It was 1996, not long after O.J.’s acquittal in his criminal trial. One of my colleagues at the Fresno Center for Nonviolence, a retired physician, was outraged by the (in his view) miscarriage of justice, but equally by the gleeful response by many African Americans. Could we, he asked, find a way to discuss this distressing difference across race lines?
Exploiting our connections, especially at Fresno City College, we were able to find 12 people willing to enter into a structured dialogue, seven “whites” (hereafter W’s) and five “people of color” (PC’s) including two who were of Caribbean descent. We established a three-meeting contract and unwittingly began a process that wound up lasting close to four years. Besides meeting regularly every three weeks, we attended several films and events together and, as a group, participated in two out-of-town conferences on race relations.
For most of the participants, even those who worked as colleagues at the college and “knew” each other, the group provided a first time to ask serious questions (of the “All You Wanted to Know” variety) and get honest answers and the chance to say aloud things we might think to ourselves but knew better than to speak. Our path was full of sudden turns and unexpected issues including the following:
- The insistence by the W’s that they be taken as individuals, not a group, and their expressed pain at being judged collectively. (One member rejoined, “Before you complain too much, take a minute and see how it feels to be stereotyped.”)
- But conversely the regret by most W’s at not feeling a group connection, of not having “brothers.”
- The admission by one PC that he and his cohorts always “wear a mask” in dealing with W’s, far beyond the personas we all employ in ordinary social discourse having to face up to the unacknowledged impact even today of slavery, with its deracination, destruction of family life and dehumanization.
- Questioning interracial relationships and marriages, with their murky psychological implications, perplexing questions of racial solidarity and the possibility of real bonds of love across group prohibitions.
- Pondering if Black/White is still the most significant American racial divide, or if questions concerning Native Americans, Asians and Latinos are of equal weight.
- Looking at homosexuality as a fact of Black society and as another “competing” minority group.
- Examining differences between the experiences of African Americans and Caribbean Americans.
- Wondering about the relative importance of race versus class in American life.
- Dealing with the question of reparations for Blacks.
These issues sometimes were intentionally raised by individual group members but sometimes emerged from interpersonal dynamics, such as when a W spoke up about dating a PC, or when it came out that one of the W’s had had a childhood as traumatic as any of the PC’s (and worse than many), or when differences surfaced among individuals based on position in the educational hierarchy as much as on color.
Because each person participated with candor and open-mindedness, the experience was often wrenching but always rich, leading to a fuller appreciation of this painful and complex situation we all share. Also, as one member expressed it, there was a sense—or maybe a hope—that we were in some way enacting a healing ritual where we represented more than just ourselves. Thus, one intention was that we find ways to give our experience a wider impact, to provide others with a model to think about or even replicate. We did make efforts in this direction but found ourselves not very effective.
Yet in 2010, 11 years after we disbanded, a couple of group members still felt strongly enough about what had gone on to organize a reunion. While two of our members had died the previous year, all but one of the surviving participants reserved a whole Saturday for the meeting, with one coming clear from Colorado.
The morning of the reunion was dominated by a political discussion of the impact of Obama’s election on race relations and of how to evaluate his successes and failures as a national leader. While individuals had quite different assessments, there was unanimity that 1) the Obama presidency represented a turning point in U.S. social history and 2) that racist attitudes that had been mostly driven underground since the civil rights movement had returned with force, though often in coded language.
Sparked by one member’s deeply personal testimony, the afternoon was an intense examination by each of us as to what had had a lasting impact from our long group process: how we had been changed and what we are—or might be—doing in the light of what we had learned.
What was evident was that the group had evoked a rare level of honesty and trust across race lines, even for our self-described liberal, socially aware membership, and that we had all been affected in ways we wish others could appreciate. Several W’s spoke about being moved to stand up for a PC in a specific situation in a way they previously would not have. They also reiterated the costs they feel at not having the solidarity of a group identity and of having been given “the white man’s burden” of supposed superiority. Regarding the latter, George Orwell’s essay “On Shooting an Elephant” is suggested reading.
The PC’s spoke of having been given a first glimpse at the variety of W’s and were especially appreciative of seeing the change made possible by direct contact and new information in the retired physician who had prompted the group’s formation. As one put it, “I’d previously written off any white man over 60 as impossible to change.”
Also, the reunion provided an occasion to review misunderstandings and hurts between specific members of the group which were cleared up in the course of our meeting or, in one telling case, was resolved at the reunion within the supportive framework of the group. In each instance, perceived racism (or reverse racism) was a major factor not only in creating the rift but in preventing efforts at resolution. The complexity and intensity of race-related feelings had made directness seem prohibitively dangerous, even between people who are normally very straightforward in their dealings with others.
The unavoidable conclusion of the reunion was that “color-blindness” is not a possibility, can only be a subterfuge, for Americans of our historical epoch, raised as we have been within conditions of injustice and prejudicial bias. We cannot escape the perceptual field that shaped the vocabulary and framework of our understanding without a) acknowledging that these biases exist, b) committing to changing them and c) undergoing a rigorous de-programming exercise.
The unanimous understanding of our group is that submitting ourselves to this emotion-laden, time-consuming effort was worth the travail. It has left us perhaps more vulnerable in a time when opinions are as polarized—more black-and-white?—as they have ever been. But it has also left us more fully human: more capable of empathy and flexibility, in a profound way freer. Just as Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass would have hoped.