A California story: My racial journey

By Mardell Moffett
Associate Executive Director
The Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation

I was honored and grateful to have the opportunity to attend the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Summit in December with my WRAG colleagues. When asked if I would be willing to write a few words about the experience, I hesitated. And then I said yes. Then I wished I had said no. But then I said yes. I hoped to return from the Summit with language to talk about race. Although more than six weeks have passed, I am still processing the experience. I continue to reflect on it daily and I do not expect that to change.

I am still processing. Reflections are triggered by place, time, various meetings, a news story, or an overheard conversation. After spending even a few days immersed in the racial healing work at the Summit, I like to think that I hear things differently and that I am more aware, even if it’s just slightly. I continue to search for, and stumble over, my words with fears of sounding politically incorrect, privileged, or racist. Again, I am left searching for the words to use, and I tread cautiously. Will my words offend? Will this make me sound naive and clueless? I tread cautiously and wonder if that is part of the problem.

At the Summit, I was asked to tell my personal race story — to tell about the first time I encountered racism. I did not have a lot to share and felt relief that my partner told her story first so there would be less time for mine. Sadly, she had too many stories to choose from, beginning from a very young age. These new confidants shared amazing, moving and unnerving stories, describing very different experiences from mine. I heard the recounting of injustices, and I heard stories of fear and anger and frustration. There were many emotions and tears shared. What could I possibly add to this profound moment?

I reluctantly told my story of growing up in a community lacking diversity of almost any kind. The differences between neighbors and classmates in my small Midwestern town were based on which northern European country one’s ancestors hailed from, if a last name was spelled with an “e” or and “o”, lefse or latke, or which branch of Christianity one belonged to. A person of color would have been immediately identified as a visitor, and seemingly embraced by everyone out of curiosity. Were visitors invited into homes? I assumed so, but looking back now, I do not know. I really did not see outside, and likely not inside, my comfortable bubble. That would have been uneasy.

I went on to explain that race became more apparent for me when I moved to DC. I recalled taking a cab to visit a dance program at a school in Southeast DC in the mid-1990’s. It was one of my first site visits and the cab driver seemed perplexed about where I asked him to take me. During the visit, a group of young girls asked me if they could touch my hair. It was a moment I embraced. And then I could not get a taxi to pick me up. Two hours later, a member of the staff took pity on me and returned me to my comfortable Northwest quadrant.

What is my race story? My race story starts with being naive and sheltered. Race was not discussed where I grew up — at least not where I could hear it. Perhaps I wasn’t listening because I was idealistic, privileged, and comfortable? My story includes not really seeing and then struggling with being uncomfortable. It is about stumbling and asking for help and guidance to find the language and ways to engage in conversations about race, and likely (hopefully?) making others uncomfortable.

WRAG’s first Racial Equity Working Group Meeting is on February 16th. WRAG members are encouraged to attend: register now.  You can learn more about WRAG’s ongoing work around racism and racial equity at www.puttingracismonthetable.org.

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