People: Conversations on Race–Go Ahead

May 1, 2009

“Essentially,” says Attorney General Eric Holder, “[we are] a nation of cowards.” This comment, made during a speech in February, stirred mutterings of both ire and agreement.

Holder states that our collective cowardice manifests in the arena of race relations, particularly when it comes to dialogue between cultures in America. Perhaps from a generalized point of view that is true. But the apparent difficulty in holding conversations on race does not mean there aren’t citizens brave enough to delve into the dark past, uncover truth, shed light on today, move on and commit to a new, harmonious path of life.

Having lived in five different states, traveled through almost every state, and visited three foreign countries, I’ve found that humans share similar basic desires, needs, challenges and apprehensions. On the first day of a mission trip to an orphanage for girls in Chiang Rai, Thailand, our group met the staff at the home. Most of the young staffers spoke in the mountain tribal dialect called Akha, which is also the name of the tribe’s people. One of the young men pointed at me and said something, while laughing a little bit. I asked a young lady who spoke English what he’d said. “She is like us; she is the same color as us,” he was saying. I am a darker-skinned black woman; the Akha tend to be dark-skinned (though really not as dark as me) and are often the targets of discrimination, most notably in the job market.

They are regarded as uneducated, unattractive, and second-class. The Thai government doesn’t even keep track of the births of the Akha, and many of the girls at the home aren’t sure of their ages. In many more places around the world than Chiang Rai, the struggle of groups of people to achieve equality is an active and common one.

There will not be some moment in the history that is still yet to be written that we’re going to say, “Yep – that’s the day it happened. We achieved racial reconciliation and an end to institutional and social racism on Nov. 10, 2032.” This talk of whole groups of people changing their hearts, their minds, their behaviors – that’s just too big. Rather, it’s up to us to decide how we will live, relate and love.

I moved to Central Florida almost 10 years ago and stepped into a job working with many whites who characterized themselves as “rednecks, crackers and cowboys.” For me, this is what one would call “culture shock.”

There were people driving up to my meetings and workshops with big pickup trucks and Confederate flags (which I had long regarded as a hate symbol) on the front bumper, back window and hanging from the rearview.

I had to take a deep breath, literally and spiritually. I decided then that I could not afford to assume that others were going to dislike me, disrespect me, or mistreat me because I was black and an outsider. I decided instead to repeat my social mantra – “take each person as he or she comes” – with no expectations, no judgments, no fears.

There have been challenges, as is always the case when working with people. Have I been treated unfairly? Perhaps, but I believe my attitude was the factor that led to my success. My worth, my success and my life mission don’t depend on what other people say, or how they think. The limit to what I can do is set only by how much I allow fear to have a place in my life.

There are tools for individuals and groups to use as resources. For example, my first real, open “conversation” happened in the context of a Study Circles Resource Center series with my AmeriCorps Public Allies service group in Wilmington, Del., in the late 1990s. The name of the group has changed from Study Circles to Everyday Democracy, but this organization continues to supply any willing group with the training and framework necessary to discuss the hard issues in a community, with the ultimate goal of positive change through the work of “diverse coalitions.”

We talked, shared and had lively disagreements within our Ally group and even with the volunteer facilitators. We continued these conversations outside the Study Circles context, and included discussions on religion and sexual orientation.

I believe we each walked away with greater respect for one another, and a newfound appreciation of the depth of each individual’s life experience.

Attorney General Holder must do his job, no doubt. But it’s up to everyday people to guard our own hearts, live honestly, and speak out peacefully, yet strongly, when racism rears its antiquated head.

Published in print by The Ledger, a New York Times Company, on May 1, 2009 at http://www.theledger.com/article/20090501/COLUMNISTS/905015004/1382/EDIT?Title=Conversations-on-Race-Go-Ahead

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