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Keith Woods moderates event

Keith Woods, NPR's vice president for diversity in news and operations, (center) during the "Together Apart: Talking Across the Social Divide" event at First Unitarian Society on Thursday. Seated are Michael Johnson, Colleen Butler and Gloria Ladson-Billings, who participated in the panel. 

What keeps us from talking about race? And how do we work through it to have meaningful conversations?

About 550 people gathered at First Unitarian Society Thursday night to hear eight community leaders and NPR's vice president of diversity discuss race and ethnicity, and how to talk across the social rifts that exist within society.

The conversation navigated the painful and playful, the passionate and poignant. Panelists shared their personal experiences along with broader visions for the Madison community. The audience, which included Mayor Paul Soglin, Ald. Scott Resnick and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, as well as more than a dozen students from the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, packed the sanctuary and spilled out into the hallway and overflow rooms.

NPR's Keith Woods led the discussion at "Together Apart: Talking Across the Social Divide" by asking panelists three questions: "What gets in the way of a good conversation across race and difference? What do you fear when you contemplate that conversation? And what makes it better?"

For Michael Schuler, minister of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, the barrier is often fear of saying the wrong thing. Schuler said he's afraid he might say something culturally inappropriate, out of ignorance, and destroy whatever trust existed at the beginning of a conversation. 

The issue of trust is a difficult one for Everett Mitchell, pastor of Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church and director of community relations at UW-Madison. Out of fear of conveying the wrong image, Mitchell said he won't allow himself to be in the same room with a white woman unless the door or a window is open. He carries the fear that passion will be equated with anger, that raising his voice or emoting with his body will be seen as a prelude to violence.

"My greatest trepidation is the fact that I know we have had qualitatively different experiences — not that I think we have, I know we have," said UW-Madison education professor Gloria Ladson-Billings, who explained that acts of 'microaggression' add up over time. "Those kinds of quality of life experiences, over and over again, that put us in different places."

For Alex Gee, pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church, one of the biggest hurdles is the feeling that for him, the subject of race is very personal, while for many of his white colleagues, it's merely informational. Gee said it's difficult to talk about race with someone if there isn't a level of trust that they can discuss something so personal.

That personal element is what makes the conversation so challenging and charged with emotion, said Erica Nelson, director for the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families' Race to Equity Project. People are afraid because they can't intellectualize their way into or out of a conversation about race — and they're insecure about being judged through a lens they don't believe to be true of themselves. There's no one answer to how to approach it, Nelson said.

As a white woman growing up in New York who now lives in Madison, Colleen Butler, racial justice director of YWCA Madison, said she feels like she's lived two separate experiences. In New York, interactions with people of other races and ethnicities were a normal part of life, she said. Not so in Madison.

To create relationships with people who didn't look like her, in Madison, was like "swimming upstream," Butler said, adding that if you don't think about race or diversity intentionally, you will likely end up in a neighborhood surrounded by other people who look like you, sending your children to school with other children who look like them.

"In Madison, you have to be very thoughtful and intentional about actually having any kind of relationships with people who are different from you," Butler said.

Annette Miller, emerging markets and community development director for Madison Gas and Electric, said she carries more anger with her than people realize. Much of it stems from the pressures of cultural identities. Coming from different cultures, she said she feels like she's never enough for either one. From race to gender to sexual orientation, society has so many 'boxes' to check that the pressure can mount to be too much.

"I feel like I keep hitting every single one of those boxes because people are asking me to pick an identity," Miller said. "I have to talk to my kids about it, and I’m confused. I'm trying to have them not carry the water of past issues, present issues, but prepare them for what they’re going to have to experience. So I walk around edgy."

Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, said we have to be careful not to make assumptions based on "all white people" or "all black people."

"We have to be willing to listen to one another, learn from one another, be vulnerable and be honest," Johnson said. "I'll tell you, my fear is when I think about the role that I play in this community, I can be very passionate about some issues. And sometimes when you're passionate, you speak up, people will put that label on you — so whether you're an 'angry black man,' or if you're white, if you make the wrong comment, that person is 'racist' … People put these labels on you, but I think you've got to rise above it, you've got to learn from one another, you've got to be willing to have open, honest dialogue."

Johnson commented on a lack of ethnic minorities in leadership positions in companies, community organizations and churches in the Madison area. If the community is really going to change what it looks like, it needs to change the make-up of its leadership, he said.

"We have to have people in critical positions on the City Council, our local press, our local school district … or we're going to be talking about this issue in 2045," Johnson said.

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The group also discussed the importance of developing authentic, equal-status relationships with people of other races and ethnicities.

Nelson said those relationships are more likely to form when people share a common goal, like in a workplace — again stressing the need to create more employment opportunities for people of color.

"What I balk at this notion of 'go make a friend,' is, we're really not here to service you," Ladson-Billings said. "We did that before. We don't send our kids to school so you can have a more diverse experience, we send our kids to school so they can graduate. There's a point at which people have to understand that we don't want to be used in that way, and those relationships are only going to develop if they are authentic. So as Erica talked about, if I work with you every day, then I'm more likely to develop a relationship with you. Not just (because you want) a black friend."

Authentic friendship, Gee said, is a step toward a productive conversation.

"When I've had friends who have listened to me, and not tried to explain things away, that allows me to let my guard down," Gee said.

Woods said over the years he has asked journalists and other people all over the world the same question — "What do you need to have a good conversation across difference?" — and the answer is always the same.

People want honesty, Woods said. They want candid conversation, not euphemisms or words shrouded in fear. They want people to say what they think, and to be forgiving if they stumble along the way. They want passion, but not poison. They want people to be open to change. They want people to ask questions, and to listen, not to make judgments. 

"And finally, and maybe most importantly, what people say is that if I give you my honesty, if I provide you benefit of the doubt, if I am bringing my passion and not my poison and I am open to change, you will stay in the room," Woods said. "Because the paradox of talking across difference is this: If I give you the first thing, there is a possibility you won't give me the last one. And that's our challenge, walking out of here. Honesty requires stick-to-it-iveness. Stay in the room."