Starting a Conversation on Racism, one Book Club at a Time

Back to Winter 2023: Volume 111, Number 4

By David Cline

“Well, that is a racist belief,” I said to my good friend as we discussed my idea for our next book club topic.

And so ended this conversation rather abruptly. My friend, stopped in his tracks by my blunt assessment, cut off the friendly dialogue and went to replenish his plate of appetizers.

I was a bit taken aback at first. I really had intended to gently challenge my friend, to engage in a deeper conversation about race in America and especially, as both of us were white males, to ask what our role is in discussing and championing anti-racist actions.

Instead, I cut off the possibility of dialogue, allowing my friend to take his own path along this journey. As a local government professional who works to bring elected officials and community together to find common ground, especially on difficult issues like race and equity, I realized I had not done my best work with my own friend on these same topics.

I wondered how I could bring my professional background to better influence my personal relationships and help bring more discussion into this world. As a white male, I did have privileges and access to groups who would be more willing to engage on these topics if I were better prepared.

And, so, this is my own journey of how I worked to create a safe place for white males, and males from the dominant culture, to discuss their beliefs and attitudes to help myself learn and maybe, just maybe help others also start their own journey.

It all starts with the “Lazy Boy’s Book Club,” a book club that is so lazy, you don’t even have to read the book. The idea is that only one person reads a book, provides a book report, and then the rest of us get to opine for the next two hours on the book, even though we haven’t read it. I find it a low barrier to entry into interesting topics that are chosen by the host for the evening. Most of the members are techies from the Seattle area. We’ve discussed topics such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, and, thanks to a few retired doctors in the group, the history of medicine. Besides being male and retired, most are white or from the dominant culture.

I am the lone government official of the group and often add to the conversation with my own personal and sometimes professional interests, such as history, sociology and most recently, racism in America.

By way of background, I am in my eleventh year as city administrator for the City of Tukwila, a full-service city just south of Seattle with 325 employees serving 21,000 residents and more than 48,000 jobs in nine square miles of multi-family and single-family homes, a large retail shopping district, and a vibrant industrial center.

As one of the most diverse cities in the country (Asian – 26 percent, Black/African American – 20 percent, Hispanic/Latino – 18 percent) Tukwila has a long history of supporting conversations and policies on race equity, for example, starting an Equity and Social Justice Commission in 1998 (formerly known as the Equity and Diversity Commission), and being known and acting on being an inclusive community. Tukwila welcomes immigrants and refugees from around the world. I am proud of the equity and diversity work we have done, especially removing barriers to employment.

For my “Lazy Boys” book I knew I was going to choose Stamped from the Beginning: The History of Racism in America by Ibram Kendi. It is a book I keep coming back to since it continues to enlighten and challenge me. Each time I ask again, “why do I think the way I do?” and “what has led me to hold certain beliefs, attitudes, behaviors?”  It also has given me insight to look deeper into land-use, home ownership, and wealth generation in America.

When I had first floated this idea a year or two ago, a member of the “Lazy Boys” mentioned that it maybe wasn’t the best idea, so I substituted Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman, which is also a great read.  This past summer, I took another crack at it. The conversation went like this:

David’s Friend: “You get to choose the next book. What are you thinking about?”

David: “I’m thinking about choosing a book on race.”

David’s Friend: “Hmm, that is interesting, are you sure?”

David: “Yes, I want to talk about how race is a social construct, that there are no true physical differences by race. Did you know that race was actually created by Europeans, mainly to justify their exploitation of others, especially slavery?”

David’s Friend, as he takes a few steps back: “Well, that is nice, but you know there are studies that show there really are natural differences by race, I mean that is why there are so many black professional athletes.”

David: “Well, that is a racist belief”

David’s Friend: Silence as he walks aways to get another glass of wine.

I had been prepared to go into full attack mode. I had planned to fight back on these racist ideas and show my friend my bountiful knowledge on this topic, and instead … the conversation stopped.

My friend felt backed into the corner and the conversation moved onto simpler topics.

I relayed this conversation to a former National Civic League staff member, Candice Williams, as we were in Dayton, Ohio.  We had just finished an engaging meeting organized by the Kettering Foundation, the National Civic League, and the International City Management Association. I was part of a year-long learning opportunity with a national cohort of government city managers and administrators to share our journey around equity and anti-racist practices in our own organizations.

Candice graciously listened to my story and offered some sage advice.

