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Racial Conversations: Let the Healing Begin

February 26, 2015

I was really moved and touched by the number of commercials during the Super Bowl this year centering around connection and love. It made me think about how much people really desire more of those things in their lives. I also realized that the current racial conversation taking place is also about connection and love. Unfortunately our media environment struggles to have a prolonged discussion from this angle. Too often the conversation takes the form of point-counterpoint with the conclusion being, “see we are so different and there is no way we will ever be able to bridge the divide.” This current racial discussion has made me think a lot about several friendships I’ve had during this lifetime and how they have shaped my life and worldview.

I have known Fran for the past forty years. She and I grew up half a mile from one another but worlds apart; Fran is white and I am black. Luckily for the two of us we grew up in a rather liberal college town in the northeastern part of the United States during the 1970’s, which we both now realize allowed the two of us to explore our friendship on a more open level. Initially the friendship was school-based. As our friendship grew, we began to cross those invisible lines and expand our friendship beyond school. In high school, when we could drive, it was not uncommon to see Fran and several of my other white friends coming into my predominantly African American neighborhood to put me up for whatever activity they had planned for the day.  We often now joke about how the ‘little old black ladies” would be watching through their windows saying some version of “here come those white girls to pick up Ray.” We laugh now because it was true, but what we also knew and understood was that those same ‘little old black women” respected my white friends for taking that risk to cross that divide. Those black women knew what it took to ‘crossover’ every day so whenever they saw white people taking that chance they carried deep respect and reverence for the chance taker.

Now Fran and I have both lived here in Philadelphia for the past 30 years, an environment that is so different from the small college town of our youth. Our friendship has deepened to the point of feeling like it’s more familial than just friendship. We continually have conversations about race, difference, belonging, and connection. Recently we were having this very conversation and she said that due to our friendship she was able to step outside of the “safe world” that she knew and question the cultural narrative being told and change the way she wanted to interact with the world. For the past 15 years, Fran has been traveling around the world working with people who have invested so much in their differences, helping them look at their commonalities. This, Fran says, is a direct result of our friendship; she is able to help people bridge that divide and find the kinds of deep connections that all humans desire.

For me, the friendship has been one of deep trust – one I have been able to rely on in such a way that when some racial slight occurs I’m able to hold that friendship close to remind me of the power of connection and being seen as I am, a black man. The relationship has helped me better articulate my frustrations with racial conversations because Fran has been able to allow me to have my point of view on race in America and not challenge that view in a way that made it somehow wrong. This friendship has also allowed me to make sense of my daily ‘crossovers’ into the white world and how it affects me and what affect I have on that ‘white’ world. So I too now help people make that trek into each other’s worlds on a number of different levels. And I know that I am able to do so because of the personal relationships that I have had with Fran and many others like her.

So how does one take that step? And when we have taken that step to begin a cross-racial journey, what do we do next?  Here are a few tips:

  1. Listen intently.
  2. Open one’s self up to another’s experience of the world.
  3. Share personally and from the heart.
  4. Connect around your similarities first.
  5. Monitor your discomfort.
  6. And, most importantly, have fun!