Alva James-Johnson: Talking about race is uncomfortable, but necessary

July 20, 2013 

As a reporter, I get to ask a lot of questions. But every now and then the tables are turned.

Once, while attending a conference, I was approached by a white woman who wanted to know: "Why are black women always so angry?"

She said she had always been curious, and I seemed like someone she could ask.

The truth is, I was taken aback and a little perturbed by the stereotype. But I decided to use it as an opportunity to explain life from a black woman's perspective -- and we began to talk.

I imagine many people are having similar experiences in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman. The case has pushed race front and center on the national stage, and people are left with questions on either side of the racial divide.

Some white Americans don't understand why so many African-Americans see Zimmerman's acquittal as a racial issue. And some blacks can't see how anyone but a racist could sympathize with Zimmerman.

We've been here before -- when O.J. Simpson was acquitted, Rodney King was beaten -- and even when Barack Obama was elected twice as president. In the case of Obama, some white conservative Christians were shocked that their black brethren supported a gay-rights president. Some assumed race was the only factor, but never actually took the time to ask.

Let's face it. One hundred and fifty years have passed since the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Yet race is still a touchy subject that most people want to avoid. It's loaded with historical baggage. And who needs the drama?

But as a community, can we really afford not to talk about race? It affects every aspect of our lives, from crime to education. Just this past week, the Enrichment Services Program released a Comprehensive Community Assessment.

It found that African-Americans made up 66 percent of the poor in Muscogee County, and black "at-risk" youths were arrested at more than three times the rate of their white "at-risk" peers.

When we quote such sobering statistics, race is already a part of the conversation, just not in a direct way.

So is there a way to talk constructively about race with someone of another color, without feeling squeamish or on edge?

This week, in the midst of all the hoopla, I talked with a few Columbus residents who had some suggestions.

Ron King, president and chief executive officer of Pastoral Institute Inc., said you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone to have the conversation. He said: "I grew up in the South and we don't really talk about things that matter in the South. We just are nice to one another."

But King also recalled times when there was progress. He use to attend barbecues at the home of former Ledger-Enquirer editor Jack Swift, who is now deceased. The guests represented a cross section of the community -- from the corporate CEO to the guy digging ditches.

"What he (Swift) was trying to do was have people connect through dialogue, through food, and through conversation, which we don't do day-in and day-out," King said. "We all live in our little cocoons, and he was working to help us bridge the gap across those cocoons."

At one time, King also belonged to a congregation that had a program called "Dinner 6."

Names were put in a hat. When they were pulled, people went to dinner with the five people whose names were pulled with theirs.

King said it was a great way to get to know people from different backgrounds.

"I think any opportunities that we, as a community, can create to have conversations with people that we don't normally dialogue or interact with are great ways for us to begin to trust one another," he said. "If we don't talk to one another, how can we ever learn to develop trust?"

Kenneth Crooks Jr. has facilitated dialogue through his work with the Urban League and One Columbus over the years. Now retired, he serves on Mayor Teresa Tomlinson's Commission on Unity, Diversity and Prosperity.

He accepts the jury's verdict in the Zimmerman case but believes Florida's "stand-your-ground" law needs to be examined. He's also concerned about the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gutted the Voting Rights Act.

Crooks said Columbus has come a long way in race relations because of efforts made by community leaders.

"When I was running the Urban League, one of the things that we suggested is that people talk among themselves and talk to others," he said. "So, some of the leaders in our community opened forums and dialogue sessions. The Jewish community even had a conversational dinner over at the synagogue, where they invited blacks, whites and others to come, sit and talk about issues that face our community."

But Crooks said many inequities still exist. And the conversations must continue.

"Dialogue is 60 percent of the answer, it seems to me, and we should talk among ourselves in peaceful, quiet environments, whether it be on the job, at the police department, in city hall, court or wherever," he said. "Folks need to talk about this stuff and not let it ease over into an unknown, 'let's not worry about race,' thing. I think the last week has demonstrated that it has not, in fact, gone away and we're kidding ourselves when we think that it has."

Belva Dorsey, president of the Enrichment Services Program, said it's time for people of all backgrounds to admit there is a problem and begin challenging the stereotypes they have about various races. She said it's important that people have a safe place to explore such issues, and recommends talking to people you can trust.

"I think once we have all of those perceptions captured, then we might see that there are exceptions to the stereotypes that we have," she said. "We have these prejudices a lot of times because we don't know."

Looking back at my experience with the woman many years ago, I can see Dorsey's point. What if I had responded to her question with a defensive attitude? It would have only reinforced the stereotype, and I would have lost an opportunity to dispel the "angry black woman" myth.

At the time, I was reluctant to talk about race with a stranger. But, now, I'm glad I did.

Alva James-Johnson, ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.com.

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