Why Reconcilers Use Segregation to Move Us Towards Unity
Have you ever wondered why leaders intentionally recreate segregated spaces in an effort to move towards reconciliation? It can feel odd and disorienting. It can make you ask questions like, “Why am I not allowed there?” or “Why are they asking me to separate when I came to learn from stories other than my own?” These questions can be especially challenging if you come from a multiracial or biracial background; how are you supposed to decide if you “belong” to one group or the other? What if you’re in an interracial marriage, or what if your very best friend is from an ethnic group other than your own? Why split up when being together is the goal?
The questions are real. The confusion is palpable.
I grew up as an African-American girl in classrooms and student groups in which I was in the minority. This was a painful experience at times, but one with which I was very familiar. The tides began to change, however, when I attended a summer camp at the end of my freshman year of college. The leaders of the camp wanted to create an intentional opportunity for students to connect in ethnic-specific affinity groups.
I nervously made my way to the room for all of the students who self-identified as being ethnically connected to the African diaspora. There were African students, African-American students, Afro-Caribbean students, and students who had biracial and multiracial heritage. It was a new experience for me to be a room with so many beautiful, brown people. Though it was unstated, my dignity was affirmed in a way that I had never experienced before. All of the trauma and heartbreak of being the “first, only, different” minority seemed to break off and healing rushed in.
It was a good thing. It was a God thing.
Of course we didn’t stay in our segregated groups for the entire camp. We all had friends across the ethnic spectrum, and we left our affinity groups to worship together, eat dinner together, and to just be with one another. Thankfully, because I had time in my affinity group, I was somehow able to bring more of my authentic self to the cross-cultural and interracial friendships that meant so much to me.
In our work for reconciliation, we are tasked with the challenging work of operating multiple spaces at one time. One space is specifically for bridging. These are spaces where we sit in cross-cultural conversations, ask hard questions, respond with humility, and listen to new perspectives. We build bridges as we grow to understand one another. It is rich and beautiful and necessary. However, for the bridging work to be lasting and effective, we need at least two other other kinds of spaces as well.
One is the kind of space that I described above; it’s a healing space. Specifically for people of color or for people who regularly experience marginalization, it’s a space to share without having to explain every detail. It’s an opportunity to be heard, seen and known. It’s a chance to let your guard down and to be free from the burden of having to justify or defend your experience to someone who may not understand. It’s a time for healing and for connecting with others who understand your experience so when the bridging work begins, we can bring our whole selves to the dialogue table.
There is also, however, a third space, and some of you may fit this bill. This third space is a learning space and it is especially important for members of majority culture who seek to be reconcilers (aka for racially white folks.) This learning space is where you connect with other majority culture members and begin developing a deeper awareness of your white cultural identity. You learn how your whiteness operates and affects those around you. You learn about privilege and power. You grow in your self-awareness so that you can be a better friend, neighbor or leader. Learning space is needed because often times, you just don’t know what you don’t know, and ignorance can be harmful in the reconciliation process. Rather than further burdening the people of color in your life with unintentionally hurtful questions and unrealistic expectations to be your personal “race expert,” entering into a learning space is chance for you to do your own work. And make no mistake; its work. It will feel uncomfortable, extraneous, and for some, it will feel like a sacrifice of your time and sense of competency. But if you truly want to be a supportive presence in the reconciliation movement, learning space is a great place for you to begin. And when you do make your way to the dialogue table, to the bridging space, we can truly build the bridge together.
Which of the three spaces do you find yourself in most often?
Which space do you most need?