A Conversation About Race Over Chicken Tacos

{I have so much to learn about racial divide, so many more tough conversation I need to be a part of, but I hope this is a start for me. As a middle-class white woman who has been provided with most every privilege and opportunity, I need to understand that the world I grew up in isn't the same world everybody else grew up in. I have way more questions than answers, but as I think about what it really means to "love my neighbor," I think about how people just want to be heard; they want someone to listen. And when it comes to African Americans talking about why they feel frustrated with the current conversation on race in the United States, I honestly don't think I have really been listening.}

{I have so much to learn about racial divide, so many more tough conversation I need to be a part of, but I hope this is a start for me. As a middle-class white woman who has been provided with most every privilege and opportunity, I need to understand that the world I grew up in isn't the same world everybody else grew up in. I have way more questions than answers, but as I think about what it really means to "love my neighbor," I think about how people just want to be heard; they want someone to listen. And when it comes to African Americans talking about why they feel frustrated with the current conversation on race in the United States, I honestly don't think I have really been listening.}

{I would like to thank my friend Candacee for not only helping me write this article, but for also being willing to have an uncomfortable conversation with me about racial divide in the city of Milwaukee, #blacklivesmatter, white privilege, and Jesus. Candacee is a Teaching Assistant at Cross Trainers Academy. She is also currently pursuing her four year degree at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Candacee's words throughout this article are in italics. And our word in the Church needs to be "reconciliation."}

{I would like to thank my friend Candacee for not only helping me write this article, but for also being willing to have an uncomfortable conversation with me about racial divide in the city of Milwaukee, #blacklivesmatter, white privilege, and Jesus. Candacee is a Teaching Assistant at Cross Trainers Academy. She is also currently pursuing her four year degree at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Candacee's words throughout this article are in italics. And our word in the Church needs to be "reconciliation."}

I’m from a world where people say racism doesn’t exist anymore, that it’s all better now. I’m from a place where I watch a story on the news and hear the words “race card” muttered throughout the room.

Now I’m living in a world where, this summer, a neighborhood was set on fire, or looted, or both – the result of rioting, of protesting the death of an African American man shot and killed by an African American police officer.

I’m pretty sure there is a disconnect between my two worlds.

***

I invited my friend Candacee over to talk about this stuff, to talk about race relations and the history of Milwaukee and Jesus. If I’m going to learn about racial divides, I figured I should probably talk to someone a different race from my own.

Candacee works with my husband at an all black school in the inner city of Milwaukee. After chatting with her a few times, she made it clear she is passionate about advocating for social justice and forging ways for diverse cultures to understand each other.

Candacee is African American, and she has lived in Milwaukee since she was five years old. Whether it’s teaching, mentoring, or mission work in the inner city, Candacee has done much to be the change she wants to see in her world, just like her parents taught her.

We talked for two hours over lukewarm chicken tacos, and now I’m sitting here at my computer trying to figure out how to summarize a thick, two-hour conversation into a two-page document.

Sometimes I wish I could close my eyes and unsee the news stories and unhear my conversation with Candacee. Maybe then I could go on pretending the world I live in is already all better.

***

Before we moved to Milwaukee, we kept hearing, “The breweries! The festivals! The lake! The {fill in the blank with Milwaukee’s tourism!} It’s such a cool city!” What people failed to mentioned, but what hides in broad daylight is the segregation, the poverty, the unemployment, the incarceration.

The city of Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the United States of America. It has the largest educational achievement and unemployment gaps between black and white people, and the second largest income gap.

Brokenness dwells in every city, including Milwaukee.

***

Slavery is over. That’s what my high school textbook told me.

But now here I am eating my chicken taco, listening to a woman tell me that where freedom in Christ is absent, slavery to sin and darkness is real and alive. That slavery doesn’t only look like shackles and whips and bags of cotton, but that it also looks like a never-ending cycle of brokenness.

Broken families, broken bank accounts, broken laws. Daddies without jobs, jobs without legality, babies without daddies. Babies born ten steps behind with no expectation for success.

Cycles aren’t easy to break free from without the message of Christ, the only One who can break these chains.

***

The most I learned about my history was when we talked about slaves coming to America, and the receptive African American heroes, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. I did not learn about Black History – which I later learned should be called “American History” – until I entered college.

Candacee was one of the few African American students in her grade school class of twenty-five kids. When topics of race and “black issues” came up, she was always put on the spot to answer all the questions.

“Do black people wash their hair everyday?”

“Do you live in the ghetto?”

“Do you listen to rap music?”

“Candacee, you not like those black people.”

People say hurtful things.

***

I tell Candace about the time our neighbors came home with a load of groceries in hand. “Have to get home before the cops are on duty,” they said.

