My late friend Rich Epps was an attorney and dedicated civil rights advocate. During our friendship, he shared with me his experiences growing up in a poor, Black neighborhood of Wilmington, N.C. His first cousin was one of the Wilmington 10. Rich's experiences were far different from mine as a white, middle-class boy in middle America.
From Rich, I learned that it's better to talk about these differences than to avoid the discussion. By sharing our stories and experiences, we build trust and understanding. A bond forms that would not otherwise exist.
Unfortunately, however, talking about race makes many of my white friends nervous. They are afraid they'll say the wrong thing.
Here's an example. Many years ago, I was playing a basketball game with a group of Black friends and a white friend. One of the Black men tossed me the ball and said, "Let's see if you can throw it down."
I can't dunk, so I chuckled, tossed the ball back to him and said, "Sorry, white man's disease."
Everyone except my white friend laughed heartily. Later, after the game, he said I had created a situation where we might be accused of being racist. I didn't understand his reaction then, nor do I now, other than I think it reflects a communication problem.
I think we need to worry less about unwittingly offending someone or being less than completely politically correct than about getting to know someone with a different life path or perspective. I was genuinely compelled by Rich's upbringing and how different it was from mine. I was also interested in the challenges he had that I didn't have, ranging from police stops to being ignored by cab drivers. Because we built a foundation of trust and respect, we could even joke and tease each other about the less troubling aspects of our differences.
When I present on the topic of using verbal aikido to de-escalate conflict, I often share a story about a time I was confronted in a bar by a large, inebriated man who seemed bent on trouble. I explain that by engaging with him, instead of fighting with or running away from him, I was able to end the encounter with smiles and a handshake.
When I tell this story to an entirely white audience, I usually omit one fact: The man confronting me was Black. Why? So that I'm not accused of being racist and implying that because he was Black, he was also violent.
Yet when I've presented this story to a racially diverse audience and mentioned the man's race, I've never faced an accusation of racism. Just the opposite. When I've mentioned race to an all-white audience, they tend to view the story as perpetuating a dangerous stereotype, while a racially diverse audience sees it as puncturing that stereotype to reveal the humanity within.
If the current protests and calls for social justice are to produce greater trust and cohesion between people of different races, a key factor will be overcoming white awkwardness on the topic of race. The solution is an open, honest, candid and civil exchange.
My friend Isaac Dixon, associate vice president for HR at Portland State University, encourages people of different races to have conversations where they ask each other questions such as:
- Where are you from?
- When did you grow up?
- What were your friends like?
- When did you first encounter people different from yourself?
- What do you recall about that experience and what did you take away from it?
"Cross-racial dialogues are absolutely necessary to facilitate perspective-taking and empathy," according to my former colleague Michelle Wimes, chief diversity and professional development officer for the law firm Ogletree Deakins. "When we begin to understand the challenges others face, to walk in their shoes, we open ourselves up to seeing the world differently and create richer opportunities for acting more inclusively."
It's time to start talking!