Intentional conversations among friends

It was my first trip following COVID vaccinations.  I went to the Outer Banks in North Carolina with a group of friends I’ve known for almost 20 years. We met through a local leadership program, Leadership Greater Washington. And over several years of restaurant dinners, happy hours, traveling together domestically and internationally, and staying in each other’s homes, we’ve bonded. We are friends.

LGW group –the Outer Banks, 2021

On the Outer Banks trip, only six of the nine of us could travel. For the first time, I focused on our racial composition: Cuban American (1), Black Asian American (1), Caucasian (4), and African American (3). And that led me to think about  how this diverse friendship group discusses—or doesn’t—issues of race.

That we are real friends is essential to this conversation. Two decades ago, my neighbor, Jim Myers, who is white, wrote Afraid of the Dark: What Whites and Blacks Need to Know About Each Other. In his book, Jim commented on the rarity of genuine friendships between people of different races. Postulating that if you don’t spend time in someone’s home, you really aren’t friends. I think he’s right. I have many colleagues and associates with whom I have casual connections, but my true friends are those with whom I spend quality time. We play together, eat together, vacation together, and talk about our personal challenges.

Often friendships go back to our early years or to college. We developed personal connections on the playground, through scouting programs, church, or in the college dorm. Or they develop through friendships with the parents of your children’s classmates or at work.  All of those connections are actually driven by proximity—where you live, work or play. And, where we live seems to be critically important.

That’s part of the challenge for cross-racial friendships; we don’t live in the same community.

According to a report released last year by the Brookings Institution, even though our country is more racially diverse than it has ever been, our neighborhoods are not.  How can we become friends who have deep, meaningful, sometimes uncomfortable discussions about the impact of Confederate statues in the main square of a small town or the importance of having a comprehensive—factual—examination of our country’s history for example? Where will those conversations happen? How will they start?

My Leadership Greater Washington (LGW) group doesn’t live in the same neighborhood. In fact, we live all over the tri-state area of the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia.  None of us worked together when we originally convened. We often comment that we may never have met each other without LGW and its firm commitment to developing deep and lasting connections. And even within this group, the small group of nine, conversations about race rarely happen. Why is that?

Even for friends, there seem to be boundaries we don’t cross. We’ve been told, either directly or indirectly, that discussing issues of race in racially mixed groups is taboo. Everyone is afraid to say the wrong thing. Everyone is uncomfortable. Race and racial discord aren’t a happy, carefree topic that promotes laughter and camaraderie at that neighborhood cookout or office outing.

So, here’s my question: How do we elevate racial issues, learn different perspectives, challenge thinking, and arrive at heightened understanding if we don’t even talk about race with our friends?

I can think of several times on the Outer Banks when my LGW group might have had a rich conversation about an issue with a racial element. We all would have learned something from the conversation, and I know we could/would have done it respectfully and earnestly.  Here’s my lesson:  We have to seize the moment when it occurs. The teachable moment.

I’m committing to making these conversations happen (or at least trying to make them happen). Not every time, but occasionally, truthfully, and fully. If we all did that, we might make more substantial progress  toward a racially just America. So, let’s talk… really talk. And listen.

 

See Me, Hear Me: The Power of Voice

Recently, a segment on 60 Minutes reminded me of the power of seeing someone tell their story. It profiled a new technology that captured, on camera, Holocaust survivors describing their experiences. With this technology, years from now, decades from now, people can ask questions of these individuals, and they will appear to be answering in real time. Zoom-like with a Star Trek/Jetsons overlay.

Many comparisons are made between the atrocities of the Holocaust and those of slavery. Regardless of where you fall on the continuum of the right and the wrong of those comparisons, there is one undeniable factor: There is power in these firsthand stories shared visually by Holocaust survivors, not their descendants, or researchers, or ancillary observers, but by them. We feel their pain and understand the inhumanity of their captors. Their eyes and their body language reveal so much. We get it, quickly and viscerally, quite different from reading the written word on a sterile page.

For African Americans, we have no living survivors of slavery. The written word is all we have. The closest we come to that first-person level of expression about slavery is in a book and the companion audiotapes called Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation. I have encouraged many, especially my white colleagues working for racial equity, to read this book. One, Margaret O’Bryon, former CEO of the Consumer Health Foundation (recently renamed If, a Foundation for Radical Possibility), did and took an extra step to bring herself closer to their actual voices. Below, she shares her thoughts on the importance of Remembering Slavery.

