So Your Straight, White Friend Asked You to Coffee…
After spending four years at a predominantly white, conservative Christian college while also being black and gay, I got used to being asked to coffee by well-meaning white people who sought to learn more about my experience of living with two types of marginalization; that being based on my race and on my sexual identity. Sometimes I found these conversations to be productive. Other times, these kinds of conversations felt like talking to a fish tank. Most of the time, these conversations were more complicated than rating them as either a success or a failure because they typically involved elements of both.
With that being said, what makes a successful coffee conversation about racism, homophobia, or other forms of discrimination? How do I know that sharing my experiences with someone who cannot relate to them will be beneficial? How do I know whether I should accept an invitation to speak about my personal experiences? And how can I guarantee that I will be listened to and valued for my insight?
I’m glad you asked.
Truthfully, none of these questions are quantifiable, meaning that there’s no exact measure or rule of when or how to know that sharing your heart with someone who has had a different lived experience than you is either a good or bad idea. But since we’re speaking of experiences, I would like to lend some of my experiences to answer these questions as best as I can.
The Importance of Relationship
When it comes to deciding whether or not I should accept someone’s invitation to share my experiences with discrimination, I have to think about both my relationship with that person and their track record of taking honest critique.
I reflect on my relationship with the person asking for my “war stories” because my experiences are only as believable as the depth of relationship I have with the person asking.
My closest friends believe me instantly when I tell them that I have been targeted for being gay because it takes far less work for those close to me to put themselves in my shoes than it would for someone who has never met me, or who has only shared casual interactions with me.
Sometimes someone who doesn’t know me very well is able to believe and understand the level of discrimination I have faced throughout my twenty-three years on Earth, but typically, that only happens when that person has been able to humanize me through our similarities and other shared experiences, even if we do not share the experience of being marginalized.
I am much more likely to accept the invitation of someone who has put forth the effort to be my friend before asking me about such painful experiences. I am much less likely to accept an invitation of someone who is only interested in hearing about the times that I have felt unsafe or scared, even if that person is coming from a place of listening.
The Importance of Receiving Criticism
When reflecting on whether or not I should accept someone’s coffee invitation, I also take a moment, if possible, to assess that person’s history of receiving honest criticism.
I say this not because I walk into conversations with straight white people looking to criticize them, but rather because my experiences inherently draw critiques of majority culture. Even if I am not directly criticizing the person I am speaking to, it is easy to feel critiqued if you take part in a culture that has led to the violent persecution of another people group.
I understand why straight white people often feel targeted by my views and experiences. By taking aim at white culture and/or cisgender/heterosexual American culture, it may feel like I am taking aim at an individual white cisgender heterosexual person.
Talking about systemic discrimination of people groups other than your own does not require thick skin, but it does require self-aware skin. You need enough self-awareness to recognize ways that you have contributed to societal wrongs, and you need the self-awareness to recognize that you as an individual, do not bare the weight of centuries of oppression. You need to be able to understand both how you play a part in society and that you are not society, and that you have the choice and the freedom to act out of your own free will and to work on how to create a better world.
It is normal for someone to feel guilty when they realize that the ways they experience privilege can create significant problems for marginalized communities. That being said, it is important to work beyond those feelings of guilt or confusion in order to create a safer, more hospitable world for everyone.
When deciding whether or not to share my experiences with someone else, I am not looking for someone who won’t feel guilty or who won’t be upset at what I am saying. I am looking for someone who will allow themselves to feel those feelings and commit to working through them so they can hear my heart.
Was it Worth It?
If after assessing these two vital factors, I have decided that I want to carry on with a conversation about these kinds of difficult experiences, the next question I typically have is whether or not it was worth opening up to someone about discrimination.
Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that the question of whether or not the conversation was worth it is not up to me. My job in these conversations is only to speak on my experiences. What anyone does with those experiences is beyond my control.
I would hope that someone listening to my stories of harassment and discrimination would call them to greater empathy and tangible action, but I cannot force anyone to change their lives based on what I have told them. I would love for someone to challenge the people and systems that they have influence over to create more spaces for anyone who experiences marginalization, but that is out of my hands.
I never know if these conversations are worth it because the value of these conversations are in the hands of those who have the choice of whether or not to act on the words I have spoken to them.
Protect Marginalized People
Maybe to the straight, white folks, this post seems legalistic. I can see how someone might walk away from reading my words today thinking that I am coming from a high and mighty place and am only willing to speak to a select few about the change I want to see in the world.
Straight and/or white people, hear me: I am not saying “Get your lives together before you speak to me.”
What I am saying to those of you who are willing to listen is that I have been through a lot. I have opened myself up to people who have become my family and I have opened myself up to people who have chosen to reject me. I am willing to talk to both of those camps, however, at this time, I am not interested in pouring my soul for someone who does not value who I am.
Some queer folks and some people of color are willing to debate people who vehemently oppose them. I am not. Most of us are not.
My calling is to help those of us who are just trying to survive in white, conservative, and/or Christian spaces. My way of doing that is reminding the people who identify with my experiences that their perspective is not only valuable, but it is needed.
When there are entire people groups who have historically been taken advantage of, it is not enough to simply hear them or to use them for their contributions. It is vital that they are valued as whole people. A simple way to do that is to recognize the privilege you may hold and to work to not only understand, but to respond with action.