Knee to Knee Reflections on a Community Conversation about Race

Knee to Knee 2

Subscribe to Corridor Characters

We talked about race.

The circle of chairs, once neatly arranged, had mutated into a misshapen oval of odd seats squeezed in as more people arrived. The lighting, which had been obsessively poked at for an hour prior, was dim and warm and inviting. You could almost imagine a campfire in the center.

People shook hands and smiled at each other. They were up out of their seats to introduce themselves and had to be asked to sit back down to get the conversation started.

Sometimes it feels like race is this untouchable thing. I mean, it’s huge. And there is tension surrounding it because of the misunderstanding in this country. But we decided to bring it home: to our community, to our people and their stories, to a ring of chairs, knee to knee.

Knee to Knee 4
We talked about race. And the room was full of love.

There’s something really valuable in hearing a story that is different from yours. It felt like a privilege, honestly, to hear people speak so openly about their experiences. I don’t know what it’s like to be called the N-word. I don’t know what it’s like to be told I shouldn’t pursue the AP level classes. I don’t know what it’s like to be the only person in the room that doesn’t look like everyone else.

When talking about these pivotal moments surrounding race, the life shaping instances, they were compared to shrapnel. That time someone kicked you down the slide at recess and called you a dumb N-word is like shrapnel lodged in your gut, that you carry each day. And that weight can make you feel inadequate.

I didn’t realize people of color felt this so often. I didn’t realize my friends might be feeling this way. And I know what it’s like to feel inadequate: from rejection, or poor performance, or anxiety, but I do not know what it’s like to feel that way because of the color of my skin. And I do not know what it is like to fight each day to get that shrapnel out. To work hard just to feel adequate. Not wonderful, or great, or even good. Adequate.

My heart aches knowing that anyone has been made to feel that way. And further, that that shrapnel discriminates. That feeling will never touch me. I could never possibly know the fullness of that pain.

Knee to Knee 1
But we talked about race. At least I know it exists. At least I can say “I heard you”, “I’m with you”, “I’m here”. At least I can be a part of a room full of love, and a conversation that matters.

I guess that’s why it felt like a privilege, to know just a fraction of what it’s like. To feel that heartache as one of my own classmates shared her story about her racial harassment complaint being turned against her, as if it were somehow her fault she stuck up for herself. To laugh as one black man shared a story from grade school, where he was taking a test and tried to copy off a white kid only to realize the white kid was already trying to copy off of his paper. To find hope in the story of a white man who took the Harlem train to work each day and saw barriers break down just through the experience of contact, simply enjoying the ride with his black fellow commuters.

It was just a room with a bunch of chairs and a plethora of recording equipment (a narrative as powerful as this is definitely worth sharing), but I learned, as a well-meaning white person unsure of how I fit into the conversation, the importance of just listening.

When your heart aches, and you are sickened, and you are scared, there is so much pressure to do something. To be able to help, to stop or undo injustices, to relieve the pain or offer the right words. To do something powerful in a situation that makes us feel powerless. But we can’t forget that there is a tremendous amount of strength that comes from just listening and being beside people in those moments. From giving those affected a platform to be heard. From bringing together good people, willing to share and willing to listen.

There is power in that.

In the pureness of stories and their magnetic quality, attracting love, understanding, and the unmistakable feeling that something good is coming together. I do believe, something good has come together here.

Knee to Knee 3

Subscribe to Corridor Characters

Story by Aren Buresh. Photos by Faraz Shah.