they are genuine. This relationship may also help you understand where black and white communities are missing each other. This is a huge step in the right direction. Put yourself in new circles. Collier believes one of the best ways to gain perspective and learn how to take action is by being brave enough to friend someone who is different than you. When you get close you start to debunk a lot of myths you’ve learned in the community.
“We also should be looking at policy changes that need to be made,” Collier says. “This will take some time and strategic thinking.”
Collier believes that there is value in both communities being willing to fight injustice in a Kingian Nonviolent way. He also believes that the injustice we see in our country will change quicker as we come together. Let’s work hard to unify our country so that together we can defeat racism and help America live up to its truest ideals.