You know the stats by now: Rochester NY is high on many undesirable lists regarding racial segregation. Through decades of systemic policies and disparities in income and access, white people and People of Color rarely live near each other. We might pass each other at times, might happen to shop in the same plaza at times, might even work in the same company. But we rarely live in the same neighborhood, rarely worship in the same faith community, rarely belong to the same club. In other words, we’re lacking in opportunities to get to know one another – beyond the necessary minimal interactions.
Black people are continually interacting with an overwhelmingly white world, while for most of us white folks, we can exist in an almost exclusively white bubble with nothing but the media to give us any hint of life as a Black person. What’s more, the media we absorb has been shown in study after study to portray a demeaning image of African-Americans.
One poignant aspect about this separation is this: white people perceive no loss in this disconnection. With rare exceptions, we don’t consider the cost of this lack of connectedness – the cost TO US. We don’t know what we don’t know, and we don’t know what we’re missing.
When I began an intentional effort to connect (about five years ago) I approached the effort with a mindset of “helping”. I’m a very helpful, kind and generous humanitarian, you know! This racial disconnect is hurting all of us, and I wanted to do my part to bridge it, concerned citizen that I am.
Just recently I’ve noticed that a crucial shift has taken place, beyond my conscious recognition or even intention: I’m awed by the people I’m meeting. I’m struck not just by what they contend with, but by what they’ve overcome, by their tireless resilience, their dedication to righting what is so wrong, their love for their families, their humor even in discussing intractable racism. I’m awed by their realistic understanding of the broader culture: what is actually happening, and what is necessary, what is sick, and what is hopeful.
This awareness, appreciation and awe has not come mainly through reading books or watching videos or news media. The origins of this perspective shift has been presence – presence in meetings that are led by Black leaders, where I’m in a definite minority. And presence in one-on-one in-depth conversations that are very directly about racism. These are occasions where I sit and listen, ask questions, experience the multitude of cultures and the mindsets that, until this point in my life, were obscure and stereotyped.
And almost suddenly, I find myself privileged to be connected. In love. Almost suddenly I recognize a gift I did not expect. And the fact that I did not expect it is evidence of the white supremacy in which I am steeped: “What can I as a white person offer?”, not “What do I as a white person have to gain?”
My experience is echoed by white author Chris Crass:
“When white people participate in multiracial social justice activities and hear people of color talk about racism and their experiences, significant shifts will take place. It becomes less of an academic conversation and becomes rooted in people’s lives and experiences.”
Our isolation as whites holds true as much for liberal/progressive thinkers as well as all others. Reading books, having empathy, perusing City newspaper, remonstrating on the latest video of an unarmed Black person being shot, is not the same as being engaged in a personal, visceral way with those we purport to esteem and support. More importantly, empathy without connection and without action functions as complicity in the very situations we say we condemn.
Having a few Black friends may be helpful in making genuine connections – and it may not be helpful! Author Robin DiAngelo:
“If racism is not a topic of discussion between a white person and a person of color who are friends, this absence of conversation may indicate a lack of cross-racial trust.”
And that lack of trust can go in either or both directions.
If your interactions never reference racial experience or questions or reactions, the relationship may inadvertently feed the pretense of having a bona fide connection, when in reality the link is superficial. This is particularly disingenuous when, in an effort to prove our racial acuity, we cite these “friendships” as proof!
“How to”? See Resources and Actions here.
Comments and suggestions also welcome below.
“Guidelines for Being Strong White Allies” – 2 1/2 page guide by Paul Kivel:
“100 Ways White People Can Make Life Less Frustrating for People of Color”
Rochester Business Journal sponsors: Diversity & Inclusion Mastermind Summit; learn why diversity is important for your business. Tues. June 11, 7:30 am to noon.
Offered by the National Coalition Building Institute (click to learn more/register): June 12 9:00 am to 4:00 pm: “PRIVILEGE”: Privilege and entitlement are trigger words, especially for white people on matters of race. This workshop explores how privilege shapes our sense of self and our interactions…
See list of upcoming events sponsored by 540WMain . Some upcoming sessions, all at 6:30 pm:
June 11: Unpacking – So You Want to Talk About Race
June 18: Black Women Are Dying: Health Care Disparities
June 20: Understanding White Privilege
See list of upcoming events sponsored by National Coalition Building Institute. Some upcoming sessions:
June 12 9:00 to 4:00 Privilege: A full-day workshop
June 13 9:00 – 12:00: Controversial Issues: Skill sets for effective conflict resolution
Friday June 14, 6:00 – 8:00: Rochester City School District’s Racial Equity Advocacy Leadership (REAL) Team, established September 2018. Open to the public. Meets at RCSD Central Office 131 W. Broad St. (Cor. of S. Plymouth Ave.). Be a witness to, and support, efforts to address racial inequities in the school system. Come and learn!
Follow United Christian Leadership Ministry on Facebook, to be alerted to their educational and advocacy actions.
11 thoughts on “Authentic Relationships”
Prior to coming to St Monica, our experience of “church” was limited pretty much to people who looked mostly like us with very rare exception. We knew subconsciously that this was not the real church but never did anything about it until stepping out about 10 years ago. What a blessing it has been. The people we have met and the things we have learned. One example, yesterday, Father’s Day at Arnett Cafe, very crowded. We were awaiting a table when a young AA couple motions to us to join them. It meant for them rearranging all three young kids, cramming 7 people into a space for 4 but what a wonderful gift we received. Did not want the breakfast to end; felt like new parents and grandparents. We hope to meet again to further an authentic relationship.
Thanks Dan. Connection by connection.
Great column, as always.
Two of the places where I’ve been blessed to experience a bit of healing from my privileged numbness and indifference have been (1) during my stays in RGH as a patient in coronary care, where I find my most gratifying moments, not with most nurses or doctors, but with the, yes, mostly people of color in the lesser positions who invariably take time from cleaning me up, taking out the trash, etc., to pray with me. And (2) at Woody’s International Barbershop on lower Monroe Ave, where I find myself able to pray freely in company with others—and to talk freely and frankly and unself-consciously as well about racism, including my own white privilege. And ranging from there to themes that truly concern us all: grace, sin, will, personal and collective responsibility. Woody’s is what I would call a “prophetic university of life-truth.” I wish my hair grew more quickly so I could go more often!
Thanks for putting these thoughts out, Frank. I especially like “What can I as a white person offer?”, not “What do I as a white person have to gain?” Colonialism vs, humility. It gave me pause.
Thanks for weighing in, Joyce. I was just thinking today that the one question (“offer”) is another manifestation of white superiority – which is actually white supremacy! It’s charity vs. justice and solidarity. Awakening – very slowly.
Again, it is about relationship the sharing of life. Willingness to listen, feel and consider the other. Unfortunately we live with many many others in our life.
I am continually amazed by my immediate reaction / judgement of everyone I meet. Usually a negative take due my quick and sick mind and my ability to know everything. All of these lies run endlessly through my mind.
My only hope to quiet the constant noise is a spiritual practice of meditation or quiet prayer and my continued belief that God will transform me into an authentic loving and caring person willing to communicate/relate with the other. Hoping for the personal internal experience that we all are one.
What a touching reflection, Ken. Thank you.
Great stuff here Frank… Thanks for sharing.
“empathy without connection and without action functions as complicity in the very situations we say we condemn.”
Thanks, JD. You’ve certainly been one of my teachers – and a friend!
Coincidentally, just as I opened your comment, Dave Inglis showed up to see Sue! You and I met at his church!
A beautiful column. Thank you for digging deeply and making your readers think deeply. I needed this today.
And thank you, Mary.