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.
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.