I had the privilege of being a witness to something courageous a while ago - a significant event in our collective racial healing. I was on a conference call with my husband Gene, who is White, and our partner Tod, who is Black. Gene and I have been working on trust and vulnerability for nearly 42 years so far, and I cannot say we’ve got it all figured out. We’ve been working with Tod for nearly three years, and while our partnership isn’t as challenging as a marriage, the race factor requires us to be especially vigilant and sensitive.
I think we’d been consulting for nearly an hour and we had begun to stray from our agenda to more personal issues. I am by far the most verbal member of our team but on this day the two men were resonating particularly with each other. Gene was sharing a challenging situation in which he'd felt insecure, making himself quite vulnerable and letting his words flow uninhibited; he was far more interested in emotional content than precise vocabulary. The situation he was processing had something to do with a racial incident and the more passionately Gene expressed his struggle, the less he monitored his choice of words.
Because I wasn’t participating in the conversation, I paid attention to things I normally might have missed and so I noticed a shift. Tod’s “uh huh” took on a different energy. I heard hurt in his voice and I was pretty sure what had happened. In Gene’s urgent need to get his feelings out, he had spoken words that could easily be misunderstood by someone who wasn’t used to his communication style.
As I was trying to decide whether I should point this out, Gene finished speaking. Then after a brief silence Tod said, "I need to clarify something. I heard you say . . . and I felt pain in my heart. Do I have an accurate understanding of what you were trying to express?"
Gene quickly explained his meaning – actually he intended the exact opposite of what Tod had heard – and affirmed his love and respect. Tod thanked him for the clarification and conveyed his relief and commitment to their relationship. Then we moved on to our next agenda point.
To me this is heroic. It's true that love isn’t enough. Love is the starting point, the force of attraction. Love is feeling the pull and moving toward someone. But what happens then? What do we do when we're side by side and misunderstandings occur? Our emotional responses can sometimes lead us astray, especially when race is a factor. The profound courage required to become that vulnerable, the willingness to trust, to forgive, to take risks for the sake of unity - these are spiritual attributes that gave these two men great power. I felt I had observed a brief interaction that had huge repercussions - not only for them, but also for the whole of us. The human organism experienced some healing. I feel privileged to have been a witness.