As events were unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, my family and I were in France visiting family. We returned in time for school to start on Tuesday, August 12, 2014, four days after Michael Brown was killed. The following Saturday morning, August 16, I asked my middle school daughter if teachers were talking with students about events in Ferguson. They were not. Later that morning when my high school-aged son woke up, I asked him if his teachers were discussing events related to Ferguson. They were not. While sharing various news articles with them, my husband handed me an on-line article from the Paris newspaper, Le Monde about events in St. Louis. On Facebook, his cousin in Paris confirmed that this was daily news in France. It was unsettling to me that what was international news, nine days after riots broke out in our city and just 20 minutes from our home, was not being discussed in West County St. Louis schools.
As a career-long educator, I wondered why we were passing up on such a “teachable moment” for our community. I wondered if people were avoiding the subject or just didn’t know how to talk about it. For insight, I spoke with a colleague and friend of mine, Dr. Julius Sims, Pastor of Word of Life Christian Church in St. Louis city. He and I were doctoral students together in Adult Education at UM-St. Louis. I asked him if there was a similar lack of conversation in his circles. Pastor Sims explained that the people in his circles, black parents and children, were talking, but, “…we’re not surprised. The tragedy of a life being taken within the African-American community is not surprising.” On the other hand, the story was different with his white friends. More typically Pastor Sims found that they didn’t want to talk about it.
Why didn’t whites want to talk about it? I wondered. I knew it was a tough topic. Like religion, sex, and politics, it is a subject to be avoided in the majority culture. But why were we avoiding a difficult topic, especially at such a critical time? And I wondered what was inhibiting even educators from passing up on a teachable moment for our kids?
Since August 2014, I’ve been researching what it is about majority white culture that inhibits us whites from entering real conversations about tough topics. It turns out there are just a few cultural characteristics that keep us from talking. However, once people are made aware of what’s getting in the way, and once they develop the language, skills, and heart for authentic conversations, they are set free to develop lasting relationships.
And in the spirit of developing lasting relationships that work, Pastor Sims and I have been co-facilitating monthly gatherings at his church called Courageous Conversations. Together, our multi-cultural group unpacks challenging questions, practices skills for reconciliation, and grows in empathy and understanding. We may not always get it right, but what we do know for sure is that it’s about connection, not perfection. -AN