How one African American mom tackles racism head-on

Why We Wrote This

Reconciliation takes intention and grace, says Tiffany Robertson of St. Louis. Part 6 in a summer series on people who are facing – and successfully navigating – America’s most intractable challenges.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Capt. Perri Johnson, in uniform at center, shares personal experiences with the Touchy Topic Tuesdays (TTT) community meeting on Dec. 5, 2017, in St. Louis. TTT, founded by African American mother Tiffany Robertson (l.) to foster frank discussions about race, has since grown to include three groups, a podcast, and a special forum for police officers.

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When St. Louis shut down in November 2014 to hear the jury’s verdict on the white officer who shot African American teenager Michael Brown, Tiffany Robertson’s teenage daughter went up to her room with popcorn to watch the broadcast, ready to celebrate.

When the news came that the jury had decided not to indict the officer, she came downstairs, sobbing. 

“There was no comfort we could give her,” says Ms. Robertson.

Another African American teen, Vonderrit Myers Jr., had been killed by a white off-duty police officer right in their neighborhood the month before. Amid these tensions, Ms. Robertson reached out in prayer – and was inspired to establish a frank discussion group about race, Touchy Topics Tuesday (TTT). At first, she was the only African American, single-handedly fielding the white participants’ hard and sometimes offensive questions. But with patience and grace, she saw outlooks transform. Gradually, the group became more diverse.

Now there are three TTT groups, plus a podcast and a special group just for city police officers, which Ms. Robertson co-runs with an African American police captain.

“What I’ve gleaned the most from TTT is, if this attitude of reconciliation doesn’t become intentional, then we just keep moving in the same circles,” she says.

It felt like the crackling before a thunderstorm, and Tiffany Robertson was bracing herself.

St. Louis had shut down early on Nov. 24, 2014, tensely awaiting the verdict on the white police officer who had shot 18-year-old African American Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, three months earlier.

Her teenage daughter was convinced that justice would be served – that the grand jury would indict the officer. She headed up to her room with popcorn and got ready to celebrate, while Ms. Robertson and her husband sat in the living room and turned on the TV.

When the news broke that the jury had declined to charge Officer Darren Wilson, they heard a guttural scream emanate from their daughter’s bedroom. Their older daughter, who seldom cries about anything.

She came downstairs and sat between them, the house silent except for her sobs.

“There was no comfort we could give her,” says Ms. Robertson. “We were not going to say, ‘It’s going to be OK.’”

Another African American teen, Vonderrit Myers Jr., had been killed by a white off-duty police officer right in their neighborhood the month before. Amid these tensions, she reached out in prayer for guidance. Lord, I am so sorry that this is happening and I feel too small to do anything, she recalls praying. But however you tell me to respond, I am willing. However you tell me, however you govern me to respond, I am willing.

Out of that moment of humility was born Touchy Topics Tuesday (TTT), a weekly forum for frank conversations about race in America. What began as Ms. Robertson fielding questions alone from white attendees has expanded into three groups meeting across the metro area, with participants who reflect the city’s diversity. They are committed to deepening each other’s understanding and advancing racial reconciliation.

“Through critical analysis of our biases within the TTT space, we intentionally equip ourselves to recognize them in other spaces and re-adjust accordingly,” she says.

“This fundamental strategy empowers us to be accountable to one another and build community relationally through truth and transparency.”

Easier said than done.

The power of relationships

At the first meeting, back in November 2014, she was the only African American.

“I was petrified. I felt like I was in quicksand,” she recalls.

Those early days were hard, the conversations raw. There were people she found hard to deal with, but she strove to “extend them grace,” as she puts it. Over the years, the group has evolved and the discussions, though still frank and at times hard, are less acrimonious.

Participant Don Morgan had had a lot of anti-racism training as a clinical psychologist and professor at Rutgers University for three decades, but he says TTT has been transformational.

“All of those trainings, all of that study, does not compare – it’s like apples and oranges – to sitting with people who are going to be honest with you about their experience with white people, and their experience of what it’s like to live as people of color,” says Dr. Morgan. He moved to St. Louis just before Mr. Brown’s killing embittered relations between the area’s already highly segregated white and black residents. “I’m thankful for all the apples I got, but this is an orange that’s definitely a different level.”

The missing piece that has made TTT more powerful, he says, is participants’ commitment to building relationships with one another. It’s one thing to read about educational disparities; it’s another to be sitting next to fellow participants sharing their stories of being bused as kids or being raised by illiterate sharecroppers who couldn’t provide much guidance or support when it came to education.  

There’s an understanding, says Dr. Morgan, that “we’re going to be allowed to say horrible things to each other … and come back next week and hear them again and not run away from this. In so doing, there’s a lot of affection and bonding and friendship.”

An expansive vision

In addition to three TTT groups, there’s now a podcast and a special group just for city police officers, which Ms. Robertson co-runs with an African American police captain. 

“What I’ve gleaned the most from TTT is, if this attitude of reconciliation doesn’t become intentional, then we just keep moving in the same circles,” she says. “I think there needs to be a national and very transparent, open, honest dialogue and reconciliation of our past around racism.”

So is she hoping to take this model national?

“Global,” she says emphatically. “Global.”

Read the rest of the series here:

Part 1: Overcoming despair: How a wounded Green Beret came back stronger
Part 2: With compassion and faith, a mayor leads his city through the opioid crisis
Part 3: Amid tariffs and floods, a farmer finds hope in the next crop of Kansans
Part 4: Why America remains a beacon of hope for Liberian refugee
Part 5: Searching for common ground? Start with the Constitution. 
Part 6: How one African American mom tackles racism head-on
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