What is your racial or ethnic background? When did you first realize that people come from different racial or ethnic backgrounds? Have you experienced racism or discrimination? How has it affected people you know?
With these questions, our group of twelve men and women of different races and ethnic backgrounds, most of whom had just met each other for the first time, began a six-week discussion of race. Two facilitators, one White, one Black, guided us through a curriculum that began with our personal experience, included a consideration of the causes and effects of racism on individuals and society, and concluded with an assessment of race in our community along with proposals for positive change.
In the course of six two-hour gatherings, we followed ground rules we ourselves agreed on. We listened respectfully to each other’s stories and ideas; we spoke for ourselves, not for others; when we disagreed, we said so plainly but without taking or giving offense; we collaborated with our facilitators in choosing topics and sticking to them; we promised to maintain confidentiality about our discussions.
Our study circle became a safe space in which to discuss personal, often emotional subjects and raise issues rarely addressed in groups so diverse. We talked about the damage unjust discrimination does not only to those who practice it and those who suffer from it, but also to the community where such behavior occurs. We spoke of the healing power of empathy, which comes from seeing the world through another’s eyes. This we experienced in numerous ways:
- by responding to various racial scenarios (e.g., a white couple walking to their car late at night see a group of black men coming toward them and cross the street);
- by sharing our encounters with institutions such as schools, the criminal justice system, local social services; and
- by taking part in interactive activities, such as an exercise that demonstrates the inequality that results from unearned, often unrecognized privilege.
Whether it resulted in a personal change in attitude, the beginning of a friendship, a determination to imagine and work for racial and ethnic reconciliation in our community, or all of the above, most of our group benefitted from the time we spent together. As we united with participants from other study circles for a concluding potluck supper, we shared our sense of connection and specific ideas for change.
Groups like the one I attended, organized by the South Bend Human Rights Commission, have been meeting once each year in the Michiana area for almost two decades. My first experience of a Study Circle on Race was so positive that I recently signed up for a second. My husband, who joined that first group with me, has become a facilitator. We both keep in touch with the friends we have made thanks to this program. I’m convinced that every connection we make across cultural and ethnic divides, no matter how small, forges a bond that makes our lives better and our community stronger.
by Gail Porter Mandell