I am a firm believer in the idea that every conversation has the potential to be a transformative experience. A few weeks ago, such an experience transpired. My institution was one of the nine universities on award winning journalist Soledad O’Brien’s Black in America 2015 tour. On the evening of Soledad’s visit, there was a fierce sense of urgency for conversation from members of the university community in wake of what some view as an assault on black humanity with the recent deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers. Black and Blue, the name of her latest installment, examined the complexly tense relationship between communities of color and the police.
For me, much of what was shared only served as confirmation to what I had long understood about my Blackness and how it tends to invite racial bias – even from the well-intentioned. Yet, I appreciated the manner in which the information was presented, and was enlivened that individuals across many racial and ethnic cultures were being exposed to these often untold narratives. For others, it provided a context for why this “gulf of mistrust” – as stated by President Obama – exists between these two groups. I am also certain that some people left with more questions than answers. I would soon discover that the conclusion of the event was only the beginning of the conversation and I was going to be a part of it.
As I walked into my office to finish up the work I put off in order to attend the event, I received a text message from a student leader requesting to have a one on one conversation with me admitting to being “heated” after leaving the Black in America event. Upon receiving this text I paused, unsure of how to appropriately respond. Sensing the frustration in the text, I considered suggesting that we meet another day allowing this student time to decompress and process. However, sensing the urgency in the tone of the message as well, I chose to go with my visceral response and met with this student that same night.
“What were your thoughts on the presentation?”
This was the first out of a series of questions this student asked sitting in the chair across from my desk. My response was that the message was well crafted and presented, but that it also confirmed much of what I already knew to be true based on own my lived experiences. This student then began with a disclaimer stating matter-of-factly that “racism does exist” and that he did not condone it by any means. This student’s position indicated to me that this was going to be more of a dialogue than a diatribe. What followed was a personal analysis underscoring the disappointment felt by what was perceived to not be an “academic discussion” that took place but one that appeared very biased in nature. His critiques were with how the statistics appeared skewed, and there was also some skepticism about the video clips shown. This student felt that there was simply not enough context given to truly understand what led to these fatal encounters with police or the differing responses to a black male in comparison to a white male by white Americans. I appropriately challenged the premise by asserting that although the entire context may not have been available, one cannot simply dismiss that the statistics at minimum reveal a pattern of discriminatory practice.
In honoring this student’s perspective, however, I responded by offering my take on the matter by explaining the lived experiences of many people of color in the U.S. and how their humanity is often not fully recognized or regarded with the same reverence as their white counterparts. We briefly discussed white privilege and Peggy McIntosh’s work; white supremacy and its contributions to the systemic and institutionalized inequities that disproportionately affect black, brown, and tan bodies; and how media depictions of people of color continue to shape society’s negative perception of them.
I didn’t have all the answers to some of the questions posed nor do I suspect that was the expectation. Though, having the courage to engage in what can be a difficult conversation was more important than having the right answers. Having not had much exposure to African-American history, I encouraged this student to watch a series called The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay The Case for Reparations to provide some context to which he acquiesced. I also expressed my willingness to read, watch and listen to anything that he thought would provide me with a perspective that I may not have considered. I have found that by listening to opposing viewpoints not only does one gain new insights but it inadvertently asks you to reconsider if what you subscribe to is what you truly ascribe to.
What was encouraging about this interaction was that this student felt comfortable enough to speak with me signifying a level of trust established between us. What was powerful was the vulnerability displayed which allowed for a fruitful discussion. What was transformational was this student’s willingness to engage and learn more about the African-American experience having grown up in small rural town with limited exposure to people of color. I’ve been in conversations centered on race matters in the past that turned into fiery exchanges and this situation had the potential to follow suit. Instead, what occurred kept in line with Soledad’s charge to keep the conversation going. I look forward to future dialogues with this student and others willing to engage in a civil discourse. After all, respectfully spirited discourse is fundamental to the mission of higher education. Will you be a part of the conversation?
This post is part of our ongoing #SAtogether series on celebrating moments of success in the realm of social justice. The stories we share highlight the idea that no win is too small when it comes to bridging gaps and making a connection despite differences. For more information, please see the intro post by Sinclair Ceasar. Check out other posts in this series too!