The Ferguson Challenge: Talking Across Race

21I just returned from business travel that required flying in and out of Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) airport. I had to take a taxi from the airport to where I was scheduled to work. Though I tend to be rather non-conversational in social situations like this (my inner introvert rises to the occasion), I decided that I did not want to miss out on a possible opportunity. I wanted to take what my mind termed, “the Ferguson challenge.”

Not the “test” of Ferguson that the governor of Missouri has intoned, with more emphasis on order than justice for my liking.

But the challenge I heard when I read UU minister Tom Schade’s blogpost, calling us to learn, re-think, and teach. He wrote,

Learning, Re-Thinking, and Teaching are political acts of great significance and power.

He continued, making a list of many things we can be learning and doing, including the challenge:

We should be talking to African American young men to learn first hand what it is like.

The driver of my taxi was a Black man. I knew that it was risk (of more than just awkward) to enter into such a conversation with a stranger, with a stranger across race, what with the world on fire, what with Ferguson continuing in its unrest and protest, its arrests and rubber bullets. I worried a bit about what it would be like for this man of color to be approached by a white person, particularly a paying customer, asking, “So, what do you think of what’s going on in Ferguson?” Lots of intersections of power dynamics that could easily make the conversation at best, token, and at worst, with shades of fear.

(Still, it felt less risky asking a Black man about this than I would have in engaging with a white person on the subject.  Which is revealing of deeper trouble that I will explore some other time.)

We did end up talking about Africa (where he grew up and where I once studied, though thousands of miles apart in different regions of that vast continent). We talked about political activism and faith, our views of god’s and human power in the world. We talked about the immigration system of this country, with stories from within his community filling the air with discouragement, and some hope.  It was a particularly awesome conversation.

(It was the second time this week I have found myself saying aloud to an immigrant that “I am mad at my government.” Earlier in the week, I said it to a gathering of mostly Muslim friends and acquaintances at the good-bye party of a friend who has been told by my government to leave this country.)

So even though I took “the Ferguson challenge” to, as a white person, learn more about what life is really like in this country from the lived experience of a person of color, and even though we didn’t end up talking about Ferguson, or about what it is like specifically to be a young Black in this country, we were able to talk: across differences in race, in immigration status, and in faith outlook.

When I started chatting (“Do you live around here?”), I did not know where the conversation would go.  As it turned out, my taxi driver friend, J.— and I, we didn’t find world peace or solve the myriad problems plaguing the globe. For my part, I heard from yet another immigrant of the impact of the U.S. immigration system on his life and the lives of people dear to him. I experienced open curiosity about the god he affirmed as present and more knowing than any limited human being.

I don’t want to speak for him and say what he got out of our exchange. How could I? It is my hope, however, he experienced that there are (some? a few? more than the traditional media gives voice?) white people out there who care and are committed ~ who care about Ferguson; who are outraged about racism, not just historical but current; who seek out the voices of and listen to people of color; who care about fixing the broken immigration system.  Who want to engage rather than turn away, and are attempting, hopefully skillfully, but sometimes not so, in how to have these conversations.  That there is a faith, called Unitarian Universalism, that understands part of its religious presence in the world is to engage theologically and spiritually about events like Ferguson, like immigration justice.

I’m really glad that I initiated the conversation. I hope to take this positive experience with me to next opportunities. I share it with you so that you might, too.  I encourage you to share your similar stories of in the comments below.  Let us speak up for possibility and potential.