Twenty-six years ago, when I married my African-American husband, I had no idea how hard it would be for us to communicate. We were as different as we could be: racially, socially, educationally, and personally. He is a big picture thinker. I am all about the details. He is an auditory learner; I am a visual learner. Even the language we used was different – mine was formal English and his was “informal black-speak” – a combination of street talk and African-American colloquialisms and grammar. Our life together has been one of first trying to understand each other and then working on accepting each other.
At first it was friendly questioning: “What did you just say?” “What does that mean?” “I don’t get that.” When I found myself answering, “I be chillin'” when his friend said “Whatssup?” I knew we had bridged the first gap between us.
Then it was “Why in the world would you do that?” “Just because your family does that doesn’t mean I have to!” “You can’t really believe that!” Disbelief often turned into anger and the communication stopped. Gradually we learned to accept each other’s worldview.
Finally, however, I think we have reached the point of “civil conversation,” a process strongly promoted by Krista Tippet in her radio show On Being and on her website. Recently, I listened to Krista interview Heather McGhee, an African-American millennial progressive leader who is president of Demos, a public policy organization, and Matt Kibbe, a Libertarian who helped activate the Tea Party and is now president and chief community organizer of Free the People.
Krista spoke with the two of them because they are “bridge people,” people who are radically different and hold radically different opinions and philosophies. In spite of their differences, they are comfortable having meaningful conversations with each other. Toward the end of the interview, Krista asked them each to respond to two questions:
- What do you see that is good in the position of the other?
- What troubles you about your own position or the position of your group?
Their answers made them, as well as the radio audience, understand how much they had in common despite the differences in their political positions, their race, and their experiences. I recognized that this was the process that Fred and I had unwittingly discovered as we tried to understand each other.
Then Heather McGhee shared the story of Gary, a self-admitted racist who wanted to change. He called in on a live radio show she was part of and asked if she could help him. Taken by surprise, she gave him some advice “off the top of her head” which included getting to know people he was pre-judging. Surprisingly, Heather and Gary became good friends. Recently he explained how he is learning to eliminate his prejudice and bias. This is his suggestion:
- In your everyday life, when you come across someone who is “different,” stop and gauge your immediate reaction to the person. How intimidating or scary is he or she?
- Engage the person with ordinary comments (“Isn’t this a beautiful day?” “This check-out line is really long!” “Your baby is so cute.”) and then ease into a conversation.
- When the conversation is over, check out how you are feeling about that person now. You probably have made a connection. How intimidated or frightened do you feel now? This conversation has changed how your brain makes decisions. You have been able to appreciate a person you had been prone to judge.
I believe if we engage with people who are different from us and use the above questions as we struggle to communicate, we too will become “bridge people” – a role that is sorely needed in town hall meetings, churches, neighborhoods, and even families.
Matt Kibbe’s books include: Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto and, more recently, Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff: A Libertarian Manifesto.
Heather McGhee’s writing and research appear in many places including the The New York Times, The Nation, and The Hill.