Can we talk about race across racial lines?
It was an exhausting day. Weekends always are; there are tiny humans living in my house. I am in love with my tiny humans, but their needs and my needs for quiet, stillness, and rest live on a collision course. (I don’t feel like anyone truly warned me about this before I reproduced. Perhaps I wasn’t listening.) In this luxuriously calm season, I’ve started a business that helps people and organizations talk about race while building togetherness and connection instead of shame and division. I am not a fixer. There’s no fixing. My work begins with listening which creates room for connection.
On this particular Saturday, I was scheduled to teach a dialogue-driven community class. The evening was devoted to equipping participants with practical tools for listening, connecting and creating empathy-filled conversations about race.
I felt anxious. I always do before teaching, speaking, or writing. I also felt a cold coming on - sensed that ominous itch in my throat. Said goodbye to the humans in my house; hopped into my car. The sun tumbled low as I walked up the gently curving gravel pathway, climbed the grey wood steps, wrestled the key out of the lockbox. I opened up, turned on the lights, arranged the chairs in a circle, and waited.
Two women joined me that night. One was Latinx. One was white. Our conversation began, and as I listened to shared stories and hesitant questions, we began connecting.
Then Something got my attention.
It wasn’t the first time I’d felt this particular Something spring up conversations about race. But this time, Something remained. It wouldn’t let me move past it. Something felt different. More potent. Disrupted my perception long enough that I could feel what was really there instead of resting in my expectations.
I kept facilitating our conversation, as inside, something shifted. More than coming down with a cold. I still haven’t been able to shake this particular Something.
We created meaningful connections that night. Connected that night, as humans. (I asked each woman’s permission to share this story publicly.) We’ve exchanged numbers, texted, and shared cups of tea and dessert since. Become friends. Each has been kind enough to tell me about the value she took away from our conversation.
I walked to my car feeling like a fraud.
Climbed in, collapsing inside.
Who am I to believe that I can help people have conversations about race? Isn’t race supposed to be an area where conversation is impossible? I know this. Why I am I still going down this path? Why do I feel this way?
I drove home in the dark. I felt lost. Frustrated. With no answers. There are no quick pat solutions to why talking about race is so hard for us humans. I thought I was supposed to have all the answers before I had permission to speak. I couldn’t silence the questions in my head. Something was still sitting there with me. Clinging to me like oil. I couldn’t quench the upwelling. I was spiraling into something, and I didn’t know what it was.
Something. That Something. I’d been circling it for years. Throughout childhood. Sitting in classrooms. Teaching in classrooms. At coffee shops and restaurants. In churches. Over cups of tea. In meetings. Listening to questions quietly and haltingly asked. Heard it in screaming voices. In tense conversations quickly going sideways. Experienced it repeatedly. Felt it in the assumptions that attach themselves when someone sees my color before my humanity. Witnessed it in the slow pulling away of oooh’s and ahhh’s as my baby began looking less like a baby and more like a tiny human, a human in a body of color, a human like me.
Something was staring me straight in the face.
I wanted to run.
Even though I was afraid to look Something in its eyes, I knew how I was supposed to respond. I knew how this story of discovering what I was afraid to know was supposed to go. I am supposed to judge. Distance myself from what is unfamiliar. Pontificate and label. Shame.
I tried to run.
I tried shaming myself into silence. I tried convincing myself that I had no value to add to the race conversation. It didn’t work. There are tiny humans in my house. I cannot teach them to value their voice while silencing my own with shame. I cannot bear the weight. So I tried blame. I tried swallowing my pain.
None of it worked. Something remained.
I was left with Me. Choices remained. I could run. I could hide. Or I could choose to stand and let myself be seen. I could choose to turn and see that the Something I felt was, and is The Space Between Us.
As I (with great trepidation) peered into The Space Between Us, I began to see a story that was there all along. It goes something like this:
On one end, there is a person who isn’t born into a body of color. This human is living life, existing in their story, not knowing what life is like for humans born into bodies of color. It’s difficult to understand stories we’ve never heard, witnessed, or experienced first-hand. Then, a sequence of unexpected events unfolds. Sometimes abruptly, or perhaps over the course of days or years, that all leads to a growing awareness that the story for people who aren’t born into bodies of color isn’t at all like the story for people who are born into bodies of color. For the first time, this human begins to discover that the story they’re in isn’t the entire story. Devastation unfolds. A slow-motion, catastrophic implosion. How could I have not known??? Since the human who wasn’t born into a body of color is new to the trauma experienced by humans in bodies of color; they quite literally don’t know what do to with this new awareness. I mean, how could a person know how to respond to a story they had no idea existed? Why did no one tell me??? The implosion continues, the trauma lived by humans in bodies of color remains, and a helplessness dawns that devastates. On top of not knowing that this was the story for people born into bodies of color, there is now the earth-shattering consciousness for the human not in a body of color that they’ve lived their whole lives not knowing. Without feeling for a moment what life is like for humans in bodies of color. I have to DO something. So there is a reaching. A reaching out towards people in bodies of color born out of a desire to understand. Birthed from the pain of beginning to see what was always there and realizing that you just don’t know how you missed it. Out of a desperation to make things right, but feeling completely ill-equipped and utterly unprepared to even figure out where to begin.
