On March 13, 2020, Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by police in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky. Days later, my workplace, the University of Louisville, transitioned to remote operation in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Calls for justice in the case of Breonna Taylor became increasingly urgent, with nightly protests not far from campus, which, by late spring, was largely deserted as we dispersed to shelter in place.
The COVID-19 pandemic prevented normal modes of connection, and the resulting social detachment seemed to intensify the looming cloud of volatility. Taylor’s death was fresh grief—yet another layer of unhealed heartbreak following an officer-involved killing of an African American woman. Like the virus, the racial tension in our city was a burgeoning threat, the course of which we could neither predict nor control.
The racial and political volatility of 2020 and the killing of Breonna Taylor became the impetus for me to start “Safe Saturday” conversations about race.
Four years prior, I was living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when another officer-involved killing of an unarmed Black man there became national news. When Officer Betty Shelby killed Terence Crutcher in 2016, responses were extremely polarized along racial lines. I noted similarly polarized responses to Breonna Taylor’s death. As African American people and their friends and allies mourned, wrestling with rage and hopelessness, too many white Americans displayed no grief, responding instead with dismissiveness, fear or confusion.
Troubled by the protests, isolated by COVID-19 and unsure of which narrative to embrace, many white people—even those with the best intentions—seemed to have little or no context for understanding the source of Black anger. As various white people in my social and professional circles struggled to understand Louisville’s racial tensions, I sent an email to my students, faculty and staff addressing the situation. My message referenced my own unresolved grief from Terence Crutcher’s murder. I spoke to the ignorance that fueled these acts of hatred and violence.
I received overwhelming feedback, including dozens of responses from white people both within and beyond my school, many admitting that they didn’t understand, that they wanted to understand but that they didn’t know where to begin. Following the circulation of my message, I gave a talk on race relations at the university president’s invitation. Afterward, a white man my father’s age approached me and whispered, “I am ashamed of how little I know.”
The Most Impactive Learning Is Interactive
At my core, I am a teacher. Over the past 30 years, my students have come from diverse backgrounds and have ranged in age from elementary to college, graduate school and beyond. So my decision to reach out to the white people in my life—to teach those whose educational backgrounds were essentially devoid of encounters with honest American history—was a natural extension of what I’ve always done.
Some Black people, however, were appalled. In another talk that I gave on race relations, a Black man accused me of taking on yet another burden that white folks themselves should bear. “White people are ignorant because they want to be!” he declared. “If they cared about us, they would take responsibility and learn on their own!”
I responded to his criticism by asking, “Why would I not tell my own story?”
And I explained further that there is a level of learning that must transcend what can be gleaned from self-directed research. If white people must be self-taught about racism, they can too easily opt out of engagement beyond the text. The deepest, most impactful learning is interactive, and for white people to really understand what Black people often experience, they must be in the same space with Black people—engaging in difficult conversations, listening, asking, learning, and, perhaps most importantly, feeling. Feeling is where empathy begins.
Saturday mornings were the only available time I had to teach the white people in my life the honest history they were seeking. In preparation for the first meeting in June 2020, I finalized my succinct PowerPoint explaining the meeting’s purpose and ground rules: All are welcome, regardless of identity or background; all curiosity about race is valued, any question is fair game; this will get awkward and uncomfortable sometimes, and that’s OK; there is no shaming, no condemnation, no finger-pointing. This is a safe place.
When I logged in to Zoom, people were in my virtual waiting room, and my stomach was full of butterflies. I admitted them one by one and thanked each for joining. Soon there were over 30 faces on my screen awaiting the start of what over the next year would become the first of 27 virtual “Safe Saturday” conversations about race.
Participants ranged in age from 20-something college students to retirees well into their golden years. They hailed from Kentucky, Oklahoma and Michigan. While predominantly white, participants also included Black colleagues, Black high school teachers and administrators, students, friends, and friends of friends who were eager for a conversation that promised safety to ask, to vent, to explain.
