At a career fair back in February 2014 a fellow vendor approached me about the YWCA’s mission. I didn’t know this 50-something-year-old man, so I didn’t know his history with racism, but something prompted him to ask, “Do you ever think you all will totally eliminate racism?” I was initially shocked, and eventually grateful as I didn’t have an opportunity to answer because of a student who approached saving me from a conversation I wasn’t prepared to have. I didn’t want to talk to him about race.
Much to my chagrin, that same vendor was at a career fair I attended in early March. During a less busy time he strolled over to me to again asking his burning question. He approached just as I was getting ready to head to the hospitality room for a second helping of chocolate covered strawberries and petite ham sandwiches. Knowing there must have been a reason he asked this question of me twice at two different schools in two different cities I simply didn’t want to talk to him about racism. This time, there was no student distraction. I was trapped. But this time I asked myself why I was hesitant to talk to him. Did I not want to hear views different from mine from a man who clearly was reared in a day and time different from mine? Did I not care to hear his story with ears which were listening and a heart which was set to receive his personal perspectives on whatever it was which shaped his points of view? Did I think a disagreement would ensue? Did I not have the courage to share my own thoughts and experiences? What was my concern with communicating about race?
I again heard him pose the question with the same seriousness, almost desperately inviting me to hear what he had to say. Following his “deja vu” inquiry I shared how I didn’t believe the agency I worked for could singularly eliminate racism from the world as a whole, but that we wanted to do our part. I told him I knew we needed help, not just from women and not just from men, not just for blacks or browns, but with and for us all. I shared that my point of view derived from my background growing up among blacks and whites, now working in social justice on behalf of all who face racism. I told him how I believe that every person or agency serves as a catalyst to cause conversation, stir action, change minds and help heal wounds. I wanted to tell him, but for some reason didn’t, how I believed we needed the “domino effect”, where each participant played a part in knocking out racism starting simply by talking about it in healthy ways, hearing each other’s stories, going out of our comfort zone to connect with those who appear to be unlike us (but likely are like us), not furthering unhealthy communications, protecting each other as brothers and sisters regardless of race, and knowing that at the end of the day, hopefully we will all make it to Heaven where color won’t be a concern. He stood and listened to me talk. I sat and listened to him talk as he interjected his interesting perspective, that was definitely rooted in pain, fear and witnessed injustice that my mind could only imagine. I felt bad about not wanting to talk.
In that talk as a black woman in a role of leadership standing on a predominately white college campus talking race with a black man in a role of leadership it struck me that if there were times I didn’t want to talk about racism I can imagine how some others might feel. I was reminded that good, healthy and respectable talk about racism even when we don’t want to, even when we don’t agree, even when it’s uncomfortable or even when we would prefer to be eating the chocolate covered strawberries is the only way we have a fighting chance at removing racism.
We have to talk about racism, people. There’s no way around it. Every cause starts with conversation. With all that is going on in our country and around the world it’s time to have the talk again, and again, and again again if necessary. Whether:
- in girlfriend groups
- through panel discussions
- in upper-level board meetings
- via town hall meetings
- on social media forums
- on the golf course
- in the country clubs
- in places of worship
- at the barber shops
- in the carpool line
- on the neighborhood blocks
- at the watercooler
- in the grocery store
- with our neighbor we’ve never spoken to
- with the person who offended us
- or with the darker hued man we fear or don’t understand
we have to talk about racism to get to the root and remove it once, finally and for all.
Let’s talk. Shall we? Meet us at the YWCA Central Alabama on Thursday, July 21 at 11am for Face to Face with Race. Registration is $20 and includes lunch. RSVPs are requested at firstname.lastname@example.org