Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Intergroup Dialogue - Learning about others; learning about myself

Last night I attended the final session of a six-week dialogue group between people of color and white people. It was an intense experience, which I am still processing. Following is a letter which I wrote to my white friend Dick during an ongoing discussion about the use of the word "nigger" in the movie, "Black Snake Moan." As you will see, I went in an unexpected direction. Nonetheless, I feel the letter adequately expresses some of my take-away from the group.

Dearest Dick,

Thanks for giving so much thought and time to this. Yes, it was all very useful information. You touched on the crux of my dilemma in the last sentence of the first response. That is, I am uncomfortable that I was not uncomfortable with the use of the word in "Black Snake Moan."

I know that life is shades of gray, rather than black and white (no pun intended). Still, I want to be consistent in my stand about the word "nigger." It is either a word of hate/self-hate or it isn't. Intentions matter (using it affectionately), but impact is important (reinforcing an oppressive theme). Nonetheless, listening to Lazarus and the preacher talk was like hearing a beloved old song. The rhythm, cadence and vocabulary were like a lullaby which reminded me of happy days.

After reading your thoughts on this, I concede that I am bothered that I wasn't bothered primarily out of white guilt. I want to be an ally to people of color and I feel that according a contextual acceptance to the use of the word contradicts this goal. However, being an ally does not require me to approve or disapprove of how someone communicates within his own culture. In a nutshell, I need to get over myself. That seems to be the driving lesson of the past several weeks.

However, in order to overcome my knee-jerks and my intellectualizing, I have to do self-work. For instance, I entered the dialogue group between people of color and white people with the intention of learning more about how racism affects people of color on a daily basis. I wanted to empathize with the experience of having my skin color impact the simple act of going to the grocery store or putting gas in my car. I thought I knew what it was like to be white; I wanted to learn more about other perspectives. And I did gain insight, thanks to some very frank sharing by the people of color in our group. I did not expect much self-discovery. In fact, I dreaded it - I was afraid that I would learn that I am a bigger racist than I already knew.

I knew that personal and cultural racism hurt me at a very core level. But I had never had the opportunity to share it with anyone before. I didn't even know that was a need I had. I did not know the level at which I distrust white people, until I was put in a room with all whites to discuss racism. I did not know how much hurt and anger I had at being rejected by my own race, until I told the story of my family's and peers' reactions to my first interracial dating experience. I had not acknowledged how very lonely I feel being a white ally to people of color, with no other white allies with whom to process my feelings. Heck, I didn't even know there was such as thing as an "ally to people of color," much less that there were others!

These are but a few of the self-discoveries I experienced during the past six weeks. There were so many self-revelations that at times I feared I was not hearing the others in the room. My thought was often, "How dare I feel hurt? What people of color experience is far worse, far more persistent, far more pervasive than my experience!" And that's true. But that doesn't mean that I don't feel hurt or that my pain is not also valid.

Also, my pain can be used. Perhaps that is the most constructive lesson from the dialogue. When I am talking with a white person about racism in America, it is not always effective to share the experiences of people of color. Sometimes, it is more effective to say "This hurts ME and here's why." Keeping it real, making the pain accessible to the person with whom I'm speaking, can open doors to honest discussion wherein the person I'm trying to reach feels safe talking about her pain and her fears regarding people of color. Once that intimacy has begun, the potential for change increases infinitely.

Thank you, Dick, for being a support to me. You are my first official white ally. What an unexpected blessing!

Upon re-reading this (which I almost always do before clicking on send), I find that I would like to share my discoveries with others. Don't be surprised if you find this, or a slightly revised version, on Facebook as a note.

Peace and love,

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