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.