My brother-in-law Barry married into our family about twenty years ago. I met him long before that, when he and my sister Cindy were high school sweethearts. But it was only this past year that I initiated a conversation with him about how he has experienced racism. He had a lot to say, and I was glad we talked about it.
Why did I wait so long to bring up the subject?
I was afraid of saying the wrong thing.
In April 2016 I attended the White Privilege Conference, held in Philadelphia. I was one of about 500 Quakers in a crowd of around 2,500 people. We were there to learn more about how our culture privileges whiteness and what we can do to help undo racism.
During one of the keynote talks, inspirational speaker Verna Meyers told the mostly white audience that white people are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they often say nothing in situations where connecting is greatly needed. Saying nothing, Meyers said, can be worse than saying the wrong thing.
Friend Amanda Kemp–playwright, college professor, and founder of Theater for Transformation–has written a slim, wonderful book entitled Say the Wrong Thing: Stories and Strategies for Racial Justice and Authentic Community. It’s a collection of short essays, personal stories, and reflections–originally posts from her blog, “On a Mission to Heal the Planet.” It begins with a moving account of a key moment when she risked saying the wrong thing to her then-fiance, Michael Jamanis. She was creating a new piece about race, and he was collaborating with her to create music for it. However, she was feeling that his skillful classical violin music symbolized “Western and Northern European dominance,” and that it just wasn’t the right sound for her piece. It was one of the first times in their relationship that being of different races seemed to matter a lot. Dr. Kemp risked their relationship to tell her fiance the truth, to say what might have been the wrong thing. What he said back surprised and challenged her, too. That conversation opened the door to a new level of intimacy and creativity for both of them. Michael, now her husband, was able to “improvise and change his sound, so that he is sometimes a chaotic siren and sometimes a beautiful melodic line.” In the end, they collaborated “to create an edgy, angry, mournful and inspiring piece, INSPIRA.”
Say the Wrong Thing: Stories and Strategies for Racial Justice and Authentic Community is organized to explain the H.E.A.R.T. strategy:
Hold Space for Transformation
Act With Intention
Reflect on Yourself
Trust the Process
I’m finding it valuable to read these short pieces one at a time. They share Amanda Kemp’s experience of being Black, from the inside, and they help me to get another perspective on race in this country. They guide my reflections on how I can live in a way that helps hold the space for transformation.
I recommend the book, Dr. Kemp’s blog, and her upcoming Pendle Hill workshop, entitled Say the Wrong Thing: Strategies of the H.E.A.R.T. for Racial Justice and Authentic Community.
Here’s a link to the Friends Journal review of Say the Wrong Thing
Our times require lots of courageous risk-taking, not only political activism, but risky conversations from the heart, with strangers, co-workers, neighbors, and the people we love best.
Say the Wrong Thing: When have you risked saying the wrong thing in order to try to make an authentic connection across lines of difference? What was the result?
© 2017 Marcelle Martin
Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website. Reviewed by Friends Journal, the book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey of faithfulness. It is also available from QuakerBooks., which provides free shipping on orders of six or more books.
For information about Marcelle’s upcoming courses and workshops, go to Teaching and Upcoming Workshops.