 

Remembering Slavery

African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation

Edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller

1996, The New Press

Discussed by Margaret O’Bryon

When Tamara asked me to reflect on Remembering Slavery, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to put my experience with the book into words. For those unfamiliar with the book, it grew out of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a program of the New Deal. At the heart of the project were 2,300 interviews undertaken between 1936 and 1938 aimed at capturing the lived experience of slavery, remembered and recounted by women and men born into slavery. The people interviewed were in their 80s, 90s, and some over 100 years old. Tens of thousands of pages of interviews and hundreds of photographs were produced through the slave narrative project. The full collection, as well as narrative about the interview process, is housed at the Library of Congress.

I began by reading the first-person accounts of former slaves and studying the photographs that accompanied them. I ended my experience spending hours listening to the voices of former slaves interviewed for this project. It was their voices recounting their personal experiences that I have carried with me — Fountain Hughes (who was 101 years old when he was interviewed), Laura Smalley, and Harriett Smith, just to name a few. Through the troves of interviews and photographs, living descendants — many of whom believed they had lost their relatives to history — discovered grandparents, great grandparents, and great great grandparents.

The experiences shared through the stories were gruesome, brutal, coercive, and dehumanizing in unimaginable ways. The physical, mental, and emotional scars were indelible. And yet, in the midst of many recollections came descriptive moments of kinship and community.

Remembering Slavery is a testament to the undeniable power of voice, visual images, and storytelling. What I heard was the raw, harsh reality of the personal experience of slavery. What I experienced at a deep emotional level became the reality that my humanity was all tied up in these stories.

It is a grave injustice to all that the stories gathered during the slave narrative project and the information they impart about the reality of slavery at a deeply personal and human level are not taught and shared as large and critical pieces of American history. Had that been the case in my own life, I wonder how the insights gained from this knowledge would have affected my studies, my work and my relationships.

Slavery profoundly shaped our country, the American experience, and continues to do so. I know this to be true through the stories of those who survived it and of those for whom the brutal legacy of slavery continues to shape their lives, their American experience.

 

“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

James Baldwin, ‘Black English: A Dishonest Argument’

 

Margaret has fully committed to understanding the many dimensions of race and racism in America, recognizing that a complete understanding must start with slavery. She doesn’t cringe from ‘the bad and the ugly’ (there’s no ‘good’).

Protests have emerged across the country about teaching history comprehensively, starting with the full story of slavery. Many are voicing their desire to keep history the way it has always been taught and others remain disturbingly silent. To address the racial disparities in our country, we must start with slavery and its continuing ramifications on America. We must use our voices whenever these topics emerge — speak up at public hearings, march for historical accuracy — and  use our positions/our platforms to elevate the need for and value of understanding the unvarnished truth.

It seems fitting to close with this quote from the Talmud:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.

Do justly, now.

Love mercy, now.

Walk humbly, now.

You are not obligated to complete the work,

But neither are you free to abandon it.

 

When BIPOC becomes camouflage

Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). When I first learned this term, it made me happy. I had accepted, but not fully embraced POC, but finally, Indigenous Peoples were being specifically included in language and in conversations about racially oppressed/marginalized groups. For me, the term “POC” had expanded to be linguistically inclusive of a group often forgotten. That was good and, yes, that was my only thought. The positive.

That was then. This is now.

The more I hear the term, the more it bothers me. Here’s why.

You’ll remember at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, death numbers were presented in the aggregate. We saw the disproportionate impact on distinct communities, particularly Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Indigenous populations, only after examining race and ethnicity. Once the COVID numbers were disaggregated by race, we knew who was being affected most severely, and specific outreach to those communities began.

Now, I believe aggregated BIPOC data is being used as camouflage. Data must be broken down, by race and ethnicity, to reveal racial reality.

Recently, a vendor (in the investment banking industry) with whom a colleague was doing business was asked about hiring people of color. Proudly, the company shared its BIPOC numbers but, when asked, declined to disaggregate them by race, saying such an action was against company policies. Huh? Why would a vendor refuse such a request?

I checked the stats for that industry. According to the first site in my Google search, 69.6% of investment bankers are white, 11.4% each for the Asian and Hispanic/Latinx communities, 5.3% are Black, 2% unknown, and .3% are American Indian or Alaska Native. I suspect that, for the vendor being considered, the Black community, and the Indigenous community also, would not be well-represented, if at all, in their BIPOC data. I believe the vendor declined knowing the details would show a dearth of Black people in upper-level positions.

