A Faltering Conversation About Race: Progress over Perfection on Martin Luther King Jr. Day


One year ago, Providence Moms Blog asked our contributors what they were doing with their kids to honor Martin Luther King Jr. One of our writers, a white, 67-year-old, self-proclaimed liberal baby-boomer sent us the following piece, but told us she was hesitant to have us publish it. ”I was hesitant to write this post because I didn’t want to expose the ways my limited experience impacts my perception.” This writer grew up in the ’50s in Rehoboth, a small, rural, white community. The post is her largely raw stream-of-consciousness account of how her views changed and evolved. She is neither particularly politically active nor knowledgeable regarding the African-American community. The post reflected that. Realizing that it needed more perspective, we decided not to publish it at that time and put it on the back burner.  

We revisited the post this year, asking another of our contributors to look it over. She is 42-years-old, black, socially liberal, and describes herself as someone who is trying to learn more about, but is certainly not an expert on Dr. King, and social justice issues. She had great commentary to offer, and through this process, it became clear that the original post had limitations. We realized that perhaps, as opposed to publishing a meditation on Dr. King, written by someone who is well-meaning but has limited experience, it would be more in the spirit of his visions to give people a glimpse into what a hard, healthy, dialogue between two women with different perspectives looks like.

What follows is a collaboration between two of our writers. We have included the initial writer’s post, but have interspersed the commentary of the second writer throughout the post in order to create a dialogue. It is imperfect and incomplete. It is faltering at times. But it is a start. Our hope is that it will encourage others to overcome the inertia in avoiding the difficult conversations for fear of saying the wrong thing.

Thanks to both writers for being brave enough to engage in this process. 

[For clarity’s sake we have inserted initials to indicate which contributor is speaking. WW=white woman and BW=black woman. We have omitted their names because we want to give one example of one conversation. Your conversations will likely sound and proceed differently, even if you were speaking to one of these contributors, even if they take on these same topics.]

Original Post

What am I doing to honor Martin Luther King Jr. with my kids this year? Well, I wasn’t actually planning on doing anything. My kids are 38, 36 and 32. And when I look back, I can’t really think of anything I did back when they were kids.

But it wasn’t that I didn’t care.

BW: It’s hard for us to know when other people care. It’s especially hard for me to know when a white person cares about racial justice issues. You can care without saying or doing anything, but caring isn’t the same as helping. Helping isn’t always a grand gesture. Helping is speaking out. Helping is speaking up. Helping is also listening and believing a black woman when she talks about her experiences as a black woman.

I was born in 1951, and I vividly remember traveling down south to visit my grandparents. I remember the “Whites Only” signs everywhere. I remember while crossing my legs and bouncing up and down, waiting somewhat desperately at a gas station restroom… I remember wondering…’What do black girls do when they are traveling?’ We were from the North, and shocked.

BW: It seems like you didn’t see racism in the North and/or didn’t think it existed. Obviously, it did exist. The observation you make about trips to the South were spot on, but there seems to be a lack of awareness (maybe even now) that plenty of racism occurred “up North” too.

WW: She is right, as a kid in a small rural white town, I would not have seen any instances of racism. And my family certainly felt that it was just a southern thing.

But things were changing. In 1964, Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Civil Rights Act was passed.

BW: Let’s not forget how hard the implementation of the Civil Rights Act was, even in the North. Also, voting rights were and still are today being hard fought for.  

Segregated bathrooms were a thing of the past. 

BW: Segregated bathrooms were outlawed. I don’t actually know how long it took to get rid of them in practice. It sounds like you believe that all that racism just–POOF–disappeared. You have all the facts correct, of course, but it gives the impression of wrapping up racism with a nice bow because the Civil Rights Act was passed.

WW: This is true. I did think that we were conquering racism.

I grew up convinced that the United States was the greatest nation on earth. And that its greatness stemmed from our commitment to equality, based on the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. If you were an American, you were equal to any other American. Period.

BW: This is all largely just rhetoric. The founding of this country was based on equality for landed white men. Women were ignored. Certainly, any and all non-whites were ignored. In fact, during its history even certain whites were! Clearly, equality for all is the lesson we are supposed to glean from our school history classes, but for many, “real life” disabuses us of this notion. Americans have to know there is something wrong with this lesson and want to do something to search out a more complete picture.

WW: It took until I was in college for me to be to be disabused of this rather rose-colored vision of our country. Equality for all is what I grew up believing.

I was taught, and believed that in the eyes of God, everyone was equal. It didn’t matter whether you were young or old, male or female, black or white, rich or poor. God loved everyone with the fierce love of a parent, because each and every one of us was God’s child. I believed that our country had atoned for slavery–through the Civil War, through the Civil Rights Act struggle, and though those well-meaning white folks who joined in the fight. I thought the sin of prejudice was behind us, and that we Americans were the good people, the people on the right side of history.

