This article was originally published on Linkedin.
I had an amazing experience a couple months ago, and after processing it all I decided I needed to share the contents of the conversation.
For a bit of background, I have been on a journey to understand the race issues in our country. More importantly I am working to understand the difference between being white or black, and what benefits there are to being white. This has led to some of the most uncomfortable conversations, readings, reflections that I have ever experienced. I have chosen to engage in this dialogue because I think empathy and understanding are critical to the work that Urban Alliance is doing, and I do not want to perpetuate any negative ideas or bias.
Just after lunch today, a guy by the name of John came into my office and sat down. John is a volunteer with His Kingdom Housing and lives here in the Edison Neighborhood. I had spoken with John multiple times in passing, but had never sat down and had a conversation. I am not sure why he came into my office or what his intentions were, but for some reason I was compelled to spend some time with him today.
I do not think either of us knew what we would experience today.
We started with the normal get to know each other small talk, but we quickly transitioned into conversation about his struggles, his past felony convictions, and his desire to work with individuals we were transitioning out of the criminal justices system, Then our conversation shifted to the topic of race issues, and what it means to be a white leader working in an urban environment.
John is an African-American and I am white, the level of vulnerability by John to have this conversation absolutely floored me. We spent over 30 minutes talking through stereotypes, bias, emotional poverty, and what it means to be white or black in the city of Kalamazoo. This was the rawest conversation I have ever had, throughout much of the conversation either one or both of us were holding back tears, or not. Tears were being shed because we were able to identify the root cause of much of the pain John and other African-Americans have felt, and that pain is caused by the lack of understanding of the disadvantages to being black in America.
I was able to share with John that I was embarrassed by what I believed six months ago, that I held beliefs that were flawed. I discounted the benefits of my race, and by doing that I devalued him and his pain. A year ago, I would have believed that each of us had an equal shot, but in this conversation I can clearly see that this belief was wrong.
In this conversation my heart ached for John, the pain he has felt because of people who do not understand the issue. To John this conversation was a breath of fresh air, a glimmer of hope. Because middle class white men and African-American felons are not supposed to talk about race, or we chose not to because we are afraid of the pain, on both sides.
To be honest this type of conversation terrifies me, what if I say something wrong, what if I stereotype, what if I hurt John. But in this conversation, in this moment, I realized that grace was with us and we pressed on. John was able to share with me his hurts, the views of his friends and family, the limits that their race was placing on them, but most of all he shared the lack of hope throughout his friends and family. He also shared a desire to reconcile, to build, to create hope.
For me, a white male, discussing the benefits I have because of the color of my skin, with a African-American is about as naked as I every want to feel. In the conversation though, John picked that up, he recognized the effort it takes to identify an issue and start working to change the conversation. In the place where we were mutually vulnerable, we were able to build a bridge, to create hope for each other and for our city.
The conversation started and neither of use knew that our lives would be forever impacted just one hour later, but they were. I feel humbled that John would care enough to help me along my journey, and leave me with a crazy amount of hope that I am still spinning. John told me that he felt so encouraged by the conversation it was going to take him awhile to understand everything that happened, and I would echo that feeling.
I do not know where we go from here, I do not know what the next steps are, what I do know is that when we create space to have vulnerable conversations, to listen, to empathize, we gain understanding.