New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ recent criticism of the “kneeling” protest of Colin Kaepernick hurt and angered his black NFL teammates and many others. They were dismayed that a man who knows them and has worked alongside them for years demonstrated so little empathy for them in this moment of reckoning for America. (Brees did apologize later for his comment.)
This empathy deficit is what Howard Thurman called “contact without fellowship.” It is to be around someone, maybe even daily, without really knowing them or being able to see things from their perspective. Thurman, a black pastor and theologian of another era who had a strong influence on Martin Luther King Jr., penned the term in his 1949 classic, Jesus and the Disinherited. He wrote of whites who experienced blacks only when conforming to social expectations established by whites:
“When the Southern white person says, ‘I understand the Negro,’ what he really means is that he has a knowledge of the Negro within the limitation of the boundaries which the white man set up. The kind of Negro he understands has no existence except in his own mind.”
I submit to you that more than 70 years after Thurman’s analysis, this is still largely the case. Interactions today between blacks and whites rarely go beyond “contact without fellowship.” I say this in part based on years of Empower West conversations among black and white pastors in Louisville, Kentucky, who gather weekly around a table at Simmons College of Kentucky. I would say it was eight months into those conversations before we began to have moments Thurman might deem “fellowship,” when we could begin honestly to do some soul-baring.
So how does a white person move toward such “fellowship” with black people? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Know that it will be a journey. Two years into my time with Empower West, I left my white church to go to work full time at Simmons, a historic black college. After three years here, I’m now comfortable saying there are ways I have “fellowship” with my friends, coworkers and students. But I don’t kid myself. I know I still “see through a glass darkly” and have gained only a partial understanding of the reality of the descendants of slaves.
Likewise for you, moving from contact to fellowship will take time, and you won’t be in control of the clock or the doors that are open or closed to you.
2. Read books and watch movies that are products of blacks telling their stories as they see fit. Get acquainted with stories that don’t include the psychological and moral consolation of a white hero. (Yes, Sandra Bullock and Kevin Costner, I’m looking at you.)
You might start by selecting works from Mashable’s list of new books by black authors or The National Book Review’s recommendations for Black History Month. I would also suggest Zora Neale Thurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and Black Power, by Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), especially the first chapter.
Among religious books, I would suggest Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited along with Hope on the Brink: Understanding the Emergence of Nihilism in Black America by my Simmons colleague, Lewis Brogdon, Just a Sister Away by Renita Weems and The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone.
For films, take a look at WNYS Studios’ compilation of “The Fifty Best Films by Black Directors.” For TV, I suggest “Atlanta” and “When They See Us.”
And, of course, bear in mind that these are just the tip of the iceberg.
3. Do some economic and historical homework. For a start, google “racial income gap” and “racial wealth gap.” Spend time reading and pondering what your life would be like with one tenth the wealth you possess, and if the same had been true in your family for hundreds of years.
4. Show up in black space. Go, more than once, to a black church in a black section of town – and listen. Preferably, go to a church where the pastor sometimes ticks off white people with what he or she says. I 100% guarantee you’ll be warmly welcomed. Also, scan social media or websites for black speakers presenting in your area at places like HBCUs or your local Urban League.
5. After you’ve done some initial homework, ask a black person you know for their take on something. Please don’t preface the question by attempting to show them how “woke” you are, such as listing all the homework you’ve done. Just ask a question. Maybe start with, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” If they say okay, then, “If you were to recommend a show or a movie you think a white person ought to watch, or something they should read, what would it be?” And that’s it.
If they say they need to think about it, then follow their lead. If they recommend something, thank them, and then after you watch it or read it, go back and say, “I watched/read what you recommended. Can you recommend something else?” Then, if they’re okay with continuing to recommend, keep learning and asking. At some point, maybe right away or maybe after two or three assignments, your acquaintance will likely ask why you’re asking or seek your take on what you’ve been watching or reading. Recognize this as the privilege it is and proceed with caution and humility.
6. Recognize how consistently black people bemoan the potential burden of being someone’s “black friend” or someone’s guru on all things black. I see much greater openness when a white person has already done some homework on their own, but even so, don’t be offended if someone doesn’t seem interested in further conversation. Just keep doing your homework and consider who else you might approach.
Your efforts will offer you the chance to go beyond the boring, monochromatic white world. But at a deeper level, they will afford the chance to cultivate an informed spirit of empathy with blacks. The novelist Graham Greene wrote that hatred stems from a “failure of imagination.” While white people in America will never fully imagine what black people endure, this does not excuse the sin of racial ignorance.
We can do better.