In one of my recent posts, I’m Not Black, I posited that the discussion of race relations between black and white in America could be furthered by whites seeking to understand the black experience. At one point, I used the term, “white privilege.” The term, for my purposes, was defined as the experience that most white people have, of neither defining themselves, nor being defined by society, according to their race. My conclusion was that a certain humility was required on the part of white people to begin the dialogue.
Responses to my post covered a broad spectrum, from encouraging agreement, to further dialogue, to skepticism, to angry disagreement. There were, however, no lukewarm responses. After sifting through my interactions with readers, I have drawn some conclusions:
- Dialogue is hard
- Nobody wants to go first
- We want to win
- There must be a third way
Dialogue Is Hard
My dictionary app defines dialogue as “a discussion between two or more people or groups, esp. one directed toward exploration of a particular subject or resolution of a problem.” Stated differently, dialogue is a two-way, equal conversation, where the parties are mutually focused on discovery and problem solving.
Nobody Wants To Go First
Vulnerability creates the possibility of dialogue. Without it, there will be no honesty, no mutuality, no real discussion. It requires an emotional gamble, a risk, that the one going first may be rebuffed or rejected. Going first “feels” like a position of weakness.
We Want To Win
Somewhere in the course of our lives, we developed the belief that we must be right to be valued. Mastery of knowledge, morality, or whatever the issue, provides us control and keeps us superior. I fully admit to embracing this approach along the course of my. Breaking free of it is like trying to throw out a glue covered piece of paper. Each time you pull it off with one hand, it sticks to the other.
So often, though, when we win, we actually lose, or worse, we measure victory by the wrong standards. When was the last time that a political debate “winner” was measured by the fact that he or she spoke the most compelling truth to the most people? Never. Instead, they were judged on mastery of their material, how often and easily they rattled their opponents, and how much applause they received from the audience.
There Must Be A Third Way
Olga Khazan has written a concise and helpful piece for The Atlantic entitled, Four Words to Seem More Polite, which is really about empathy.
Empathy is considered by many psychologists to be essential to cooperation, problem solving, and to human functioning in general. Researchers have described it as “social glue, binding people together and creating harmonious relationships.”
The goal of empathy is to understand the feelings of another. Too often, though, we think that if we are empathetic towards someone else regarding a particular topic or experience, we will be tacitly agreeing with their beliefs regarding it. With the issue of race, there appears to be a hesitance towards being empathetic, for fear of validating a view point with which we may disagree.
What’s left for us to do? If, as a white person, I stand with my arms folded defiantly, and say that I will not offer empathy to black people because they are solely responsible for how they think, their socio-economic plight, etc, I miss the point entirely. Someone who struggles simply wants to be understood. Until they are, they will not dialogue in any productive way. If white people, in general, sought to understand what it is to live life constantly conscious of their race, it would start conversations that we never thought would happen, ones that seem so fleetingly impossible given Eric Garner and Ferguson, Mo.
Someone who I love and respect challenged me privately when I suggested, as I mentioned above, that white people exercise humility in going first in the race conversation. I used the example of Jesus, who left his place of privilege to walk in our world so that he could understand what it means, first hand, to be us. As I look at his example, I am convinced more than ever that he is the best model.
You don’t have to believe in Jesus to catch the power of he did. According to Christian teaching, Jesus left his place of glory in heaven to take on human form so that he could empathize with us. He knew that reconciliation could not take place until he identified with those for whom he sought it. As a white man, I have an opportunity to see through the eyes of my black brothers and sisters, and, in doing so, feel what they feel, to empathize with them. And when I do, and when I can articulate back to them my experience in such a way that reveals that I “get it,” then real reconciliation in my world can begin. Then, I will be more like Jesus than perhaps I have ever been.