Writing Hopefully About “Race”

I remember my first time. 

My maiden voyage from segregation to an integrated life began with a notice on the bulletin board at my neighborhood recreation center in Jacksonville, FL, asking for teenage volunteers for a Black voter registration drive.  I was 16 and hoping to meet college boys. 

The twelve of us, mostly Whites and a few Blacks who looked a little older than me, boarded a van and I squeezed into a seat between two White girls who chatted with each other past my head.  I needed more space but I was afraid to shift around too much because I didn’t want them to sense my feelings.  The discomfort was there, all right, but there was also the exciting sensation of being within breathing space of something so alien, so forbidden, yet so accessible.

Once in awhile one of them paused and looked down at me as if waiting for me to say something.  I had no idea what.  I pretended to look at the unfamiliar scenery going by.  The van rolled down the highway, then rocked along unpaved roads to a rural Black area outside the city limits. 

Shyly I set out with them, shoving leaflets into reluctant hands and smiling, feeling like an idiot.

The first time I felt the warm hand of one of the girls on my back I flinched from the surprise of the tender touch.  “Good job,” she said casually, as we continued on in the midday heat. 

Perhaps the experience would have been the same with any group of older people taking an interest in an impressionable teenager.  But these were combative times.  Life was cruel, we were told, and we had to be tough to survive in the White world we would enter. The battle lessons began, first among ourselves, as early as elementary school.

 But, I had been unprepared.  In my first face-to-face encounter with White people my guard slowly eased down.

That was my story. 

What stories can you tell about encounters and situations involving race and ethnicity that made you aware of differences – at least in society’s eyes?  

Most likely it was someone close like a relative, or teacher, or friend, who made the message clear, but strangers are eager to provide instructions as well.  Either way, the incident must have had a lasting effect on your attitudes.  That’s why you still remember it after all this time.  You made a decision, consciously or unconsciously, about how you would deal with differences from then on, and odds are you learned the lesson well.  

That’s a great way to begin writing – and thinking – about differences at a more meaningful level. 

Today, there’s more than a 50% chance that any two people you meet will be from different racial and ethnic groups.  Toss in factors such as religion, economic status, and gender and we can find plenty of reasons to clash.

The real work of learning to live together goes on in our everyday lives in moments often too small and ordinary for the media to capture.  But, those are the moments where change occurs.  And, like society, we have all have changed in some way by choice or circumstance.

So, I search for the ways those changes have happened in books about my personal experiences with race such as the voting registration incident above (from Multicolored Memories of a Black Southern Girl) and the experiences of over 100 others from a variety of cultures; in university classes helping cross-cultural students span generations of racial history; in Lift Every Voice workshops where writers are encouraged to explore questions about race that we are rarely asked to reflect upon in a personal way. 

Racial memories can be hopeful , too.

 Those two college women ended up being the foremothers of the handful of White sister-friends who have become so important in my life today.

We are fellow travelers who still must navigate around some deep divisions, who still must heal.  As girlfriends we stumble along, learning how to share as openly about our race relations experiences as our sexual rites of passage.

Do you remember your first time? How about some writing tips to help?

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Why Do You Keep Talking About “Race”?

Inspirational reflections on race and ethnicity…Everyone can have a seat at this table.

Fear is the one emotion I didn’t expect to feel when I launched the Race and Change oral history project in the year 2000 – a 21st century look at race in the U.S. from the personal point of view.
I planned to interview a cross-section of people on race and ethnic relations and they understood that their life stories would be preserved in the historical archives and shared with others on TV, radio, and the Web.
Talking to strangers was not my problem.
For a couple of decades before my academic career I had made a living as a journalist, knocking on the doors of others’ lives to gather information.
Talking about “race” in America, however, can be tricky business.
First of all, the term is a fiction: there is no biological basis. But, in reality, it has come to encompass a range of experiences where groups of people encounter prejudice, discrimination, and inequities. Language, religion, and even sexual preference get tossed into the mix, along with people wrestling with multi-racial and multi-ethnic identities.
But let’s face it, skin color and African descent looms as the most racially-charged difference that causes the most repercussions.
Still, many people persist in dismissing race as an issue of the past that has been resolved in the 21st century. We have larger global issues to work on, they say. Others just want the topic to go away so they ask: Why do you keep talking about it?
If race is not a problem today, I answer, we should be able to talk about it – and easily.
Instead, when conflict situations flare up in the media, they can be counted on to spark outrage and national debates. Minority groups usually take the lead in discussions and majority groups go on the offense, or retreat. Targets of discrimination keep changing, and on the global stage all kinds of “us” and “them” clashes are played out everyday.
Human nature gets the discredit: people will always find someone to look down on, we say. But our greatness lies in the human potential to continually strive to rise above those tendencies.
If race is a problem then we must keep talking – or trying.
We just need some better ways to do it.
I wondered this: What if you asked a cross-section of people the same questions – not about their opinions but about their personal experiences with racial change – and gave them the opportunity to discuss race relations as a naturally-occurring part of their lives? Maybe this could turn into cross-cultural dialogues that shift the tone of the conversation a bit.
During those first interviews in this new territory, though, a wave of trepidation would sweep over me, suddenly, at times. I’d pull onto the swale of some quiet street and take a few deep breaths until I felt composed enough to ring the doorbell for the scheduled interview. I was unsure of what to expect, especially from Whites. Would the wounds that I knew I would inevitably encounter across racial and ethnic lines be too painful – for all of us? Would it be possible to talk about race in a nation adept at stonewalling conversation and do it in a non-confrontational, hopeful way?
Beginning can be the hardest part.
The work has resonated with people, and with the media, over the years. So far, more than 125 race and ethnic relations oral histories of Blacks, Whites, Hispanics/Latinos, Caribbeans, and Asians have been collected for the historical archives – native-born and immigrant residents of Southern Florida, nationally cited as one of the most diverse areas in the country.
It has spawned books, public TV productions, CNN coverage, youth training programs and community projects on race in Florida as well as an expansion of “race” and change oral histories to Ghana, West Africa.
In the U.S., polls and surveys are quick to note that most of us continue to live racially-separated lives across ethnicities outside of work, school, or occasional activities, and despite the election of a president of African descent we still don’t tend to see eye-to-eye on progress in racial attitudes. But people’s personal stories provide glimpses behind those walls.
Many told me they were surprised at the things from the past – good and bad – that surfaced in the process of the telling, including struggles with differences within their own groups as well.
The fear I would feel from time to time always subsided when I remembered that this was their stories, not mine. Once I relaxed enough in the living room with a cup of morning coffee, at a dining room table after the dinner dishes were cleared, or in a quiet corner of an office at the start of end of a workday, all I had to do was listen.
Getting people to talk about racial progress and change in their personal lives proved to be much more challenging, however. Maybe that’s because we aren’t often asked? (More next time.)