Several UUFE members are participating in the Conversations on Race that grew out of Ferguson and other incidents of police violence against blacks in 2015. We asked Ann Davis, Sally Woodall, and Jonathan Williams to share their thoughts in response to these questions:
What inspires you to participate in the Conversations on Race?
What’s the most interesting thing you saw or heard during the first session?
What surprised you?
What outcomes do you hope will grow from the Conversations?
Ann: I am participating in this program because I truly want to understand the world view and experience of Americans who aren’t “white.” There is so much that I know I don’t know, but I think the way to “know” is to spend time with people of color.
Interracial tension occurs for many reasons: history, education (experience with people of other ethnic/racial groups), cultures that are not shared, misperceptions, fear, anger, etc. The goal of the Conversations on Race is to begin to dispel all of those conditions.
Ann: I was pleased that there was a beginning to opening the communication. Sensitive topics were broached. People were polite and sincere, but I had the sense that only a superficial layer of communication was exposed.
There were differences in perception about the existence of racism in the St. Michaels area prior to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Some of the people of color were surprised at the statement by the whites that no racism existed prior to that time. It was unfortunate that because of the format of the event, there was not an opportunity to pursue the difference in perception with the two racial groups. Further discussion would have gone a long way towards exposing “White Privilege.”
Ann: I was pleasantly surprised that approximately 120 people were in attendance. I had been concerned that the turnout would be much lower than that. I was very happy that that many folks moved out of their comfort zone to confront the issues of racism.
Ann: For myself, in a selfish way, I hope that I will walk away with some relationships that I may not have had if not for this program. For my community, I hope that fear and anger may dissipate. And more open, honest communication between people of different races/ethnic groups will develop, enhancing the lives of all of the residents of the St. Michaels area.
Ann: I am so proud to be associated with the organizers of the Conversation on Race program. There are African American and white citizens who have devoted much time, effort, and expertise in planning and implementing the Sunday Suppers. This experience has enhanced my belief that there are many good people in the world, and that good people can create positive changes to our community.
Sally: When I moved from Annapolis to St. Michaels in 1980, it felt like I had stepped back in time in terms of race relations. For example, if I was walking along the sidewalk, and an older black man was coming toward me (usually shuffling his feet), he would cast his eyes downward and touch the brim of his cap as he passed. It made me sad. In 1983, my daughter was in a community theater production, and the cast party was held at St. Michaels Yacht Club. A Star Democrat reporter sent to cover the celebration was denied admittance because she was African-American. Unbelievable in 1983, and unacceptable. I boycotted SMYC from that day forward. In pursuing answers to this discrimination, I also learned that a woman could not join SMYC on her own; she could only join after her husband became a member. Also unbelievable.
Sally: A lot of effort had gone into table assignments. Each of 13 tables had 6-8 people – black and white – people who didn’t know each other, plus one facilitator.
Sally: Two things surprised me: There were about 100 people at the first session! And one of the tables reported that they were not aware of any racial problems in St. Michaels when they were growing up. An audible ripple went through the room when that statement was made.
Sally: I hope that there will not be a finite number of conversations – that they will continue until no longer needed. I also hope that the number of people who participate will increase until it becomes a challenge to find a meeting space large enough to accommodate everybody.
Jonathan: I am very impressed that this effort is being undertaken and this time taken more seriously by established institutions. My mother Becky Otter, Peg Moore, and Janet Pfeffer were involved in something similar — True Colors — 15-20 years back.
Jonathan: I am regretful that so few people of color came. But I think there is a weariness, perhaps even a resentment, by many people of color that this subject has to be repeatedly explained to well-meaning folks with little to show for it.
Jonathan: It is my sense that, just like folks of any minority derivation, black folks have a very limited interest in simply getting to be with people of the dominant culture, however well-intended they may be. They do have an interest in erasing the institutional and personal racism that repeatedly blocks them, and others of their race, from just enjoying their lives, being productive, etc. It seems similar in some ways to the women’s rights movement of the last half-century. Many, perhaps most women, soured on consciousness-raising and just started following their interests and just ‘educating’ the males whose attitudes stood in their way as they ran into them.
I believe a better approach would be to use our white and social-class privileges to provide seed energy for projects engineered to encourage cross-class and race dialogues that were valuable enough (for other reasons) to people of color that they would quickly become full partners. This is the ‘building social capital’ approach that sociologist Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone, Better Together, American Grace, Saguaro Institute) advocates.