A group based in Atlanta, Georgia, is enlisting the help of inquiry, the Diamond Approach’s central practice, to deeply explore questions of race and ethnicity in an environment that is purposefully inclusive of many races and ethnicities.
By Todd Evans
My first two jobs after college and graduate school involved working for black men. The first was for Andrew Young in his 1972 congressional campaign and, later, on his congressional staff. He was the first black elected to Congress since the Reconstruction. In the early stages of the campaign I was one of three staff persons, and so I went with Andy (as everyone called him) everywhere: to appointments with bankers and businessmen; to meetings with neighborhood groups; to church services on Sunday mornings; and, once or twice, to gospel singing celebrations where I learned to hold persons who “fell out.”
My second job was managing the congressional campaign of Matthew Perry in Columbia, South Carolina. We lost, but Perry later became a federal judge. Eventually I served three terms in the Georgia State Senate where one of my colleagues was Julian Bond. Many of my constituents were black.
One doesn’t live and work in Atlanta without daily contact with persons of other races. At banks, doctors’ offices, pharmacies, most restaurants, many retail business, hospitals, schools, colleges, universities, parks, and public golf courses—there is tremendous diversity.
Three important issues in racial relations are white privilege, micro-aggressions, and implicit bias. An issue for white persons, especially those who are trying to live good lives and have healthy relations with blacks and other people of color, is that they may not recognize these as problems. As a white man I don’t have to take my race into consideration when I walk through most neighborhoods, or get onto an elevator with women, or shop in a store. Of course, that’s not true for young black men. And unless I’ve broken a traffic law while driving, I don’t worry about being pulled over by police.
Eating, socializing, worshipping and being in dialogue with these fellow citizens—blacks, but more recently Hispanic, Asian and African Atlantans—requires initiative. It is not easily done, but we have created such a group here in Atlanta. Currently we have about 36 members, though not all can attend every evening. We start by eating a potluck dinner together in an informal way, then listening to a short talk before breaking up into triads. During our first three meetings we talked about race. All of our black guests, men and women, said that awareness of race was a constant in their lives. Our most recent topic was hatred. Eating together is crucial, in my opinion. I don’t think the conversations would have been as open and welcoming as they were if we had just showed up for a talk about hatred. It is quite lovely, actually, to watch black and white people sit together in small circles, eating and talking. There are still, of course, other minorities to invite to this group and we’ve only just started.
Our exchanges have come to feel rich and rewarding. On the evening we tackled hatred, I gave examples of my own hating in hopes that those stories would be helpful. In the large group check-in afterwards, our black guests did most of the commenting. A few said that some, including themselves, had difficulty acknowledging they could hate. Two were recently here from Africa and offered comments about African tribal customs regarding hate. Another guest mentioned that white Americans won’t face up to our eradication of Indian cultures. A fourth said that he kept twenty percent of his real thoughts to himself when he was in mixed-race groups. The comments seemed honest and without accusation or apology. At the end of the evening, many said that they would be back for our next gathering.
I’m always struck when going to Denver, Boulder, and Estes Park for our retreats how few black people I see. And while there are significant numbers of blacks in Oakland, the same is not true for Berkeley. Since the Ridhwan School is essentially centered in Berkeley and Boulder, it is not surprising that the school does not have more black students and that some of our teachers may not feel comfortable in settings with significant numbers of black men and women. Familiarity and proximity in social relations matter.
None of this is meant to be critical. My comments are observations. What white people need to do, I suggest, is to eat, talk, hang out with, and work together with black people, to care for them and be cared by them, to make the effort to get to know people of color and to understand their values and culture, and to listen to comments that will be hard for us to hear, especially when those comments address white privilege and micro-aggressions. This is a journey of many steps; we need to be willing to take our share.