A risk that worked: Talking about race head-on with neighbors

Photo courtesy of Pauline Boatright
Three neighbors – Ann (seated), Petrea (left), and Maisie – had a nearly four-hour conversation learning about each other's earliest racial experiences and memories. “It was insightful, shamefully honest, and at times funny,” Maisie writes.

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Recently, I sat down to talk about race with two neighbors, both of whom are white. We had discovered earlier that, unlike me, they learned of the Tulsa race massacre from the coverage of its 100th anniversary in May. I had known about it for years.

That raised questions for me. I wanted to know how much Black history they knew and what some of their earliest memories about race were. So I took a risk and asked if we could talk head-on about race.

Why We Wrote This

Race is one of those elephant-in-the-room topics that everyone knows is there but fears confronting. Yet tackling it head-on was this writer’s way through her fear.

We planned an hourlong conversation. It lasted almost four.

I learned that our understanding of race was more caught than taught. None of us could recall a dinner table conversation about racial issues. But we had learned derogatory terms like “white trash” and “black buck.”  

One woman hadn’t known any professional Black people when she was growing up. I knew plenty of them. One of them grew up reading Cosmopolitan; I read Ebony.

Hearing their stories and sharing my own removed some of the fear that comes from a lack of knowledge and empathy. We had sought not to be understood, but to understand. And I, for one, could benefit from doing more of that.

“I was in seventh grade when my parents took me to St. Augustine, Florida,” recounts my 87-year-old neighbor, Ann. “We stopped at a park, and I went to a fountain to get a drink of water. My dad said, ‘You can’t drink out of that one,’ and I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘See the sign. ... It says Blacks only.’ I asked why. He said, ‘That’s just how it is.’ All of a sudden, I became aware that Black and white people weren’t equal … at least not in St. Augustine.”

Listening to Ann’s story caused me to pause. I needed to process what I had just heard, even though I had asked to hear it. As a 66-year-old Black woman, I had always heard the segregated water fountain story from the opposite direction. It had never occurred to me that a white girl could be denied a drink of water because she was white and the fountain was for “colored people.” What else had we both been denied because of our race?

Race, racism, Black Lives Matter, critical race theory, and a lot of other race-related terms lead our nation’s news cycles these days. And yet, to talk about race at the street level still makes us uncomfortable. Does it have to?

Why We Wrote This

Race is one of those elephant-in-the-room topics that everyone knows is there but fears confronting. Yet tackling it head-on was this writer’s way through her fear.

A few weeks back, I stopped by Ann’s so we could catch up on each other’s lives. We share a common wall in our condo complex, and it had been a while since we’d talked about our kids – or in her case, grandkids, and great-grandkids – COVID-19, and where to shop. Over the past year, we had discussed the George Floyd murder and the election results, and on Jan. 6, we were texting back and forth as we watched an insurrection unfold.

On this day, our conversation took a turn that would prove revelatory. Ann asked if I’d ever heard about “that thing that happened to Black people in Tulsa 100 years ago.”

Yes, I had heard of the Tulsa race massacre. Ann replied that in all her years, even now that she’s become a news junkie, she had never heard about it. She told me she had called another neighbor, Petrea, and asked her if she had known about the Tulsa event before all the recent media attention. Petrea, age 75, had never heard about it either.

A lot of African American history goes untold, I said to Ann. African American history is an elective, not a requirement in most of the nation’s high schools. Many people, Black or white, who choose to study African American literature, history, or music get to make a deep dive into African American history only in college. And even then, the courses will need to be augmented with personal reading and research if you want to drill down and get to an event like the Tulsa travesty that was hidden from our national narrative for most of the past century.

More caught than taught

Our conversation turned to other subjects that day, but Ann’s curiosity about Tulsa gave rise to some questions of my own. I’m no scholar of Black history, but I wanted to know how much Black history my neighbors knew. I wondered what some of their earliest memories about race were. I wanted to know if they went to grade school and high school with Black children, whether their churches were integrated, and what was said around their dinner table about Black people.

I took a risk and asked Ann and Petrea if we could have a conversation about some of our childhood racial experiences. A few weeks ago, we sat down for what we had agreed would be an hourlong conversation – that lasted almost four.

I learned that our racial understanding of life was more caught than taught – like Ann’s St. Augustine experience. Ann and Petrea couldn’t recall a conversation with their parents about racial issues. I couldn’t remember my immigrant parents talking about race at the dinner table either. As a child, I thought about people’s differences not in terms of race, but money. I knew the white family my mother worked for as a maid had more money than we did. Ann knew the Black kids at her grade school lived on the other side of a busy street and were poor.

Petrea had gone to a country school in Nebraska, one of those one-room schoolhouses where children from kindergarten to eighth grade learn together. There were no Black people in her town, church, or school all the way through high school. In my 99% Black grade school, we called the white students who lived in the trailer park “white trash.” Not my proudest memory.

Petrea grew up near an American Indian reservation and remembers her mother calling a man from there a “black buck.” That was confusing to me at first, but I figured out that back then, being called Black was an insult, no matter the person’s racial background. I thought that, but I didn’t say it. On this day, we were listeners, not judges.

Ann told us that she didn’t know any professional Black people when she was growing up. I knew plenty of them – nurses, schoolteachers, business owners – who attended my childhood church. Petrea grew up reading Cosmopolitan; I read Ebony. Ann’s mother crocheted and so did mine.

From the personal to the political 

As the hours flew by, our conversation moved away from our own lives to the broader issues of educational inequities, parenting, reparations, mass incarceration, housing discrimination, and whether I could have purchased a home in our community back in the 1980s. They believed I could; I wasn’t as sure. I had recently heard another neighbor describe restrictive covenants as if they were a good thing. 

In all my years on the planet, I can’t say that I’ve ever had a conversation like this. I can say it was not the big deal, off-limits, threatening conversation I had thought it would be. It was insightful, shamefully honest, and at times funny. We were never mean-spirited, malicious, or confrontational. We were just three people sharing some of our most enduring memories about our racial experiences.

Hearing their stories and sharing my own removed some of the fear that comes from a lack of knowledge and empathy. We had sought not to be understood, but to understand. And I, for one, could benefit from doing more of that.

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