Conversations on Race, the Coalition’s annual community forum for getting people talking with one another about race, was a great success this year. The room at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel was full to capacity with over 130 people who came to participate in a dialogue about our discomfort in talking about race-related issues. Attendees first listened to some provocative and pointed ideas about stereotyping, race relations and the language we use by community leaders Barbara Heisler and Dr. Khalil Muhammad.
Both Ms. Heisler and Dr. Muhammad are well known in their respective fields of social justice and the history of race relations (click here for bios). They are also both members of our community. So we were treated to both their professional expertise and their experiences in dealing with race in SOMA. Especially poignant were their personal stories –Ms. Heisler’s from the perspective of a long-time resident and a thought leader on intentional integration and Dr. Muhammad’s as a recent transplant to South Orange and the author of a book about the criminalization of race. Ms. Heisler focused on the need for intentional integration to counter our tendency to segregate based on race within a diverse community even when our goals—as parents, as homeowners, as residents—are the same. She also noted the importance of understanding what white privilege means and its effects on race relations in a diverse community. Dr. Muhammad shared a story about failing to respond to a neighbor’s unexpected racist comment linking bad behavior to being black. Ultimately, we need to challenge the false narratives that persist about race.
Following the presentations participants engaged in lively small group discussions that were facilitated by Coalition trustees or volunteers. Each group reported out at the end what they discussed with an eye toward what we need to work on as individuals and as a community. Some of the ideas were that we need to model social integration and get to know people on a more personal level; we need more moral courage to discuss topics like white privilege and the false narratives that continue to beset people of color even within an integrated community; there are still barriers to integration in a diverse community; we need ongoing dialogues to educate people and more social opportunities to develop relationships across racial lines.