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The Power of Awkward Conversation Across The Racial Divide

The Power of Awkward Conversation Across The Racial Divide (Part 1 of 2)

"I believe in the power of awkward conversation to initiate change. If people shut up and listen to other people talk and go, 'this is making me uncomfortable, but I'll keep listening,' you start to learn things."

-- Kamau Bell

The premiere of Kamau Bell's new CNN series on race, 'United Shades of America' left my mind spinning as he took us on a visit with the new and improved KKK. If you missed Sunday’s program, mark your calendar and catch the next seven episodes. It’s on Sunday nights, 10 pm Pacific.

Bell’s show resonated deeply with me, based on my own experiences growing up in a segregated town in South Texas. The themes that surfaced in his conversations with the Klan, like marrying outside one’s group are near and dear to me and at the heart of my solo play, Tell Me Your Name. Most of us are raised knowing that our parents and their parent have a very strong preference we marry within our groups. Sad fact -- within my lifetime -- it was against the law to marry someone from a different racial group. Jewish parents want their kids to fall in love with other Jewish kids, most African-Americans prefer that children do the same, also true of Latinos and Asians. My friend from India tells me her Hindu friends back in India admonish their college age children who come to university in the United States, “don’t think you can marry a BMW!” Black, Muslim, White. At heart we are tribal people, and hard-wired by evolution to be guarded against those that are different from us. We are protecting our children, we think, by keeping them in the fold among ourselves.

Having a preference is way different than feeling hatred and disgust for the other. Most of us were bombarded by “the stay with your own kind” messages from our families, and yet more and more of us choose partners and bear children with folks with racial and ethnic identities that do not match our own. And our kids identifying as multi-racial or other, signifies an unwilling and/or inability to choose just one racial identity. And they shouldn’t have to. This questioning and labeling of our identity drives home there's really only ONE race, the human race.

But back to United Shades of America where I learned that the KKK think of people like Kamau and me (and many of you, my friends) as mud people. It's bad enough that we are here, as opposed to there (Africa, Mexico, Asia), but the least we mud people could do is not intermingle with white folks. Never mind that slaves were brought here forcibly and that countless black women were repeatedly violated by the white slavemasters resulting in multi-racial folks. The systematic rape of women and ensuing pregnancies caused by their oppressors are a well-recognized form of terror and subjugation that have existed since the dawn of time.

The KKK is clear about the evils of the mixing of the races. When Kamau asked where inter-racial marriage ranks in the scheme of all sins, asking specifically about the commandment not to murder -- the Klansman was clear -- marrying outside your race is far worse, it is an abomination.

Part 2 coming soon.

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