- By Adrianne Murchison For the AJC
A unique occasion took place in Natalie Nightingale’s Roswell living room, a month after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Black and white friends, acquaintances and neighbors of a variety of cultural backgrounds gathered for a frank talk about race.
The provocative mix of political and racial discourse on the national scene made for a ripe and emotional evening in the Atlanta suburb. Some white folks expressed unease around the topic of race as black friends shared daily life experiences.
“On the black side, we were crying, people were passionate,” said Nightingale. “On the white side, they expressed a sense of guilt for having a (life of) privilege and just not having a good perception of what’s going on.”
Nightingale expected the meeting of more than 30 people to be attended by mostly African-Americans and was surprised that her white guests arrived in greater numbers.
“For black people, it was an advantage to have this place of healing and venting and sharing, and to have that type of group surrounding them, because that is an important part of the process,” she said. “(The white guests) were hearing the pain and the day-to-day agony, and how we have to live. The night ended up being a lot more than I thought it would be.”
That gathering turned into a monthly discussion group held at private homes called Healing the Racial Divide. Members discuss aspects of race ranging from history to neighborhood gentrification. The group is representative of a trend in regular intimate gatherings centered on race that’s taking place across metro Atlanta.
Several groups are rooted in a faith-based community or started by people whose spiritual faith has a role in their desire to address race in the current social and political climate.
Steve Zaloudek, a member of the Baha’i faith, started Healing the Racial Divide. “My passion for this issue can’t be separated from my faith,” he said. “Baha’i has always been about racial unity and bringing people together.”
Zaloudek and his wife and daughters are in the final months of a four-year stay in India, but he has at times traveled back home to Atlanta. He stays present with close friends, as well as manages the discussion group through email, phone and social media.
In 2014, Zaloudek, who is an attorney and white, tried to start a productive dialogue on Facebook when news headlines focused on the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. He later sent a survey to friends asking such questions as whether they had close relationships with any black people, and if they have ever engaged in serious conversations on race. But both efforts were unsuccessful.
“I felt like we really needed to have a forum where people can get together and really become friends,” Zaloudek said. “You break through stereotypes by getting to know people who don’t fit that stereotype. This is not political. It’s about changing hearts.”
Healing the Racial Divide members crafted a mission statement that in part says they’re committed to having a positive impact on race relations in their community in concrete ways. Some members have started talks with police departments to glean what officers experience during a tour of duty and the training measures in place for encounters with people who have a mental illness.
Healing the Racial Divide has a roster of participants affiliated with a variety of organizations that can provide free services or training for law enforcement in mental health and other areas in the event agencies do not have a budget for it, said member Gary McDaniel.
During monthly meetings of Healing the Racial Divide, Anthony Outler, who is African-American and a group facilitator, has seen people transform as they become aware of each other’s point of view. But there must be a careful balance, he said, because there can be a tendency of white people to call on blacks to explain every dynamic of race and life as a minority.
“The work of healing the racial divide (in this country) doesn’t fall on the backs of black folks,” Outler added. “There is some work they have to do in understanding their own biases and history, or else it will be hard to understand how we got here.”
Paying it forward
For Christine and Austin Baker, a dialogue on race is much needed in today’s times. A few months after joining Healing the Racial Divide, the married couple started a six-week seminar on race at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, where Austin is a pastor.
“Our church is mostly white,” Christine Baker explained. “A lot of people came and said, ‘This is something we’ve been wanting to talk about.’”
A new aspect of the topic is discussed from 6:30-8 p.m. Wednesdays through Feb. 21. The program has addressed microaggression and the intentional or unintentional comments and slights made toward a minority group, reconciliation, white privilege and systematic racism. The final two weeks will focus on discussing race within the family and action steps in the community.
Christine Baker acknowledges that resistance to open conversations on race can come about from simply worrying about saying the wrong thing.
“I think one of the hopes is that people are just humble enough to try and if they do say something wrong, just apologize,” she said.
Owen Janeway, another white member of Healing the Racial Divide, often weighs how to respond to disparaging racial remarks that arise in everyday settings with friends and acquaintances.
“Sometimes I will shoot something back at them if I hear a race comment,” he said. “If it’s someone I am fairly close with, I try to have a serious conversation, but that doesn’t usually go well. I think, ‘How do I make an impact?’ I’m around people that make those comments fairly regularly. What do I say?”
Janeway and his faith community at Sandy Springs Christian Church are discussing ways to collaborate in an activity with Healing the Racial Divide.
The church, which has a predominantly white congregation, has an existing Reconciliation Ministry based on race and held a nearly seven-hour workshop in January on unlearning long-held stereotypes. Many attendees seldom socialize outside of their race and were asked to describe their first introductions to Native Americans, Asians and African-Americans.
Church leaders are now pondering events where they would partner collectively with a black church and a racially mixed church.
Since the presidential election, Sandy Springs Christian has hosted evening book conversations on such titles as “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt, and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.”
“We know there is a race problem, but we just don’t know what to do (yet beyond conversation),” said Leslie Lady, a church leader and facilitator. “It’s so deep and structural. I think we are at the very beginning of a new discovery.”
Racial healing has positive ripple effects that can reach all minority groups. “If we can make headway with black and white people,” Outler said, “that will give us (a way) to address all forms of racial prejudice.”
JOINING A CONVERSATION
Healing the Racial Divide has monthly gatherings at a private home. The next meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Feb. 24. For location details, contact Steve Zaloudek, 212-706-2459. Email: email@example.com. Also visit Healing the Racial Divide on Facebook.
Johnson Ferry Baptist Church hosts a weekly interactive seminar on race from 6:30-8 p.m. Wednesdays through Feb. 21. For details, contact Austin Baker via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. 955 Johnson Ferry Road, Marietta. 770-973-6561, johnsonferry.org.
Sandy Springs Christian Church hosts informal discussion groups after reading books on race relations. 301 Johnson Ferry Road, Sandy Springs. 404-256-2582, sandyspringscc.org.
HOW TO START YOUR OWN DISCUSSION GROUP
A small circle of five people that is ideally diverse in age, gender and ethnicity, and interested in the topic can be a good beginning.
Start the conversation with questions that help the participants to open up. For example, if the topic is race, ask if they recall the circumstance when they first experienced or became aware of racial prejudice as a child.
Set the meeting time limit to two hours maximum so the attendees stay engaged.