It’s a Race Thing, In Three Parts

dreamstime_s_59364353First, a story. 

Several years ago when my family and I lived in Bahrain, I was delighted to see how eager other Americans were to immerse themselves in the local culture. They sampled the cuisine; sought authentic experiences; visited museums, historical sites, and mosques; and made a sport of buying beautiful middle eastern rugs.

It was strange to me, then, how this cross-cultural interest rarely sparked any meaningful relationships between local Bahrainis and their expat guests. For the most part, there was an air of mutual civility and respect, but very little interaction other than what day-to-day living necessitated.

Then one day I noticed a comment on a Facebook group for expats which made me realize that the lack of human connection was getting in the way of truly understanding another culture. Someone posted confusion over the beginning of Ramadan and pointed out somewhat critically that the celebration of Ramadan is based on the “moon and the stars and stuff like that” or in other words, the lunar calendar. Knowing that she was a Christian, I replied, “Isn’t that how Easter is determined, you know, according to the moon?” To her credit, she said, “You’re right. Thanks. I never thought about it that way.”

It occurred to me that we weren’t doing ourselves any favors by being critical observers, interested in local culture but not understanding the people behind it. We could easily pay lip service to cross-cultural respect, but we weren’t doing the harder work required to get to know each other. So I asked a friend and Muslim woman, if she’d be willing to attend a gathering of women that I would host at the compound where I lived.

She agreed to answer the questions I solicited from my western audience. As an academic, she had an interest in the subject of cultural understanding; but, as a woman she had a desire to address the barriers that threatened to divide us. On the day of our gathering, the questions ranged from “Why do Muslim women wear a hijab?” and “Is it their choice?” to “What does a typical Bahraini Muslim woman’s day look like?” and “What do Muslim women wish that American women knew about them?”

The discussion continued over a potluck meal. We dined on everything from hotdish from Minnesota, pimento cheese from Georgia, local Bahraini hummus, and lentils from the Indian restaurant down the street. At the end of the day, we huddled close for a picture.

It was a day that stands out as one of the best I spent in the Middle East. I remember it as the time when the things I learned about Bahrain in books and museums and mosques came to life. It was the day when Muslim women seemed more like friends and sisters, rather than mysterious others whose traditions I respected from a distance. And based on the feedback, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

But the point of the post is not to tell you a story about a fond memory I have of my time in Bahrain. Rather, it’s to make an analogy between that experience and racial dialogue in the US today. Race is a hot button topic, and one that has even become taboo because too often we don’t know how to broach it for fear of saying the wrong thing. Instead, we don’t engage in the conversation, or if we do, we do it at a healthy distance. We end up paying lip service to ideals like respect, but we have no idea who we respect. And often, we end up unknowingly perpetuating misunderstanding which only strengthens the divide.

Second, a proposal.

In light of the recent Women’s March on Washington, whose platform seeks to unify women despite their differences, I propose another gathering similar to the one I had in Bahrain. This time the gathering will be virtual and the discussion will focus on racial barriers that threaten to divide women in the US. (By the way, you can be in support of, opposed to, or indifferent to the March on Washington to engage in the conversation).

I’ve teamed up with two of my esteemed colleagues, Porsha Williams and Jaimie Crumley, who are as sharp as tacks, strong in conviction, compassionate beyond measure, and who also care about continuing an important conversation about race in the United States. They will bring questions to the table and I will too. We’ll work together to address your questions and to share insightful anecdotes. Then, I will post a reflection of our exchange next week.

Third, an invitation.

You are invited to participate in the conversation!  Here’s how it works: write in with questions you have about issues related to race, either in the comments section of this post, or by filling out a contact form. You may choose to remain anonymous, but only serious, respectful questions will be considered.

Depending on your experience, you may have concerns or questions like, “I don’t understand the Black Lives Matter platform, can you explain why it’s important?” or conversely, “White women turned out in droves to march for, among other things, racial equality. But if they feel this strongly, where were they during Black Lives Matter demonstrations’?” Maybe there’s a question you’ve wanted to ask a person whose skin is a different shade than yours, but you were unsure how to ask it. Perhaps you have an anecdote you want to share about an uncomfortable experience you’ve had where race was a factor. Or maybe you just want to contradict stereotypes.

Everyone’s voice is welcome here, but there are two prerequisites: a willingness to listen with HUMILITY; and to speak with GRACE. This is not a forum to express opinions or convictions; instead it is an opportunity to learn by looking at an important issue from another perspective.

So put on your thinking caps. And share this post with your friends. Don’t miss an excellent opportunity to continue an important conversation…or to spark a new one!

p.s. Don’t forget to check out Porsha and Jaimie’s blogs and add them to your reading list. They also have a joint podcast, which you can learn about at

2 thoughts on “It’s a Race Thing, In Three Parts

  1. Hi Erin, I found your blog when you posted in a Facebook thread yesterday. I really appreciate your reflections in this blog and wholeheartedly agree. Distance, in whatever form, keeps us close minded. To get to know someone, to engage in difficult conversations or to experience new things, helps us grow. I can’t tell you how many people I know who started out completely against homosexuality until someone they knew came out. It was then they realized that gay people were not horrible people as they had once believed. Here’s to continued learning and growth.

    I have been thinking too about the language we use around many of the current issues…specifically ‘racism’. This word is completely misleading and doesn’t make any sense. To be racist is to be against yourself. There is only one race; the human race. What ‘we’ are against (afraid of) is the color of someone’s skin, their religion or their way of life. Thoughts?


    • Erin Grayson

      Hi Melissa. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You made a really excellent point that I felt I needed to address in the follow-up post. I hope you’ll take a moment to share your thoughts and to keep the conversation going. I really appreciate your insight!

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