CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It would be easy to dismiss the talk as academic jargon or political posturing and the goals as wishful thinking. But then, that would be ignoring the curiosity and sincerity of women eager to communicate across divides of race and culture. Could there be a more perfect topic for WomanUp, where we strive to conduct our own candid conversations?
On an early Tuesday morning at the Charlotte YWCA, the 130 women who had quickly signed up weeks before settled in for a tough conversation billed as "Black Women, White Women and the Space Between Us."
The next day, about 30 members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Republican Women
gathered for a two-hour diversity workshop to get pointers on reaching out to conservative women of color.
Yes, the events differed in major ways. You could say the YWCA gathering was more racially evolved, since a substantial number of both black women and white women participated. Based on a study by Karen Geiger, a consultant who teaches at Queens University of Charlotte, the "dialogue" continued a discussion that started with 12 representatives of each group trying to move past a Southern culture that puts a premium on surface niceties. There is "a hunger and a desire to be having this conversation," Geiger said.
The GOP meeting was decidedly monochromatic (the only black folks in sight being facilitator Karen Fairley, her husband, daughter and me). Fairley's basic PowerPoint turned at times anthropological, as when one slide explained "myths vs. truth" about black people, and another "signs that blacks look for." (One example: "black women don't like when white women ask about our hair.") Fairley, cultural diversity committee chair for the N.C. Federation of Republican Women, gave the Charlotte-Mecklenburg GOP women credit for asking her back for a second time, though she would have liked to have seen more diversity in her return visit. It's "one of our priorities," Linda Jones, president of the group, told me. "But, I'll be honest; we don't know how to do it."
In both cases, though, the effort itself meant something in a place and a time when it's easy and comfortable to live segregated lives. "The workplace is the last place we can't choose to have white flight," said Geiger. (Charlotte, even when it was riding high in every other category of livability and generosity, rated low in surveys
of social and inter-racial trust.)
And they both happened as the subjects of race and racism are front and center in this New South city: Next month Discovery Place
hands-on science museum is opening "Race: Are We So Different?" At the same time – if it can find a hotel that will brave promised protests and book it – the white nationalist magazine, American Renaissance
, hopes to settle in for its annual conference.
Issues of race, particularly in the South, are fraught with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. "Don't talk about race" is how we're taught to think, said Geiger, 56. "The way privilege is perpetuated is to keep it invisible." It's necessary to pierce that "insular bubble of privilege that white women live in," she said, and protective shell of marginalization that black women construct to survive. (There's that academic-speak.) In Charlotte, where informal relationships can mean success or failure in business, there's more at stake than friendship. "Our country is suffering because it's underestimating talent."
Both meetings alternated between moods of hope and exasperation. At the YWCA, Angela Boatright-Spencer, an Episcopal priest, said, "Any dialogue that leads us to discovering our true selves is a good one." It's a good start, she said, "but we've been having so many good starts for so long, it's kind of tiresome." Lisa Macdonald warned against meetings on racial diversity becoming standoffs between "competing victims." Macdonald, who is gay, described one such session: "We wanted to make it about 'it's because I'm gay," when race and bigotry and racism are still out there."
(I once touched the third rail of the racism vs. sexism debate in a Washington Post column
asking why more feminists didn't come to the aid of an under-siege Michelle Obama -- and still have the scars.)
Over at the GOP women's luncheon, Camille Nixon, realizing that her party might put off some of those she is trying to reach out to, said, "I don't even like using the 'R-word,' Republican," preferring to describe herself as conservative as she looks for common ground.
Valaida Fullwood, a participant in Geiger's original group, stayed after Tuesday's YWCA gathering to talk. At these meetings, some say you're preaching to the choir, she said. "But I'm still not convinced the choir gets it."
Fullwood points to reactions to the presidency of Barack Obama to track the country's back-and-forth "struggle, progression and regression" on discussing race. "It's stirred things up," she said, "but that's how movement and change occur. You can't be discouraged by the ugly stuff."
On this point, Fullwood found common ground with Fairley in her GOP presentation. Disagree with the president on policy, she told the group, but "don't make it personal." As an example, Fairley, who is from a military family, said, "The commander in chief is the commander in chief and deserves respect."
Perhaps not surprisingly, she got pushback from some in the audience who preferred to turn the discussion to how badly Sarah Palin is treated by those who oppose her. ("Competing victims," I almost yelled out. Then I realized I was in the other group.)
OK, so just by listening in to snippets of conversations, I could never get the two confused. Heard at the YWCA: "When will black people get over race? About a nanosecond after white people do." While over at the GOP workshop: "I am praying that black people in general realize that the Democratic Party is not their friend."
But in both there was acknowledgement that a racial divide exists and realization that an intentional effort to bridge it is needed for the good of individuals and the country.
Get to know someone of a different race personally and get to know their life story, Geiger said. Talk about current events and learn a different perspective.
Fairley sent the women of the GOP off to read the events pages of African-American newspapers where they might find some Black History Month activities to attend. She told the women that if they're uncertain or apprehensive about venturing out to events by themselves, they could "go out in two's." I have a feeling she'll be going back for a third visit.
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