By Kerra Bolton and A.J. Hartley
The United States is a nation in conversation.
We are talking about politics. We are talking about the things that unite and divide us. We are talking about talking.
Last summer, we (a white man and a black woman) began talking about race after the series of deaths of unarmed men at the hands of white police officers. For six months, we sustained a commitment to talking about race, the concepts of whiteness and blackness, and how these constructs shaped our lives and our choices.
The result is a project called “In Good Faith: Messy Conversations About Race in Black and White.” The project includes a website, e-book and limited-edition podcast.
We aren’t experts. Kerra Bolton is a political communications consultant, writer and artist. A.J. Hartley is the Russell Robinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte and best-selling novelist. Nothing in those descriptions says “qualified to talk about race.”
But real race conversations, the ones that happen outside the media, happen between ordinary people who are trying to make sense of themselves and each other. That’s one of the many reasons why these conversations are messy.
In the messiness is also a story about an unlikely friendship that grows as people grapple with race — one of the most divisive, difficult and personal subjects. Through our idiosyncratic process of listening, hearing and recognizing productive difference, we were cracked open by new and sometimes difficult insights about ourselves and who we choose to call “other.”
To help others who want to engage in these conversations, we’ve compiled a “top 10 list” of things we learned from each other through these conversations.
Five Things I Learned from Kerra
1. We are not the same. Yes, we’re all people with a lot of shared feelings and ideas, but my experience of the world is deeply different from a black person’s because of the way they might be treated at any moment because of what they look like. I can go months without ever worrying about that. So long as we are shaped by how other people treat us — or might treat us — we can’t separate race from identity.
2. All dealings between white people and black people take place in the shadow of the past. You can’t just pretend history doesn’t exist or wish it away because it’s what made the present. The playing field isn’t level and I have to be able to see that terms like “white privilege” which make me defensive are statements of historically constructed fact, not moral accusations directed at me as an individual.
3. You can share similar political views and still not understand where someone comes from. Getting there takes time, and it takes listening and responding with respect, with honesty and with kindness.
4. Racism is a moving target. It evolves with culture. What used to be acceptable ceases to be so, and the only way to deal with that is to accept it and move on.
5. In discussing race, the process is the product and vice versa. There were times when I found myself asking, like a kid on a road trip, “Are We There Yet?” But the answer is always no, and I came to realize that the journey really is the point of the trip. It’s not about a destination or about reaching Nirvana and sure as hell not about “winning.” It’s about the willingness to keep talking because keeping those lines of communication open which makes the thing worth doing.
Five Things I Learned from A.J.
1. Friendship comes first, last and always. We put our friendship at the center of this project from the beginning. I remember that when tempted to say something disagreeable or when I am hurt or angry.
2. Separate the “one” from the “many.” African Americans are judged by mainstream society as a collective. We are not allowed to have individual identities unless we are celebrities known by our first name. Whites are afforded the luxury of individualism. This is why we tend to talk about “white people” and whites are quick to say “not all white people.” Through these conversations, I evaluate A.J. by his individual actions. His willingness to keep trying, even when it gets hard, has helped me to redirect my anger from “white people” to institutionalized racism.
3. Pause before I speak. I had no filter at the beginning of these conversations, especially in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential elections. I made accusations — some of by which I still stand. Now, I pause and ask the three questions: “is it true, is it necessary and is it kind?”
4. We enter these conversations at different points. I entered these conversations from a very visceral place. I want police to stop killing black people. A.J., as a scholar and a writer, seeks, through these conversations, to understand an experience that is not his own and wants to become a better citizen, novelist, husband and father because of them. I have learned to trust that even though we come at these conversations from different points, eventually we will meet at a place that looks and feels like common ground.
5. It is work. “Work” isn’t the only four-letter we use during these conversations. These conversations are difficult and challenging. Just when we think we’ve resolved an issue, it reappears in another form or several months later. I wish I could say we were “done” after this one set of race conversations. But the work is continuous. We are constantly talking and learning and growing. And that brings up another four-letter word that has become essential in these race conversations — love. Without love for all people, despite our differences, we don’t evolve as a species. Our hearts were meant to evolve and expand. Mine has because of these conversations and our friendship.
Kerra Bolton is the founder of UnMuted an online academy and consultancy that helps women build and sustain their political activism. A.J. Hartley is the Russell Robinson professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.