I’m a black man who interacts with lots of different people in many different environments. As such, the recent racial unrest has provided me many opportunities for conversations about the African American experience.
People are trying to have genuine conversations, some between longtime friends of different races and ethnicities where one person did not realize the magnitude of their different shared experiences.
Here are 10 things you should know before talking with your friend about your racial differences.
Regardless of whether this is your first conversation or your 1,000th conversation, there’s a lot you don’t know about the person you’re talking to. You don’t know what you don’t know. Even if you’ve been watching the news, following social media, participating in protests, and visiting museums, there’s a lot you don’t know about your friend and their experiences. Humility goes a long way.
Relationships aren’t so much fixed as they are built. It takes time to build trust and gain understanding. It even takes time to process our racial differences in our own minds. Setting an expectation of learning about your friend and even yourself is a process, not a one-time conversation. The more you build trust, the more vulnerable people may become, and the more likely they may be willing to share.
Acceptance and respect are a free gift. The goal in conversation is not to come to an agreement or to win one of you over to the other’s side. Acceptance means accepting the other person for who they are and respecting their very being, experiences, and realities.
You may hear some things that make you uncomfortable. You may hear about things you’ve done, what your family has done, or what the race you identify with has done. It can be difficult not to feel attacked. And on some things, even after thinking it through, you may still disagree. If you want to build a relationship, this isn’t the time to defend or justify. It’s time to be uncomfortable and seek understanding about racial differences.
Asking questions shows that you’re interested in the person and their story. Often, we spend the majority of our energy on seeking to win the discussion, prove our point, or show how much we know. When you ask questions from a place of curiosity and a desire to understand, you demonstrate an interest in your friend. This shows that you value them.
Having a genuine relationship means genuinely acknowledging your friend’s realities. Their realities may contain experiences that seem totally foreign and impossible to you. Don’t deny their realities just because they seem unimaginable today. Hear them. Show empathy. Allow yourself into their world no matter how different it may be.
Be willing to acknowledge messages shared through the media and how others may perceive those messages very differently. How two people receive media messaging may be completely different. What you see as just “news,” another may view as racism. Be open to seeing this through someone else’s eyes.
People of any given race may have many shared experiences. However, they are still individuals with their own stories, beliefs, and personalities. No one person can truly speak for an entire race (though some try). Yes, there are shared experiences that a black person experiences because they are black. Remember that your friend is an individual. How racial tension affects them may be different than what you see on social media or read in a book.
Be open to educating yourself about various cultures through research, books, documentaries, and museums. This can help you know questions to ask and things to be curious about. Don’t be surprised when they have not read or looked at the same material. Reading about your history can be difficult when you feel like you’re living the history. This doesn’t mean that you are now an expert. If anything, it should build your resolve to have more diverse interactions and meaningful relationships to further your understanding and enrich your life.
Friendships work when both people feel valued, seen, and heard. This is a basic human need we all share. For too long, blacks and many others have felt unwanted, devalued, and marginalized. The civil unrest across the globe right now, at its core, is a scream to be valued as equals. Talking to your friend is about being part of the solution. Know that being part of the solution starts with valuing your friend enough so that they can be fully known by the people they are in relationships with.
Perfection is not the goal when it comes to relationships. When perfection and getting it absolutely right becomes a priority, then the fear of failure can keep us from taking the first step. Building and strengthening our relationships is at its best when we are able to share experiences and learn from each other to become better people ourselves.