Over the past decade, I have been in numerous intentional race dialogs – some helpful, some harmful to the goal of true understanding and honest exchange.

The most helpful has been Racial Equity Institute.  It was a conversation that was facilitated by persons of both African American and European American decent. The white facilitator confessed her ignorance about the plight of her African American neighbors and her complacency.  Her honesty about who she was and her privilege as a white person drew me in and allowed me to feel like I belonged in the room.  As white American’s we are ignorant when it comes to racism and most of us are complacent.

At REI, the focus was on institutionalized racism backed by facts that no one in their right mind could contest. (See “Power and Poverty” post for details) The clear enemy in this dialog is the “institutionalized racism.”  Black and white were invited to combat this shared enemy by both naming it as well as naming our own personal biases that contribute to it.  By starting with a shared agenda of eliminating institutionalized racism, everyone’s voice was important and everyone knew how they could contribute.

The least helpful have been conversations filled with emotion and personal attacks that start with statements like, “Your” people did _____ to “my” people.  Statements of this nature create an “us” and “them” feeling in the room which breeds distrust.  This division makes it nearly impossible to find a shared agenda.  After sitting in dozens of conversations on this topic I can say, without a doubt, that without trust this conversation will never be a fruitful one.  The most helpful conversations have been those that started with trust building.

Racism is the original sin of our nation.  Those who have been wounded by it feel its effects daily and the wounds are far from healed, with new ones being continually added.  I have heard the stories, I have seen the tears, I have been pierced by the pain, yet I will never be able to fully understand the sinister nature of this evil that is lurking everywhere in our nation.  As a white person I am often blind to it.  As a part of white culture, I can easily dismiss it as someone else’s issue and millions of American’s do exactly that.  They are not racist, they just don’t care enough to engage.

In a recent conversation, an African American woman whom I deeply respect asked, “Why don’t more white people speak out?”  There are a multitude of reasons and I cannot speak for all white people but I think the number one reason why those who do care about the issue don’t speak up is that they do not feel their voice is welcome.  When you label all white people as the “enemy” you rob those who want to be a part of the solution their place at the table.  I know this will sound like a cop out to my black brothers and sisters but I am speaking from my own experience.  I have sat at tables in this past year and remained silent when invited to comment on racism, not because I don’t care, but because I did not feel like what I had to say was truly valued.

As a white person, I can cry, I can take up arms against this enemy, but I can never know what it feels like to be black in America.  No matter how hard I try, or how many heartbreaking stories I hear, I am still a white woman and I have the privilege of opting in or opting out of a conversation.  Forcing me to engage when I do not feel I can trust those around me, simply makes me want to opt out.

I am thankful for friends like Reesheda Graham-Washington and Sadie Johnson who continually call me “back to the line.”  However, most white people don’t have friends like Reesheda and Sadie and that is what is missing in this whole conversation – authentic cross-racial relationships of respect.

Twelve years ago, I can honestly say, I had never had a meaningful conversation with a person of color – any color.   I had no black or brown friends and few acquaintances.  Not because I was a racist and disliked people of color, but because I had only lived in places that were predominately white.

I now spend the vast majority of my time in predominately African American communities and in a few, I am no longer referred to as the “white” lady but by my name.  I spend lots of time in the homes of my African American neighbors and the color of my skin seems totally irrelevant.  However, no matter how much time I spend immersed in the black community and how accepted I may feel, the reality is that when I take my African American friends out into white communities, they are treated differently than I am and they know it even if I am blind to it.  What is helpful for me as a white person is for them to teach me to see the world through their eyes.  This requires that we spend time together in both cultures and teach one another as peers.

I have been blessed to have African American friends who are willing to do that.  I know they get sick of teaching “ignorant white people” about racism but I love that they too keep coming to the line and doing their part.

While the dozens of intentional conversations on race have taught me a lot, in the end, it is about relationships of trust. If we foster authentic cross-racial relationships, we will advance in our ability to heal our nation and eliminate institutionalized racism working hand in hand.

If you are fostering these kinds of relationships for yourself or through your ministry, I would love to learn more.  Please share your experiences in the comments section and if you are in Richmond, I would love to learn more over a cup of coffee.

If you would like to read other posts on this topic, check these out.