A conversation about race


I don’t recall a time in my lifetime where our county or our country has been so racially divided. And while there may be those who are attempting to capitalize on this division, I think most citizens do not like seeing communities so divided.

Whether it’s the seemingly perpetual saga regarding district voting within Fayette County, the fight to remove the Confederate flag from state grounds, or protests across the nation by the Black Lives Matter movement, it seems one side is presented by the media as advocates of positive social change and those who disagree with the premise or method of protest by the change advocates as racists.

Social change advocates often times make statements like we need to have “a dialog” or “a conversation” about the racial issues of our time. Last I checked the definition of a dialog involved at least two parties sharing their opinions and listening to one another.

This is particularly important when one has different opinions than our own. If we are to truly have an “honest conversation,” shouldn’t we respect each other enough to remove preconceived notions about not only what one believes, but more importantly, why they believe it?

Having an honest conversation where people share different ideas and opinions and truly listening to the other is not what I hear “social change advocates” embracing. What I hear and see is a series of lectures where people who may have slightly different perspective, all share the same opinion and use their public platform try to proselytize those who may be undecided or have a different opinion. Why do I say this?

I say this because dissenting opinions are rarely articulated much less presented with equal coverage or respect. And those who disagree with the “social change advocates” are often labeled an “Uncle Tom” (if they are black) or a racist (if they are of a different race).

So, in an effort to try to really establish a ground for a mutual conversation, I give one piece of advice to both sides of the conversation that I think hinders us most when it comes to racial relations.

To the social change advocates, I recommend that they do not presume that if one disagrees with them and prefers at-large voting, likes the Confederate flag, or are against the Black Lives Matter protests then that person is automatically a racist, or a socially regressive traditionalist, or desires to repress one group of people in order to maintain their own social position.

This is an incredibly important point, because I find that it almost does not matter how cogent or reasoned an argument is presented; one cannot have an open conversation if their underlying character is presumed to be malicious.

To those who disagree with the premise or method of protest by the social change advocates, I would suggest listening to the pain that is expressed. Part of the reason why so many identify with “social change advocates” is because their positions are expressed in an emotional and compelling way.

Each of us can relate to experiencing injustice — whether real or perceived — and want to blame others or the system. Therefore, when injustice is presented to us, there is an impulse to want to solve it collectively. Therefore, in your dissent of social change advocates, demonstrate the respect for others that you would like to be given to you and as much as possible, try to make an emotional connection. The emotional connection is so important because it projects the heart of a matter and ultimately connects what we do to why we do it.

You may notice that my advice to both sides encourages listening rather than forcing arguments. Given the racially tense state we’re in, I don’t think we need better arguments.

Rather, we need people willing to open themselves up to listen in a caring way. It is my hope that if people listen, truly listen, then we will be able to have that elusive, honest conversation about race we keep hearing about.

[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville along with her husband and their five children.]