But history doesn’t stop, and my idealism didn’t survive. The O.J. Simpson trial was one of the first times I remember uneasily thinking: ‘We still live in different worlds.’  I realized that while few whites doubted Simpson’s guilt, most African-Americans felt that anyone who believed the police were laughably naive. I didn’t know which version was true. 

BW: It seems here that you do not recognize that the police cannot always be believed. It doesn’t read as though you understand that the case did have problems and that the problem occurred before, during, and well after (i.e., today) O.J.’s trial. When I read “I didn’t know which version was true”,  I read it to mean you think the only ones to blame were black people, a sentiment I cannot agree with.

WW: I did begin by believing the police, in my own lived experience police have always been helpful to me. The O.J. Simpson case was what began to change my mind. I ended up in a different place.

But then things got better again. Barack Obama was elected President! I thought I had become a stone-cold cynic, but when he won, I felt this odd pressure in my chest. And perhaps, an almost overwhelming need to cry tears of joy. Maybe my country really was good. Maybe we had turned a corner.  

BW: I don’t think you are alone in this thinking. Yes, it was wonderful when Barack Obama was elected! I remember how happy (and SHOCKED) I was when it happened. But I can also tell you that the criticisms and attacks against him (e.g., birther argument, Congressional obstruction, outright racist memes), infuriated, but did not shock me. It was clear the country hadn’t collectively turned the corner. Racism didn’t go underground between the O.J. trial and Obama’s election. There are lots of examples, throughout history, of racism in the U.S. Black people continued to point them out, continued to fight against them. And many white people continued to not listen. Continued to deny the continued existence and effects of racism. And Obama’s election allowed some of them to dismiss these racist allegations as totally unfounded. The divisions you saw during the O.J. trial continued. Think about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman’s subsequent trial and acquittal. Or Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, MO and the subsequent unrest there. Or Freddy Gray’s death in Baltimore, MD. The public debate around those doesn’t seem altogether of a different character than the debate around O.J.’s guilt/innocence.

For the first time, this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I read the “I Have a Dream” speech in full. I was struck by just how contemporary it still is, how ‘the fierce urgency of now’ is as true today as it was when it was written. One of his statements, in particular, sent chills up my spine. “[M]any of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.” My children, my grandchildren are not African-American, but I suspect that their freedom, their rights, and their prosperity will only be truly safe in a nation that guarantees those rights and freedoms for everyone. Their destiny is tied up with everyone else’s destiny.

BW: Are you currently doing anything now to work on these ideals or dreams? 

WW: Ummm. You certainly have my number about this. I write and read and think and vote, but that’s about it.

BW: I don’t think that everyone will join protests and/or become a professional activist. Speaking up when you hear or see racism, especially from those in your circle, is important and all-too-often overlooked contribution. Reading about other viewpoints is important groundwork to lay. Not everything you do will be on view for the general public. Yes, I’ve spoken out. I’m comfortable doing that in certain circumstances. I think that listening to and believing black people when they say “I’ve experienced X and it was racist” is SO important. Recognize the OTHER America you live in, even if it’s not in your backyard or your town. You have to start where you are. Not everyone will agree with me, but I don’t see another practical way.

BW: I know that my views on race and racial justice have evolved a lot over the years. I can’t pinpoint a particular event that changed a long-held belief or introduced a nuance that made me rethink what I saw, heard, consumed. But I know that I will continue to try to do better, and I encourage others to do the same. My patience isn’t always where it should be, if (when?) my goal is converting hearts and minds. But sometimes my goal is just to be heard, even if I’m not understood. Sometimes my goal is to not break down, so I don’t speak up every time, rather I withdraw. Sometimes I’m just fed up that this country still doesn’t really get it, and I want to give up. I don’t expect this will be one, straight, smooth road to the goal. Most days I don’t expect I’ll live to see the end of this road. I would implore any/all of you reading this post to commit to doing one thing differently this year (not just on MLK Day): expand your reading list, watch a documentary from an alternative point of view, ask a question when you don’t understand, draw a line in the sand when you hear someone in your circle espousing racist views, challenge yourself when you find yourself criticizing a group you don’t socialize with (and so probably don’t understand). You will likely have to step outside your comfort zone. You will likely have to seek out sources you aren’t otherwise familiar with.  Mainstream media and “school-sanctioned” sources aren’t going to give you a full picture. I don’t know most of you, so I have no idea where you are starting from. But take a step forward. You may be surprised at how and which of your views can change, even a little.


  1. I was oblivious to the racism in the south the few times we visited our paternal grandparents. However when I was in high school I began to recognize the incredible privilege our family had. The Rehoboth police literally ignored some crimes our family committed (like James’ graduation party or Glen’s graduation party near the reservoir, their the police waited until Glen and I had left the party before busting it).

    I watched the unrest in South Boston high school and recognized that the north was not free of racism, in many ways the racism of the north was actually more insidious because it was not always obvious the way it was in the south.

    Of course, being transgender brought out discrimination against me, letting me know, to some extent, how blacks must have felt.

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