Conversations About Race
Eight years ago, the life paths of three women — one black, one white, one multi-racial — crossed,and a unique friendship was born. The topic of race was central from the inception, and we shared a fundamental sense that we needed one another as we explored the terrain of race. Despite the fact that many of our conversations over the years have been difficult and sensitive, they’ve also been beautiful. We’ve found a sacred space where we listen to each other’s experiences, challenge assumptions, and share hopes. With that said, we continue to fumble and often wonder how to best go about this work of loving each other well. What we offer here are our reflections from hosting two “Conversations About Race”in Nashville, Tennessee, and cultivating our friendship along the way.
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When Michael Brown was killed, we were each devastated. In part, it hit us very personally because we are each mothers to black sons, by birth or adoption. We watched the news and social media, disheartened by the polarization we saw. We cried together, raged and ranted together, and came to the unified conclusion that, “We have to do something!”We decided to invite more women into the conversations we’d been having for years. Without a particularly clear vision, we put a date on the calendar, secured a venue, and sent out invitations. Initially, our hope was simple: to provide a place for women of all colors to sit with each other, talk, and listen.
We decided that one of us would start the first Conversations event by sharing her personal story. Leslie describes herself as a multi-ethnic, racially ambiguous-looking woman. Her brother has darker skin and, perceived as a black man, he identifies as such. As a child, she watched him ostracized and brutalized because of his skin color. Through her teen years, she chose to socialize as a white person because she concluded it wasn’t safe to be black, and she figured those were her only two options. But her decision deeply wounded herself and her brother, who felt betrayed. Entering adulthood, she began to embrace her multi-ethnic identity and pursued reconciliation with her brother. As they restarted their relationship, her brother extended forgiveness, patience, and brutal honesty. She listened to his truth, and he helped her understand race from an entirely new perspective. By setting the stage with this vulnerable story, we hoped that similar storytelling and listening would take place once we broke into small groups. As we sat in diverse circles of women, we discussed what brought each of us to that room. We asked questions about our fears and hopes in regards to racial reconciliation. We ended our time by returning to a town-hall-type forum where each group leader recapped highlights from each group’s discussions.
Inviting others into our conversation seemed simple enough, but actually hosting and curating that common ground has shown us how much we have yet to learn. After the first event, we received both glowing reviews and passionate criticism. We humbly took note and turned our three chairs toward one another. We processed both the feedback from other women and what was coming up for us individually. In order to get an idea of our unique perspectives but also to speak to the complexity of this conversation, we wrote responses in our own voices . . .
I was encouraged by the room full of women who cared enough to show up. As a white mom who has adopted transracially, my small-group discussion was incredibly helpful as I voiced my concerns and connected with others about raising a black son in a white family.
Looking back now, I recognize that quite a bit of fear came to the surface during our planning process. I felt a familiar heartache that comes every time I enter into the brokenness of race relations. All too often, I feel helpless and confused about how to really make anything change. As the date of the event approached, I began to identify that the fear was connected to guilt for being white and privileged. With the help of Tammy and Leslie, I was able to unpack the difference between white privilege and white guilt. Guilt silences my voice and makes me afraid to make further mistakes. As much as I hate that it exists, white privilege is a cultural reality. It is in the hundreds of advantages that are so a part of my norm that I have to make the choice to see and acknowledge them. I can choose to negate this reality because I’m afraid of its implications, or I can choose to use it to bring equality and justice.
As I continue to grow, I’m beginning to find the courage to remain grounded in my own identity and truth as I welcome the same from others.
As we prepared for the first gathering, I rejoiced in the fact that we were going beyond our usual conversations about the current tragedy regarding race relations and finally doing something about it. Our initial meetings were difficult, and I soon realized the three of us reflected the diverse, messy, and divided country we live in. Because we bring different perspectives and experiences to the table, it was difficult to come to a consensus about the questions that would lead our small-group discussions. The problem was that our questions focused heavily on relationships, but did not focus on the reason we decided to come together: to discuss the killings of young, black men due to racial stereotyping and prejudices in our country. However, I ignored that nagging voice and moved forward in faith that something beautiful would come out of it.
The majority of women who came were white, and the larger group conversation centered on their concerns. As a facilitator, I sensed that the black women who did come were not engaged, and my fears were confirmed when several of them expressed their frustration to me. They had walked into the room carrying the burden of raising black sons who could be the next Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown, and we didn’t address their concerns.
