Listen to the Stories
Now is the time to initiate real conversations
By Norris Burkes
In 2011, I was at the annual National Guard Chaplain Conference in Washington, D.C., when I was sidetracked into a personal conference with a colleague.
The morning session began with all the usual inspirational speeches from our higher-ups. Just before our lunch break, Chaplain Lawrence Witherspoon of Riverside, Calif., stood to make an announcement.
“The African American chaplains will be taking our lunch together in a side room,” he said. “I promise we will enjoy good collegial fellowship and networking.”
I whispered to the chaplains seated around me. “That doesn’t seem right. Chaplains are supposed to be about unity and love. Separate lunches encourage cliquish racial divides.”
“If you feel that way, Norris,” challenged a chaplain at my roundtable, “go talk to Witherspoon.”
“I can’t do that,” I said as my face flushed red.
“Why is that, chaplain?” another asked in a daring tone. “Just go and have a real conversation.”
It was true. I should have been able to talk to Witherspoon. After all, we’d co-led several military marriage conferences, teaching couples to have real conversations.
Later the next day, I found Witherspoon and asked if he had time to have an awkward conversation.
He gave a directional nod toward a few secluded chairs. I can’t recall my words verbatim, but I essentially began by admitting how likely it was that I’d say them wrong.
“It’s OK,” he said.
“I was a bit put off by your call for a separate meeting of Black chaplains,” I confessed.
“What part was uncomfortable for you?” he asked from a script we taught in the marriage class.
When I told him that I thought the meeting went against the unifying spirit of chaplains, he tossed what seemed like a random question.
“Do you know how hard it’s been for African American chaplains to get promoted?”
“Not really,” I answered. I only knew that we worked in an up-or-out system, meaning that if an officer was passed over for promotion it was tantamount to being fired.
“We’ve lost some good chaplains,” he said.
“How is that possible?” I asked. “Promotion boards haven’t used photos for years. They can’t see your color, so you should be judged only by your performance reports.”
He glanced around the room before adding, “Yes, but sometimes those performance reports are written by racist supervisors.”
“Chaplains—racist?” I asked, my naivety in full exposure.
For the next several minutes, he explained that there were chaplains in the conference halls known to use the N-word. But maybe worse, he gave examples of chaplains who were skillful in the subtleties of racism.
“The Air Force Chaplain Corps is small and can be cliquish” he said. “Our black chaplains need the extra mentorship that—for now—can only be found among each other.”
I knew Witherspoon to be a straight talker. I’d never heard anything but truthful integrity from him.
While his truth saddened me, I would have never heard it if Witherspoon hadn’t trusted me to hear his story. More importantly, his courage laid the groundwork for me to hear more about race relations.
There has never been a better time in this nation to listen to the stories being offered by communities of color, whether through books, friends or the media.
So instead of expressing frustration on social media toward Black Lives Matter or Antifa, I challenge you to tune in. Listen to the painful narrative being shared by the Black community.
As you listen, express gratitude for hearing their message, but don’t expect people of color to be responsible for educating you. Above all, don’t offer excuses or try to fix it. Acknowledge their truth, but don’t expect their viewpoint to represent their race any more than you exemplify yours.
There is a great conversational guide from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation at healourcommunities.org. The guide will help you both listen to stories and initiate discussions.
I also recommend reading “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo.
Norris Burkes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit thechaplain.net.