We recently hosted a small round table conversation in Atlanta, Georgia. The topic was race and racism. We invited ten black people and five white people. We started things off by asking everybody to talk about how racism has affected their lives. Every black person in the room had a story to tell. Some talked about being personally insulted. Others were not considered for a promotion within their company. One guy talked about being pulled over by a police officer for what’s come to be called the “crime” of driving while black, or DWB. He wasn’t speeding. His taillights and brake lights were in perfect working order. His car registration was current. He wasn’t drunk. He was staying in his lane. He was stopped because he was black. This became obvious when the officer referred to our friend as “boy” and demanded he get out of the car. When the driver didn’t move fast enough to suit the officer, he was slammed face-down on the ground and asked what he thought he was doing driving around “here” at night.
The most painful story we heard had to do with a lady who attended a social event at a local, predominantly white church. She had just started worshipping there and was looking forward to getting to know some of the people with whom she worshipped on Sunday morning. This church is made up of middle-class people. They are well educated. They tend to have professional jobs. They dress well and are fairly sophisticated. And all those things described this lady. She fit right in. She looked forward to becoming a part of this community. As it was a family event, she brought along her five-year-old daughter. She was eager for both of them to get to know some of the other people in the church.
It’s true that she and her daughter stood out because they were new and because they were the only black people there that day. But this church had a reputation for being a welcoming congregation, eager to make newcomers feel at home. Yet nobody talked to them for pretty much the whole event. Her daughter wondered what was wrong. Imagine having to explain all this a little five-year-old who doesn’t know that being black is a reason to be excluded.
At our meeting, all the black people had stories like this to tell. The white people had nothing comparable to share. They just sat and listened. It was awkward. They wanted to say something to make the tension go away. They wanted to link arms, pray, and sing “Kum Ba Yah,” as we all walked out into a brand-new world where the sun was shining and the birds were singing and everybody loved each other. Instead, we settle for creating a safe place where peoples’ stories could be heard. Our black friends kindly said it was a good start, but it was painfully obvious that, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, not everyone is equally free and not everyone is brave enough to do something about it. But some people are.
From “Black and White: Disrupting Racism One Friendship At A Time” by Teesha Hadra and John Hambrick