I spent the next few days contemplating what had taken place and praying about how to move forward. As a black woman, I resonated with those who were silent during our first conversation. Our voices needed to be heard. Through several candid and heart-wrenching discussions with the other leaders, the three of us were able to set the stage for our next gathering with the purpose of sharing all sides of the story. Thus we had one black woman give a frightening account of her husband being racially profiled. Also, a white mom who adopted a black son told his story of being the target of extreme bullying and racial persecution. At the end of our second gathering, the pain and heaviness of feeling silenced was lifted. I was so thankful because from the beginning, it was most important to me that we start the conversation from a place of love and create a safe space that gave everyone the freedom to speak their truth. As we continue this ministry, I know that we will falter along the way, but I celebrate our growth on this very unique and authentic journey!
In the days and weeks following the first event, I felt quite conflicted. There were so many more things I wish that we had said, discussed, brought to light. There were so many more perspectives that I wish we had heard. I was discouraged because that two-hour event felt painfully inadequate, like a drop in the ocean. Not to mention, I asked a range of women about their personal experiences and their responses were all over the map. One woman called it a beautiful, sacred time. Another had been so hurt she cried for two days afterward. Another had strong words regarding the bias she felt in the group. It was unnerving because I could relate to the gratefulness, the pain, the anger in all of their words. I didn’t know how to synthesize my own varied emotions, let alone theirs. I’m still in the thick of my own racial evolution, so how could I possibly endeavor to create a positive experience for dozens of diverse women? I not only felt personally unqualified to be organizing this event, but I also felt like it was too big of an issue to tackle. We’d never get it right. But that’s when I had to keep reminding myself of what we’d said earlier: “It’s not everything, but it’s something.”We would never get it right, but we could learn from the things that were beautiful and from the mistakes we made and keep trying.
To facilitate this kind of conversation across racial lines, we knew that the shared space we created needed to be a safe space, but we quickly realized the word safewas entirely insufficient. Women who showed up were not safe from discomfort, implication, hurt, hard truths, or from saying or hearing the wrong thing.We had hoped that they would feel safe in bringing their stories, honesty, and the fullness of their emotions. But things didn’t unfold exactly as we intended, and it was clear that the conversation needed to continue.
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Taking everything into consideration, we came back to a perennial truth: Love is action. So for our second event, we wanted to explore both relational reconciliation and practical acts of justice. Alone, each is insufficient, like a skeleton with no muscle or muscle with no bones. Reconciliation and justice need to walk hand in hand to be effective, powerful, and sustainable. Issues are simply issues until you start to develop a love for someone else — then, issues become personal. So this was an opportunity to come together and inspire one another with creative and simple acts of justice. As we listened to the women bravely share their stories, we were invited to take these stories into our hearts and ask questions like, “What if this were me, my child, my friend, my sibling? What can I do? How would I choose to navigate similar situations?”Together we white-boarded practical ways to seek justice in our homes, schools, churches, and workplaces. We covered many ideas, from getting our news from varying sources to how to talk to our kids about differences. We hope that our stories will inspire women to become reconcilers in their own spheres of influence.
Ultimately, this was a step in our journey toward loving people better through relationships and action. We are reminded of our dear friend Steve Garber’s words that we were first loved by someone who considered himself implicated for Love’s sake. So with that we press on.
Kristen Odmark is a spiritual director and community activist in Nashville, TN. She spends much of her time practicing contemplative spirituality and engaging her community in conversation about story, faith, and justice. Currently, she is particularly curious about the three words delight, play and listen. Along with her husband of seventeen years, she is also raising three boys who have been given to them through the dual miracles of adoption and biological birth.
Tammy Bullock is a spiritual counselor and worship leader. Her chief passion in life is to encourage, equip, and challenge women to see their purpose in Christ and connect deeply with Him and His plan for their lives. When not leading a Bible study, empowering women through Biblical truths, or sharing a tissue with a hurting soul, she is spending quality time with her two favorite people in the world, husband Tyler Bullock and their son, T2.
Leslie Mitchell lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband of 20 years and their three children. She is an active leader in her community, serving on boards for her church, school system, and Urban YoungLife Committee. She has a background in journalism and was a beauty writer at In Style and Seventeen magazines in NYC. She occasionally writes freelance pieces and is excited about finding ways to inspire and promote racial reconciliation.