A few weeks ago I had dinner with 10 strangers of different races and ethnicities. The topic at the table was racism.
We were brought together by L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson’s embRACE L.A. project, a series of intimate dinners in homes across the city held with the goal of fostering a healthy dialogue on race relations.
As a black woman, I was prompted by curiosity to RSVP. If my experience is any indication, the story of race relations in Los Angeles isn’t one of steady progress. There are still issues with police brutality, a major disparity in wealth, and the overwhelming problem of black people being gentrified out of their communities. I live in West Hollywood and I frequent Santa Monica for work, two predominantly white areas. Frankly, Angelenos are used to seeing black people in only certain parts of town. Once we step outside those spaces, dirty looks and aggression emerge.
That said, I always want to learn more about the complexities of race in one of the world’s most diverse cities. I was hoping this dinner could help teach me.
We began the evening with a moderator asking us to speak about how racism has affected each of us and what we thought should be done about it. The first to speak was a racially ambiguous woman who appeared to be in her 50s. She talked about how most people can’t tell she’s “60% black” at first glance. The topic of racial passing came to mind quickly, but to my surprise she didn’t seem to realize the advantage this gave her.
Instead of being open about the ways in which they benefit from systemic injustice, everyone took a turn playing the victim.
The other black woman in the room spoke next. She looked to be in her 20s, like me, with a similar dark complexion. I presumed we would have comparable stories, but she told the group she had never experienced any overt forms of racism. I almost choked on my food. I wanted to hear more, but the conversation moved on to the white guy sitting next to her, who talked briefly about the challenges he and his wife, an Iranian woman, face.
As we went further around the table, I found myself growing annoyed. Not to discredit anyone’s experiences, but I was surprised that not one person at the table had used the word privilege; the privilege of being a white man, or the privilege of being a black woman who can racially pass. Instead of being open about the ways in which they benefit from systemic injustice, everyone took a turn playing the victim.
The next woman to speak was a white woman who recently moved to the Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw area. My attention was immediately piqued, as Crenshaw is one of the only predominantly black communities left in L.A.
The woman began by sharing an interaction she had with a black woman on the street, who looked at her strangely and asked if she was lost. She then got emotional as she talked about her frustrations integrating into the community, and how she felt it best to just leave. As tears rolled down her face, I glanced around the table at the nodding and sympathetic faces. I felt like I was in the sunken place from “Get Out.” She was crying, and I was furious. Black people aren’t hateful, but you can’t expect to be immediately welcomed with open arms into a community that is constantly being wounded and trying to heal.
I spoke last, touching on the overt and covert racism that I experience every day in this city: the looks and stares I get walking down the street in my predominantly white neighborhood; how I wake up self-aware that the color of my skin is going to make my daily tasks that much harder; how appearing too black can be dangerous. There is a difference between tolerating blackness and accepting it.
Before my turn finished, I suggested that the crying white woman save her tears for the black boys and girls who not only have to worry about derogatory remarks, but about possibly losing their lives to racial bigotry. Still emotional, she nodded. I also made sure to acknowledge my own privilege. I had a seat at a table that many other black folks were not given.
Soon after, the facilitator chimed in to let us know that our dinner was coming to an end.
At this point, the group had barely touched on what we could do as a community to foster better racial understanding. We had made a bigger dent in the lasagna dish than we did race relations. Most of our dinner was spent just trying to process each other’s experiences, which I took as a testament to how much work needs to be done.
If there is anything I hope my fellow diners took away with them that evening, it’s that we can’t expect change without understanding both plight and privilege. Black people can be as open as they want about the racism they endure, but a real dialogue on race needs the honesty to go both ways.
My evening consisted of trying to dissect racism in my daily life, patiently maneuvering around instances of white fragility, a group photo, and really good lasagna. We talked about racism, and then we ate cake.
Nadra Widatalla is a writer and producer living in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter: @nadrawidatalla