Years ago I wrote a column about the complexities of race relations. It bore the same title as this commentary. I revisited it recently because of a troubling experience that brought it to mind.
The event that triggered that first piece involved an exchange I’d had with a black woman for whom I felt deep respect. We were in a women’s group talking about women and depression. I said that my maternal grandmother had hung herself. I talked about her limited, sad life and recalled that her happy moments were few. One of them was occasional day trips to the beach where she could sit quietly and escape her daily life, rife with various oppressions. Suddenly, the woman snarled, “At least she wasn’t cleaning other people’s toilets!” The comment pushed our conversation into a contest about which of our grandmothers had suffered the most in their equally sad lives.
In the essay, I wrote, “What is it that brings about the rage of one woman, or one race, against another in so powerful a way that what might have been shared in the name of solidarity is obliterated? I do not ask this out of historical naiveté. One can certainly articulate the roots of black, and feminist, rage. But there is something in our psyches striking out, pushing on frayed edges, about to burst. It is palpable and it is straining our collective being.”
I also recalled a letter I’d written to writer Alice Walker who seemed then to be very angry at white women. “Mea culpa,” I wrote. “I am not black. I am not poor. But have I nothing of value to offer? Is there no way for us to hear each other and to find strength in common experience so that we can grow and build a better future together?”
These questions resonated again in a recent exchange I had with someone I have long respected for the vital work undertaken by this community leader. I had hoped to attend an event being organized by this person as a journalist in order to write about the organization’s important work. When I asked to attend the event as media, limiting conditions were imposed that were outside standard journalistic practice. The restrictions were particularly disturbing since I was known to the event’s organizer and should not have presented a threat of insensitive reporting.
When I said the restrictions were unusual, explained why and asked for them to be lifted, I received, to my shock, an accusation that I was revealing my sense of “white entitlement” and that I had “implicit biases.” In an exchange that included reference to our respective work,” I was told that I enjoyed “the luxury of whites” to retire when I tired of my career while people whose “dedicated life work” could never stop.
These comments left me breathless. They smacked of reverse racism offering no path to reconciliation. They suggested that all white people constitute the Other, the perpetual outsider in need of education in order to understand and empathize with the black experience. This from a community leader whose entire raison d’etre is said to be racial justice, dialogue, and the growth of healthy diversity within our communities.
In the piece I wrote on race relations, I paraphrased feminist writer Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. “She makes a strong case for conversation in which community is the center. She asks us to explore how our fierce claims to individual rights may be impeding the larger context.”
In Fox-Genovese’s own words, “Race and gender should enjoy privileged positions in our understanding of American culture for they lie at the core of any sense of self, [but] unless we acknowledge our diversity, we allow the silences of the received tradition to become our own.”
“Acknowledging our diversity, finding our centrality, and deciding what kind of a community, and nation, we will become are lofty goals not easily operationalized,” I had written. “But perhaps if we could all find a way to talk about it together we could begin. Maybe someday, even though things may not be absolutely black and white, it won’t matter quite so much whose turn it is to ride in the front of the bus.”
Where we sit in the bus is no longer germane to a discussion of what divides us. We have, at least, moved beyond that terrible and unjust chasm. But within the context of my recent experience there is still much room for healing, it seems. That healing cannot take place if we can’t speak to each other respectfully, free of difference-based assumptions, and charges of gross insensitivity. Healing will not take place if we can’t work together to realize the benefits of individual and organizational relationships or foster partnerships that lead to respectful and productive dialogue for social change. Finding such common ground is especially important among people in leadership.
It broke my heart to participate in the exchange I’ve partially shared, especially because I believed the two of us were respectful of each other and our respective work. The episode showed me that there is still much work to do, even between people we think share similar goals and aspirations.
But most of all, the exchange made me sad, like my grandmother must have been when she sought understanding.