I had no idea what to expect that first meeting. Over time, however, we developed a rapport and routine for our Saturday morning conversations. I began each meeting with images from both history and current events, paired with a list of facts. I invited reactions to the images and facts, all of which were loosely connected to an overarching theme. For example, the general theme of one conversation was education.
One of the facts listed was this: Enslaved Black people commonly suffered amputation, being sold away from family and loved ones, or other horrendous punishments for learning to read. An image related to the theme was that of Marva Collins, the creator of Chicago’s famed Westside Preparatory School. The images and facts I presented each Saturday were intentionally fluid and wide-ranging, allowing participants to synthesize on their own, inviting many entry points for questions, dialogue and reflection.
Among the most consistent “Safe Saturday” attendees were several high school teachers, both Black and white, from private- and public-school settings. One white teacher at a school in an underserved part of her city wrestled with feelings of inadequacy and urgency. She found her lessons leading to unscripted moments that laid bare the emotional suffering of her Black and Brown students.
She joined “Safe Saturday” conversations because she understood her unique position as both the white authority figure and the racial minority in her classroom. She wanted to confront her own knowledge gaps and sharpen her empathy with her students. She wanted to be the kind of white teacher whom Black students could trust. And she was willing to do the work required to earn that trust.
I started “Safe Saturday” conversations on a hunch, without any research into the feasibility of such an enterprise. Even so, the white people on my campus and in my community continued to approach me with curiosity and honest questions about race. As a teacher, I knew they needed more than sound bites, slogans or perfunctory responses.
They needed answers with context and structure—actual lessons that were completely missing from white-centered educational experiences, lessons that never happen in the space of the evening news. I knew I could provide the information in a well-structured, deeply contextualized way, so I moved on faith and created a “classroom” tailored to this purpose.
White Ignorance Is Dangerous and Information Is Power
In addition to my love for teaching, I recognize that white ignorance is dangerous, literally perpetuating the mindsets where structures of oppression and inequality are bred. According to a 2019 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center on the state of U.S. race relations, 43% of white people between the ages of 50 and 64 responded that our country “has been about right” in giving equal rights to Black people, and 27% of white people in that same age group responded that our nation has “gone too far” in giving equal rights to Black citizens.
If these results accurately reflect the nation’s broader attitudinal climate, then as many as 70% of 50- to 64-year-old white Americans (a highly influential demographic) may believe that Black Americans enjoy equal (or better-than-equal) rights, despite the fact that Black Americans are 3.23 times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police, according to a recent study by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Over time, “Safe Saturday” participants became increasingly at ease about sharing reactions and exposing vulnerabilities. The initial awkwardness dissipated, and both Black and white participants shared deeply personal experiences, always eliciting empathy and support from the group. African American participants provided additional context, “team-teaching” alongside me, and white participants felt safe to expose their knowledge gaps. Questions were asked and answered. Friendships formed.
Those “Safe Saturday” conversations inspired me to finish my book You’re Likely Not a Racist: Answers for Curious White People in 2021. I started the book during the first Obama administration, while in Tulsa. Well before the murder of Terence Crutcher, Tulsa was infamous for its own deep and enduring legacy of racial malaise. Its devastating 1921 Race Massacre remains, to this day, a stain on Tulsa’s history. Barack Obama’s election in 2008 intensified that city’s racial divide, transforming more muted racism into blatant and unnerving acts of ignorance and hatred, drawing my attention to the severe knowledge gaps from which too many white people suffered. Since the book’s publication, I’ve facilitated safe spaces for white people to ask and learn about race in a variety of settings around the country.
Sadly, the January 2023 killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Black police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, underscores the continued need for safe spaces where people from all walks of life can have difficult, probing and honest conversations about the devaluation and disposability of Black life. Anyone with a willing heart, a belief in the power of information, and the time and opportunity to connect can create such a space.