Believe me, my intent is not to deny opportunities to any non-white community. I celebrate those inroads and appreciate the solidarity of fostering a BIPOC community. PERIOD. Hard stop. I simply want transparency in who is being hired. And, where disproportionality is revealed, like in investment banking, I want us to acknowledge it, examine why it occurs, and address it. We can’t handle a problem until we know it exists. That is the invisibility, or shielding, of racism.

As was done with COVID, we can gain the same clarity by asking employers to break down the details of their BIPOC (or POC) data. And, then we can do what it takes to grow employment opportunities and hire people not represented, or underrepresented, within those industries.

In the meantime, let’s not be lenient on employers who won’t disaggregate data. Take your business somewhere else.

Time to walk the curve

“Of all the races, there is no better stage for heroism than a marathon.”   George Sheehan, physician, athlete and author

 

For years, I’ve heard the expression, “It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.” That statement is typically voiced, as a reminder, to anyone working for social change. Change takes time.

Over the last five years, as I’ve worked in a concentrated and ongoing way on racial justice, I’ve learned that racial change is not just a marathon. It’s a marathon-length relay.

In my short leg of this race, I’ve learned this work is emotionally exhausting. Right now, I can’t read another racially charged news story about a persecuted, hurt, or killed Black person. I can’t watch another documentary shedding light on a little-known incident of racial terrorism. I still haven’t seen Judas and the Black Messiah. Even with Daniel Kaluuya’s Oscar-winning performance, I can’t watch a reenactment of what happened to Fred Hampton. And, as much as I admire the brilliance of Ibram X. Kendi, I haven’t read his collective assemblage, with Keisha N. Blain, of Four Hundred Souls. I just can’t right now.

Soon after the murder of George Floyd, Dax Devlon Ross, teacher and journalist, wrote A Letter to my White Male Friends of a Certain Age. In it, he said,

“You experience black death as repugnant, but not as a visceral,  perpetual threat to your own existence and violation of humanity.”

That’s it. Ross captured my feelings. Not always, just sometimes.

As I read and watch representations of 400 years of degradation, torture, and the murder of my people, I hurt. My existence and that of my immediate family and friends are constantly threatened. This is not a historical incident or a philosophical conversation. It’s a real… today… every day… life and death possibility.

Sometimes, I can continue my learning (I finished The Sum of Us a couple of weeks ago, right after reading Caste) or discuss history with friends, without pain, as we stand before a graffiti-redefined statue of Robert E. Lee in my hometown. But right now, my soul feels bruised, though nothing specifically happened.

I sometimes wonder if my white friends hurt, too, in a significantly different way. Is it painful to learn what your ancestors did or what people who look like you did? Is that part of what stops some white people from wanting a comprehensive history of America taught in our schools? I’m not only talking about a historical reckoning and reality check about how we got here but a today in real-time acknowledging of how the racial disparities in America are maintained. Do you turn away from the truth because the pain of complicity is too much to bear? That’s part of your privilege. I can’t turn away. We must all face this pain.

Those and other questions sit heavily on me, even without the weight of any answers to them. They’ve become a heavy baton to carry in this relay. I’ve heard that there’s a stage in many track workouts where coaches and trainers admonish you to: “Run the straights and walk the curves.” The straights, they say, stress you, building your wind and sprinting burst… the curves give you a moment to recover. I feel like I’ve been running the straights for a while, and now I must catch my breath—walk the curve—and take a break.

This month, instead of immersing myself in the pain that we—Black people—have experienced and still experience, I’m focusing on a musical celebration. Ever hear of the Harlem Cultural Festival or The Summer of Soul? No. I hadn’t either. Questlove, DJ, producer, and co-founder of the hip hop group The Roots, discovered footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Forty hours of film from six free events featuring performers as diverse as the Fifth Dimension, B.B. King, Nina Simone, and Mahalia Jackson. But even as I anticipate sinking into this happy space of the Black music of my youth, questions of racial justice still emerge.

1969.

Summer.

Music festival. Thousands of attendees.

Any bells ringing? I bet Woodstock came to mind. Everyone over a certain age has heard of Woodstock. Yet, the Harlem Cultural Festival, happening that same year with a similarly esteemed musical lineup, received no widespread attention for 50 plus years. History, even pop culture history, is written from a racially white lens. That’s what we still have to see… the pervasiveness of the white worldview.

So, now I’m off to watch The Summer of Soul, and I’ll try to keep racial justice from consuming me. My part of the marathon relay race is over for now. Just for a bit, I’m passing the baton.