Every day is Groundhog’s Day when it comes to conversations about race.
This is to be expected. People come to me looking for answers. I co-founded a project to promote healthy and productive conversations about race in the United States. I frequently write about race and culture. I have many white friends who are confused about the volatile, conflicting, and contentious conversations about race.
However, I am having the same three to five conversations with white people for whom this is all new. My patience is razor-thin and I’m on the verge of cutting people. To save us all time and assault charges, here are some basic questions and answers.
Q: Why can’t we have Confederate monuments? We need to preserve our history. Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean we need to remove it.
A: There have been Fifty-Eleventy “think pieces” written about this in the past two weeks. Go read them. My quick take: African American children should not have to play in parks or attend schools named after people who enslaved and sold their ancestors. You want history? Read a book. I heard those things last for-ever.
Q: How can this happen in 2017? Or “This is terrible, but now white supremacists are exposed and we can fight them.”
A: As Terri Coleman, also known as Sophistaratchet Blackademic, said in the video series, “What’s Underneath,” “We have known this deeply. It’s been proven to us again and again and again. We have tried to shout it, but you have chosen not to hear.”
Q: Not necessarily a question. But in response to any response that includes “finding the beauty in all people” or “love and light.”
A: Racism isn’t a “trick of the mind.” It is an ingrained, learned, willful response. “Light-washing” is a slick, defense used by some white women in which they deflect all personal responsibility for examining racism within themselves, their families, and their communities by kicking it over to the spiritual plane. The universe deals with it, so they won’t have to.
While we’re on this earthly plane, I need people of color to be able to move freely and safely in public spaces; a learning environment that works for all children, especially black and brown ones since they are the most likely to be shortchanged by public education; for white people to acknowledge the historic and current wrongs; and then for us all to work together to ensure America lives up to its promise.”
Q: Why can’t I be proud to be white? Black people can be proud to be black. Gay people have a pride parade. What’s wrong with being proud of my heritage?
A: ::Long exasperated sigh followed by an intense desire to stab the questioner:: My “black is beautiful” does not require creating an ethno-state. My pride in my family, history, and heritage does not come with implicit or explicit violence to others. I am proud, but I don’t expect entire government, social, and financial institutions to uphold my ego by oppressing others. Be proud as you want. Just leave me and mine alone.
I am not angry at white people for asking questions. However, some of the endless questioning is a stall tactic. The more we talk, the less we have to make tough decisions and act.
One of the problems about current conversations about race in the United States is that the “solution” involves hoping white people will voluntarily give up privileges and entitlements they and their families have had knowingly or not for generations. However, as Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.”
I am not interested in having binary conversations with white people about race based on position statements. I am, however, intensely interested in having creative conversations based on possibility statements.
Here’s where the “love and light” business can actually shed some light. The universe is abundant. There are infinite possibilities. We can use our creative imaginations, employ practical strategies, and work hard toward a vision of shared economic and social progress. We can create a world in which we are stronger together because the sum of our diversity is greater than the division of our hatred. That’s a conversation worth having.
It’s time for real talk about self-care.
Self-care has devolved from the radical notion that women can and should be their own source of happiness, fulfillment, and purpose to treating oneself to a pedicure and a massage. Self-care is not splurging $400 on a pair of shoes you’ve been eyeing. Self-care is not the same as self-indulgence.
Female lifestyle empowerment and “you go girl” feminism keeps women asleep and drooling in our own sense of powerlessness. Women cried during the fight scenes in the Wonder Woman movie because they were mourning the loss of their own inner warrior. Women have traded their battle rattle for the promise of safety, comfort, and protection – mostly offered by men. Some women would rather be cherished than courageous. They would rather be princesses adored on their wedding day than queens of their daily lives.
This isn’t about blaming or abandoning men. It is about telling the truth about why we choose to remain asleep and in doing so bury our authentic, female activist expression under the tulle and cotton of our good intentions.
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.