Healing conversations about race
André Thomas is co-host of Healing Race, and founder of Fortnum Solutions where he has a background in project management and using technology to serve corporate strategy.
Todd Levinson is co-host of Healing Race and co-founder of MATR, a tech start-up looking to bring meaningful conversations to social media. He has a background in peacebuilding, policy and psychology.
In 1996, we met as college freshman roommates - one black, one white. And in the first 25 years of knowing each other, over 25 years of being close friends and talking about everything under the sun, we never talked about race.
Some will cherish our story as a testament to what can happen when two people live out their color-blind dream, seeing each other as equal human beings, beyond skin color, racial history and all. Others will say our story shows how much further we need to progress as a country, arguing that we should see our world through the lens of race and actively engage each other on racial issues because of our racial history.
Who is right? Our experience says both.
In 2021, we decided to record our first conversations about race and make them public so that others could see what an open, “real,” constructive conversation about race could look like, where no topic is off the table and no views are stifled or censored.
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When Andre shared the regular fear he feels for his safety as a black man in America, it jarred my sense of complacency. Can you imagine being close friends with someone for 25 years and not knowing a deep fear they carry in their heart as they live each day of their life? In how many ways, at how many times, was I not there for him because I lived in ignorance of his racial experience?
However one might think of race as a construct and its policy implications, race still impacts hearts, minds, and lives. I learned that to neglect or avoid conversations about race in pursuit of the color-blind dream is actually to fail to fully see each other… even if our truest, most human selves, are so much deeper than a skin color could reveal.
Later, Andre shared that his bigger concern was not whether White Americans understood the issues facing Black Americans but that they might understand the issues and say, “So what?” It crystallized for me why the “black lives matter” phrase might resonate so much with black lives. Policies addressing black issues are not just about rectifying past wrongs or limiting current biases. They are ways to show that we care, that we see Black Americans as fully human and worthy of belonging, that we see their promise and want their potential to flourish into American Dreams too.
When Todd asked me to have a conversation about race, personal transformation was a distant thought. After agreeing, my personal remit was to stand up for my race and transform him, telling Todd about the psychological tensions Black Americans live with as we strive for a better future while reminders of a hurtful past are all around. And if he resisted, I was ready for a fight! There was one thing I wasn’t prepared for him to do: listen.
Often, we believe change occurs in grand moments. We wait for that one thing that will catapult us into the people we always knew we could be. Healing Race has taught me it’s the small acts, like Todd listening, truly listening, that alter souls… like when Todd heard out the fears I carry for my safety as a Black man without dismissing or denying my experience. I felt something shifting in my mind and heart during our conversation; and it scared me.
Would I become someone else, while exploring feedback from this white man, if I broke with my race about how “we” feel Black Americans have been treated in this country? Will I be “less Black” if I make intellectual concessions? With these questions keeping me up at night, I knew I could not expect more of this conversation than I was willing to give it.
Todd came to me heart in hand, wanting to know my truth, and evaluate the wisdom of my lived experience against his worldview. That feeling of acknowledgement melted me, causing me to loosen the reins on my beliefs about White people. In the past, it felt “right” to believe that all White people know the impact U.S. history has had on Black Americans. Righteous indignation used to swell in me to think they do it deliberately, holding us back from realizing our potential and prospering!
That is not to say there are not White people who want to perpetuate the limiting beliefs of a racist past. But not all White people. And I should not so cavalierly brand an entire group as such - similar to what Black Americans ask of our White citizens. I ceased using the word “racist” without true insight into a person’s heart. Healing Race is healing me! Our conversation presented me with a new reality: Black Americans can talk vulnerably with White Americans without being shut down or dismissed.
If we can’t talk openly and honestly about the hard stuff, we can’t solve the hard stuff… and we can’t grow closer as people and as a country. What stands between us and that future is a chasm of mistrust and fear, born from a history of transgressions, conflict, and being socialized into misconceptions about who those “others” are and what they believe about “us.” To reclaim that trust, we cannot simply demand it and expect it to magically appear; to build trust, we must earn trust. But how?
We diligently apply five habits to create open, transformative conversations. First, we are endlessly curious about each other, especially when we hear difficult perspectives - like when Todd wondered how much of our narratives about racial violence are vestiges of the past… or when Andre shared his belief that white people feel a psychology of ownership over black lives, carried forward from the times of slavery. We embraced these challenging moments and wanted to know more.
We then showed respect for what we heard. The goal was not to determine right or wrong, agree or disagree. We did not deny, dismiss, or object to each other’s experiences, feelings, or perspectives. The goal was to understand. And you cannot understand what you don’t accept as true to another’s experience.
We also practiced empathy and challenged each other. We found ways, times in our own lives, where we could relate to the basic human experiences being articulated so as to deepen our understanding. We followed the mental and emotional logic that we heard as if we lived it. And only then did we offer different experiences and perspectives that might expand each other’s thinking.
Too many times we settle for a kind of fake peace where we go along to get along. We sacrifice challenge at the altar of understanding. But understanding without challenge stifles mutual growth and leaves us stuck in our own limited narratives. We had no problem hearing alternative realities and challenging viewpoints because we knew our own views were given a fair hearing.
Finally, we strove for humility. Neither of us knows the whole of the experience of our shared world. So we cast off the instinct to be defensive, to “die to be right.” Todd hasn’t had his educational credentials, political knowledge, or intellectual habits questioned as I have. Andre hasn’t had the range of intimate relationships with white Americans that I’ve had. We each had to integrate experiences that we never had into our larger view of racial issues in our country.
This is the goal of the Healing Race show - to normalize and spread open, honest, good-faith conversations about race that break down the preconceptions, misconceptions, and fears that keep us from building deeper understanding, stronger bonds, and a shared future that we can all believe in and desire. We aim for a true reconciliation that breeds friendship, common cause, and a shared belonging to this great country we are blessed to live in… with all its faults and follies as well as its dreams and promise. This is all of our country and - right, wrong, or crazy - we have to learn to share it and make the most of it together.We welcome you to join us as a viewer, a guest, a supporter… and most importantly, a fellow traveler who seeks out and leans into difficult conversations about race on this journey to finally healing race in our country. We also welcome you to our two National Week of Conversation events - where we will lay out how to have your own transformative conversations about race and we will watch and discuss some of the most compelling and provocative clips from our show. To learn more about how to get involved, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can enjoy our conversations here.
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- Video: What is it like to be Black in America? A first conversation about race starts here ›
- Schools should teach both progressive and conservative views on race relations ›
- Finding the middle ground on issues of race ›
- What does a first conversation about race look like between strangers? - The Fulcrum ›
- Video: What is the toll of racial violence on Black lives? - The Fulcrum ›