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. 

  1. 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.
  2. Thankful for the humble and honest engagement that Chris and others within my work and social circle have been willing to participate in.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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