A Black man will never know what it’s like to be in an all-White room — because it will no longer be all White. Conversely, a White man will never know what it’s like to be in an all-Black room. In both cases, even in the most transparent and “honest” conversation, truly uncensored discourse is all but impossible.
Or so I thought — until a recent conversation defied what I thought was an absolute truth.
For perhaps the first time, race is on the mind of every American. (It has always been there for Black Americans, of course. We might not think about our skin when we wake, but we are reminded of it every day.)
Recently, I spoke with two White friends over Zoom. I’ll call them Ken and Karen. Ken is a media executive who lives in an expensive zip code in Los Angeles; Karen, a finance executive that lives in Toronto. While the conversation began as a general catch-up and to do some brainstorming on a collaborative project, it ended up touching on the same topics so many of my conversations do these days: President Trump and his reelection chances; Black Lives Matter; and Joseph Biden and who his VP pick should be. This one, though, felt different. Both Karen and Ken were informed. They were empathetic to the Black experience. Comfortable in their Whiteness, with my Blackness.
It was raw. It was difficult. But it was also beautiful and liberating. And since then, I’ve gone over it countless times, the exchanges taking on new notes like aging wine. It was an awakening for all of us. For perhaps the first time, race is on the mind of every American. (It has always been there for Black Americans, of course. We might not think about our skin when we wake, but we are reminded of it every day.)
Before I begin to give the context of our conversation, a warning: If you are uncomfortable with identity politics, please stop reading now. If you don’t realize that our democracy is built on policy through the lens of identity politics, please stop reading now. If you are uneasy about strong language about race — language rooted in sociological concepts — please stop reading. This is for mature audiences only.
As we spoke, and as the conversation shifted, I was struck by how Karen’s voice was measured throughout the call. She understood how to make space for Black voices, while not remaining silent and thus complicit. She avoided driving the conversation and suggesting solutions that would center her — instead exhibiting strategic thinking beyond a convenient “Diversity and Inclusion” event.
But it was when we got to the topic of electability that I realized that I had entered the all-White room. Ken felt strongly that the America that supported Trump — MAGA Republicans, and the more conventional Republicans who lived next door to him — would never vote out his xenophobic, “White Power”-tweeting presidency. “I have no confidence in White America when it comes to the ballot box,” I told him. White Americans have shown time and time again that they will vote against the moral fabric of a fair and just America if it means preserving the status quo of their comfort, their schools, their judicial system.
Despite what the multigenerational, multiracial protests promised, I could never be sure how Karen and Ken would act when finally standing alone in the voting booth. The dilemma of “fair and just,” I told them, wasn’t something I could even conceive of them wrestling with.
Ken stopped me. “You’re wrong, Mike,” he said. “White protectionism is no longer about socioeconomics — it’s protectionism in the literal sense. We are scared. We don’t want the protest coming down our street. We don’t want it arriving on our doorstep. We will vote against Trump not because a vote for Biden means a support for the ‘Black Agenda,’ but because it will make the protest not arrive in our personal space.”
Karen and I responded at the same time with a single word.
Hers was “exactly.”
Mine… wasn’t. (Specifically, it was “Shit!”)
And in that moment, we hit an inflection point; from there, the conversation flowed naturally, candidly. On race relations. Race dynamics. What allyship really means. By the time we jumped off the conversation, what had started as a work call had ended as a friendship-defining moment. I was excited about the breakthrough. Vulnerability and honesty had strengthened our relationship.
My excitement turned to exuberance when I turned to Twitter and saw a different Ken and Karen on their front patio of their expensive St. Louis home, pointing an assault rifle and pistol at peaceful protestors who were chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Don’t get me wrong — my exuberance wasn’t because of their disgusting behavior. It was from seeing my earlier conversation go from theory to practice, seeing White protectionism and fear come to life in the physical realm.
In “White Protectionism,” a paper published in the American Political Science Association journal Perspective on Politics, political science scholars Rogers M. Smith and Desmond King suggest that Trump’s campaign “narrated American identity as a tale of lost greatness in which a once-unblemished America gave way to globalist elites who have victimized many Americans, particularly traditionalist, predominantly white Christian Americans. […] although Trump does not explicitly endorse white nationalism, his rhetoric and policies articulate not a consistent race-blind nationalism, but a vision of white protectionism.”
White people aren’t necessarily racist because they hate Blackness; they support racist structures because they fear to lose the advantages they’ve come to see as their rights. That can express itself in the macro sense, as with the MAGA movement, and it can express itself in the micro sense, as with Ken — both my Ken and the St. Louis Ken — questioning their personal safety. What that vulnerability is based on is another question entirely. For St. Louis Ken, it appears to be racial assumptions and class anxiety; with L.A. Ken, strange as it sounds, he just wants the unrest to stop. Like a child wanting a bad dream to end. And voting for Biden is how he’s trying to end it.
I don’t know what this means. I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know I want to use it to keep advancing the conversation. We all have Kens and Karens in our lives — not the ones with guns on their front lawns — and we need them to be willing to push conversations, and themselves, past the point of discomfort. We need them to be as honest as they are in all-White rooms. That’s the only way we’re going to get anywhere together.