That is confusing to me.

Law abiding citizens don’t need to be afraid of police officers; textbooks told me that too. But what Chapter 3 didn’t caption was what it’s like to be pulled over for driving while black, for walking down the street while black, for doing anything while being black.

I wonder what my neighbors have experienced to say such things. I wonder what part of history they marched through in living color. It must have been more real, more horrific than the grainy, black and white recordings I catch glimpses of on PBS documentaries titled "The Civil Rights Movement."

I realize I will never understand what it is like to be black. I will always be given the benefit of the doubt. People won’t clutch their purses when I walk by, won’t shuttle their kids to the other side of the street. I can even walk around wearing a hoodie if I wanted to.

Sometimes I wonder why I should care if the system always works for me.

***

At a young age, my family stayed at a water park hotel in the Wisconsin Dells. I was with my father and younger brother, entering an elevator after a beautiful time swimming in the pool. There was a white family on the elevator who immediately moved over to the side when we entered. They just stared at us with a hateful look; I could feel their disgust.

As the family exited the elevator, the younger boy said, “Stupid niggers.”

The elevator closed and I remember feeling hurt, a fire of anger flooding through me. He didn’t even know us; that weren’t my name! I had been taught by my parents what that name meant and how it identified my people as to oppress, verbally abuse, and belittle us, a word of hate and divide.

It took a lot for my father not to get off the elevator and retaliate, but he didn’t let pride get in the way. He continued to be an example of how to respond to hate – in love, in forgiveness, in hoping for change.

The picture of that young boy looking back at us stays in my mind. I think of the ignorance, and even more the person who taught him there was a difference between us in that light, just because of the color of our skin.

Candacee knows what it’s like to be black.

***

Some people say that to claim the life of a black man matters means I don’t care about white lives or blue lives, that I must think all lives don’t matter. But that’s not true. I don’t know what it’s like to put on a badge and uniform, to vow I will protect and serve, and actually mean it.

It just seems like black lives are hurting, are crying out to be heard. Is it really so liberal to want to stop and listen? To have a conversation about race over chicken tacos?

***

Candacee taught me about Emmett Till. 

It has been 61 years since the fourteen-year-old black boy was brutally murdered by two white men for whistling at a white woman. It took a jury only fifty-seven minutes to find the men not guilty of their crime, which they later confessed in a magazine article. Till’s mother insisted on an open casket so that the world could see what happened to her son.

I wish I could unsee those pictures.

It was a horrifying injustice. Does this kind of injustice still happen today? People being murdered, and their murderers getting acquitted? That can’t happen in the Land of the Free, can it?

***

“You have to remember each story is different. Each set of circumstances is different. You have to listen and wait for all the facts,” Candacee tells me.

She explains that the man killed in Milwaukee this summer was armed and did not cooperate with police. The officer was within his legal right to shoot. The rioting shortly after was the result of ignorance; the result of teenagers losing respect for authority after feeling disrespected themselves. Of feeling like slaves to the system.

Milwaukee has been festering for a long time, just waiting to go up in flames. But violence will always beget more violence. Violence will never bring about change. 

***

Our stories – mine and Candacee’s – are different too. She grieves her father. I grieve our baby girl. And as we sit next to each other, as we share about who we’ve lost, our two-hour conversation starts to make the slightest bit of sense.

Because, listening.

The best way to support those who grieve is to listen, to give them space to feel, to hurt, to bleed without rushing to find a bandage or insisting it’s already all better.

Maybe the brokenness of our city is meant to be grieved too. Maybe mourning with my African American brothers and sisters who mourn is at least turning my head in the right direction. Maybe when tragedy happens I need to push aside my assumptions, my comments and labels, and just dwell for a second: “That was somebody’s daddy. Somebody’s son.”

Because then the tears will surely come.

***

“This cycle of slavery can’t be broken without Christ,” Candacee reminds me.

Christ, the One who directed His woes toward the rich and powerful, and bestowed His blessings on the poor. Christ, the One who shed His own blood for a Church that is made up of all different colors. Only He can break chains.

***

I wish I could close my eyes and ears, unsee and unhear it all. Maybe then I could go on pretending the world I live in is already all better. But I know there are so many who don’t have the choice to close their eyes and stop seeing.

I have friends from all different walks of life, races, and backgrounds whose friendships I value. I understand the importance of hard conversations: to get a different perspective, to get to know the heart and soul of a person, to develop unity and a love for people, no matter race, sex, ethnicity, social economic status or background.

Yeah, maybe I need to listen. Maybe I need to keep taking part in these hard conversations over chicken tacos.

 

Grace and Peace,
Kendra