This one statement and many others like it by whites, keeps us (BIPOC and whites) apart and in constant fear and hesitation to fully get to know each other. Let me share how and why. Recently, in one of my workshops, Mary, a participant shared that as a white woman, she’s afraid to ask questions of people of color, so she keeps everything friendly and safe until they get to know each other better. I then asked her why she felt she needed to keep it safe and friendly and she replied, “Why, so I wouldn’t offend them.” I asked the group what they noticed as she spoke. The mostly white group was clueless and the few BIPOC were silent. I shared with her and everyone else that she said ‘I’, not that the BIPOC said that they would feel offended. She pulled back in surprise because she had never thought about it from that perspective.
So, then the larger question becomes, where did Mary learn that if she asked questions of BIPOC, that they would be offended? Mary, pondered for a moment, and finally shared, “Why, from my friends.” When I asked her which friends, she waited and eventually replied, “Well…my white friends.” “I was wondering,” I responded, “have you ever asked your friends of color personal questions?” You see, therein, lies the problem with race relations in America today: most whites don’t have everyday friends of color outside of work, and for the few that do, they seldom bring up the issues of discrimination or what’s like to be a BIPOC. They are simply friends with a fine line that is seldom crossed, until a George Floyd or Rodney King incident occurs.
Years ago, when my film, The Color of Fear premiered, two of my oldest and dearest white friends asked me if I thought they were ‘racist.’ I could see just by the way they asked me and then pulled back, that they were holding their breath, hoping for the best possible outcome: no. That look was one that I have become accustomed to from the day I was born. I could sense that same fear in my classrooms and from all my white friends, teachers and administrators…even from my counseling and university professors. You see, they were taught to study the history of the civil rights movement and highlight a handful of civil rights leaders, but not how to have an intimate conversation amongst the BIPOC students and whites.
I would like to make a few suggestions. To break this endless vicious cycle of silence: Be curious. When a BIPOC shares a story or reacts to a statement in the room, reflect back what they have shared, ask them to tell you more, inquire as to how it affected them, what came up for them, what was familiar, and what they needed or wanted from those around them when it occurred. As they respond back, be silent, take in what they’ve shared, let them know how you felt about what they shared and how it affected you as a white person from a white culture and perspective. Also be willing to be honest how it might have scared you, made you want to be defensive and in denial and also share why. But, most all, take responsibility that those are your reactions and experiences, not the fault of the person being open and honest.
All good relationships go through the trial and tribulations of conflict and differences. And if you are fortunate enough and committed to truly being honest…you will come to that rare and precious place called friendship.