On the other end is a person born into a body of color. A human for whom the shattering began before entry into the world, before birth. A being who is told every day through silent and often not-so-silent messages where their assigned place is. Where they do and do not belong. That birth into a body of color means they should be grateful for what they are allowed to have. Simultaneously told that these messages are imagined. For this human, gaslighting is an everyday, moment-to-moment reality. To live in a body of color is to be told that the denial of human dignity and validity you experience is a function not of the world around you, but derivative of your own imaginings and failings. Birth into a body of color demands existence on a spectrum between fighting to exist and reaching for basic dignity. Simply being is rarely an option. When being does become briefly accessible, it is often abruptly transformed into embers by the flames of judgment and shame. This heat can spring up at any time, in any context, without warning. At the grocery store, shopping for clothes, trying to educate your children, attempting to educate yourself, while attending church, driving down the street, purchasing or renting a home, looking for a job, creating art, trying to vote, asking a question, walking out of a train, pumping gas, opening your mouth to speak in the office, sitting in your own living room on your own couch in your own home listening to the evening news.Laying in the silence in your own bed, staring up at the ceiling, you breathe the stories floating in the air about what it means to be a human in your body. There is no pause. There is no end. There is no escape. There is no day off. There is no moment where you are allowed to forget, even for a moment that you are a person in a body of color. Your humanity is shoved into the pre-existing stories that have been written for you. It never, stops. To be human and of color is to strain to see oneself. Within and without. There is little room for the truth of the stories lived by humans in bodies of color. So when arms come reaching, seeking to understand, the unending wounding makes it difficult, if not impossible to trust that apathy has ceased and mutual respect has dawned. Even if there is appreciation for the effort, the burden of education, of unpacking and feeling while trying to survive threatens a pain that rumbles like the End of Everything.
So here we are. Humans in bodies of color and humans who are not. Walking beside each other. Living lives around each other. Having conversations with each other. All the while sensing The Space Between Us that we just can’t seem to bring ourselves to face.
The Space Between Us is real. I’d run smack into it that night sitting in the room with wood floors and a pebbled path outside. I’d heard it over, and over, but struggled to put my finger on it in conversations with humans who aren’t in bodies of color who are terrified of saying the wrong thing, endlessly anxious about accidentally making things worse. Felt it countless times listening to humans in bodies of color experiencing perpetual frustration because no one seems to be listening, startled by the feeling of being persistently dismissed.
It is the journey between knowing, and knowing. The gap between awareness and togetherness. The difference between resting on assumption and listening to lived experience. It’s the separation between the world we thought was, and the reality that is. We don’t know how to cross this distance between the experiences of our lives. We’re afraid we’ll never know. Our fear isn’t unfounded; we barely know how to talk about race with humans in bodies that don’t look like our own. In The Space Between Us lives the pain we carry because we desperately want to connect, and we crave being seen, heard, understood, believed by each other. (We cling to the pain of being unknown because we’re afraid that sharing what race feels like to us won’t change anything. None of us are certain we can sustain more judgment, denial, labelling, and being boxed in, yet again.)
We don’t have to live like this.
We haven’t given permission to ourselves or each other to share what race feels like. The macro, big-picture conversations about politics, socio-economics, history, education, systemic inequality, intersectionality, social justice, and pervasive disparity are absolutely essential and indispensable. They’re extraordinarily valuable; necessary.
But without shared feeling we can’t find our way towards connecting with each other on a personal level within the big macro conversations.
Race is an experience. We live it. We feed and construct stories around it. Stories that fill the canyon with division. The distance feels impossible to cross because the pain has grown so great. We cross The Space Between Us through shared feeling grounded in mutual dignity and visible, openly acknowledged humanity. It’s a journey, not a one-time event. Humans don’t create sustainable change without consistent connection.
Letting myself be seen still isn’t my favorite thing. I find it terrifying. But that night and the days that followed helped me see that I needed to be willing to share what race feels like to me.
It remains fundamentally true that my work is not about me. I create spaces that generate belonging and connection, and to do that work my ego and perspective cannot be at the center. It is also true that we cross The Space Between Us when we begin weaving our stories about how how we experience race, together.
I see that now.
I didn’t know what to do next. I was feeling, processing, and I had to do something. So I began writing a book. It’s a note from a human of color to humans who are not. Against all odds I signed with a literary agent. We’re pitching it to publishers. I began doing podcast guest appearances. Launched a podcast of my own. It’s called The Space Between Us. I’m still listening. Still asking questions. Still consulting. Still creating spaces for human conversations about race that generate connection instead of division, belonging in place of exclusion. I’m learning how to live in the power of shared feeling. It’s scary. Vulnerable. Tender. Human. And entirely worth it. I’ve experienced the power of conversations about race that move us towards feeling more human together instead of forced to live in opposition against each other. We are capable of having the race conversation across racial lines. The Space Between Us isn’t uncrossable. We can start learning how to listen to each other’s stories instead of screaming past one another, leaving brokenness in the dust.