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.


10 Replies to “Intentional conversations among friends”

  1. Oh Tamara! You are so right – why, indeed, do we not have these conversations?!? My husband & I are white, living in a white neighborhood & attending a white church – in southwest Virginia. When we lived in N.C. we had good friends – he is African-American; she is white, German. We did, once, have that conversation & he & we were comfortable talking about some of the issues of race relations. But his wife didn’t seem to believe his stories – or mine, growing up in South Carolina. It was a difficult dinner. You’ve inspired me to also bring up the questions – & talk about them – honestly, with love! Thank you for your words in this space!

  2. Thank you, Tamara! I join you in my commitment to making conversations about race happen. I can be pretty good about pontificating, but not always so good about having real discussions.

  3. This is another excellent and thought provoking blog. I feel very fortunate that you are one of the members of our college group’s Zoom conversations about race, and I always feel comfortable talking to you; you have a great deal of patience. But….and there is always a but….we do have Black friends, and we generally don’t bring the subject of race up. A close friend, a Black male, watches our house when we travel. It occurred to me after the tragic events of last year, that we might be putting him in harm’s way as he enters and leaves our home in a not-at-all-diverse neighborhood. My husband talked to him about it, and it ended up being a very positive conversation that led to several discussions about race. But it was just between Bruce and William. Not me. He has dinner at our house occasionally, and, although I haven’t brought up the topic, I would feel comfortable the next time he comes for dinner.

    Whenever I think, “What can an older White woman do to to help?” something inspirational like this comes along. It also could apply to gay friends, friends who practice a different religion etc. Thank you for always prodding us to move forward.

  4. Tamara, this one really resonated with me. In the fifty years that I have known you and been your friend, I don’t think we ever discussed how you felt that you needed to “fit in” with this new reality of yours. You did things like allowing me to call you by a nickname (something that I truly regret), which others also took up, instead of calling you by your name. Later, as a teacher, I knew the importance of allowing a child to own their own name and to be called by it. Whenever I had a student with an unusual name (by Anglo standards) who had defaulted to saying “but you can call me _______,” I would then say that I wanted to use his or her real name, the one they were actually called.
    We never talked then or even many years later about our feelings of bring put together in the same suite as freshman. I was excited and happy to get to know a person of a different background, a different community. I still really enjoy meeting people who come from different regions, different countries, different lifestyles. But even with these people, we rarely ever talk about problems experienced by minorities in the United States. I had a truly eye-opening experience when i was the only white woman among a roomful of African American women at a book club discussion about your book “Daughter’s of the Dream” in Norfolk two and a half years ago. Women openly talked about their experiences navigating a world outside of their mostly black communities. One woman mentioned the instant bind she felt with an unknown fellow African American person at a conference or on a crowded elevator.
    You are right. We need to have these conversations. It may feel awkward at first, but it will lead to greater understanding and hopefully to better relationships as well.

  5. I grew up near Columbia. Maryland in the 70’s and 80’s. Having friends of other races was the norm and it was modeled by my parents, who moved to the area in 1968. Unfortunately, I believe as everyone grew older, we segregated ourselves. Sad.

  6. Good morning Tamara. See my FB post this morning. I seized the moment. I’ve been thinking a lot about you lately, and would love to speak with you by my book, the content on race, and your writing experience.

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