By Serena Witherspoon. Reprinted from Huffington Post.
I am of a mixed racial background. My mom is a white first-generation American and spent a large chunk of her adolescence being raised in Germany. My dad is a Black man who hails from the Bay Area and is descendent of Louisiana. I am also a woman, a millennial, and a part of an academic community; I have worked many customer service jobs, and so has my partner, who is Mexican and grew up in the suburbs… All this is to say I belong to many communities, and this is true of us all. Through organizing for Living Room Conversations, I am constantly reminded of how valuable this network is in enabling me to cultivate conversations with the goal of extending past filter bubbles and bridging divides. These multifaceted networks that we all carry, to some extent, present us with the opportunity to practice and initiate communication across divides as a way of life.
Recently I had a Living Room Conversation regarding righteousness and relationships. My group was strikingly representative of major voices on the US stage today: a 21 year old Black woman and student, a Puerto Rican woman and lawyer, a white woman and political organizer, an older jewish woman, and a man who is a former nazi.
As a Black woman dedicated to fighting the oppression of my community, sitting down with a man who once celebrated white-supremacy was an instance of access I assumed would never be granted and truthfully never seriously desired to initiate. My Blackness is something I always assumed would be a red flag, immediately denying my access to the inner thinkings of a white-supremacist in a face-to-face manner, and in another setting, I would likely not have had the slightest inclination to listen. The man I met is now an anti- racism and anti-violent extremism activist. He echoed me when I spoke about how my access and relationship to different, and in some contexts, opposing communities has made communicating across divides an integral part of my life. For him, this power is in being a link between his history of extremist hate groups and his current occupation of anti-racist activism— a truly poignant example of the power we all have to build a network of communication and unity if we so choose.
The answer we came to at conversations end champions the message of what Living Room Conversations are all about: relationships. It is human to not be ready to have a conversation with those we feel attack our way of life and our humanity. However, ignoring the problem is not sustainable. For those of us vested in progress and ready to balance vulnerability with self protection, communication is possible, and from there, change. For me, this was reaffirmed when I asked if there was a role for me, a Black woman, in working on anti-racist efforts within violent extremist hate groups, in the fashion of what my conversation partner is able to do because of his former membership within that community. His response was affirmative; in fact, it was Black and Brown people who gave him empathy, at a time when he did not deserve it, that made him realize the brainwashing of his youth.
It is not our job as Black and Brown people or as any marginalized and predated upon community to extend an olive branch. But for those of us who against all odds are capable of doing so, positive change and forward movement may be the outcome. I will never condone white-supremacy, and I will always oppose and try to dismantle white-supremacy with all of my being, but I will do so in communication with, and not isolation from, the other side.
Serena Witherspoon studies Sociology at UC Berkeley. Her research explores the relationship between the education and carceral systems. She is the assistant director of the Stiles Hall Experience Berkeley Transfer program. This program aims to increase the amount of Black, Latinx, and Native American students on the Berkeley campus through mentorship and community building. She works with Living Room Conversations to broaden and deepen transpartisan communications.