First, she said she wished she could have been there to help engage in the conversation. “I love this type of dialogue.”

Instead of going into full rebuttal mode, she would have asked more questions. For instance: Why do you think that there is an overrepresentation of certain races in specific careers? Can you think of other careers that that is the case? Why do you think that has happened over time? She would have begun with curiosity and questions.

She then suggested that maybe I should take a step back, still take on the hard topic of race and anti-racism, but in a way that would facilitate a different, more inclusive process. I needed to check my own ego at the door, and come at this topic more humbly, more gracefully, and maybe I could keep a conversation going rather than have it stopped. I had some work to do.

I thought about the theory of change model in which people need to move through six stages: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination. What stage were my book club members at and how could I encourage all of us to take another step?

I thought about the advice given by our speech therapist for our 2-year-old son. We needed to slow down our speaking, match where he is at and move just a bit further. If he was only saying one-word sentences, my wife and I should model two-word sentences, instead of staying, “Hurry, up, let’s get in the car to go to gramma’s,” slow down and just say, “Go Car.” We took her advice and modeled this language for several months. And it worked.

Finally, in re-reading Stamped from the Beginning, I came upon another model presented by Andrew M. Ibrahim on antiracism that shows people move through the Fear Zone and Growth Zone to the Learning Zone. What zone was my lazy group in and how could I encourage members to move to the next zone?

I reflected on the equity and anti-racism work I do daily. I am constantly learning more and finding out all the things I don’t know that I should know. I then started to think back on how I started my journey. Who provided the impetus for me to start? What could I do to start this in my personal relationship with friends who may not even know there is a journey?

I recognized that I was in a mostly homogenous group of other mostly older, white (or dominant culture) male, group, and we all shared a desire to learn. I took Candice up on her challenge and advice and I wondered if I could I help coax people out of their corners, and have white males talk about race.

So, I set about working on the homework Candice gave me. I came up with three main ideas:

  • Don’t lecture, don’t judge – no one likes a know it all, we all are learning.
  • Bring yourself and your own stories to the table – this was a group of friends who cared about each other and wanted to support each other.
  • Challenge everyone to take at least one step forward – don’t back away from the tough conversations.

As people settled in my backyard patio on a clear cool Pacific Northwest evening, I could see that some had the Stamped book under their arm, some had printed out the summary I sent prior to the evening, and then others, as is expected and even encouraged, came without reading any of it, just wanting to be part of the dialogue.

After the normal mingling and a few business items of who had the next book meeting, we began.

Instead of the book, I started with my own personal reflections on growing up white in America.  As one of ten children, in a strong caring family connected to the church and local community, I felt I had a normal American upbringing. I was active in service clubs and took on leadership roles. It wasn’t until I went to a much more diverse and challenging environment at Stanford in Palo Alto, California, that I had more experience and knowledge that I could better reflect on those earlier years.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized I had grown up in one of those planned suburbs outside Seattle that had been redlined to insure a mostly white enclave and that my parents were able to buy their “starter home” on my dad’s teacher salary due to both of their GI Bill benefits, benefits that were often denied to other veterans if they were African American or a minority.

I also recalled that the issue of race and racism was always present and on my parents’ minds as well.  I recalled stories from my dad, who grew up nearby in Tacoma, Washington, talking about the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II and the disgrace he felt as an eleven-year-old seeing his friends and neighbors forcibly removed from his community. I talked about my mom growing up in segregated Kentucky and how she went against her dad’s wishes to play trumpet at an all-Black Catholic high school graduation.

As I reflected on my own growing up and the lack of diverse friends, experiences and knowledge, I remembered that I went through the gamut of emotions, I was ashamed, angry, confused, full of self-righteousness, and then just back to being humble in this space, recognizing that I will never know enough, do enough, or change enough to impact these past racist systems, but that since I know better, I can do better.

As I told my story, others started to tell their own stories as well.

People came out of their corners and the conversation started. Each of the “Lazy Boy” participants started to talk about their own varied lives. Some had similar stories, growing up white in a mostly white neighborhood and then off to prestigious careers. Some had really struggled and finally made it. A few grew up in diverse communities or attended diverse high schools and felt that they were not as personally impacted by race.

Others had more international experiences, for instance, growing up white in South Africa during apartheid. Another grew up in Chile in the dominant culture. All started to reflect on their own stories of awakening to the discrimination that exists in these places. The questions started to come together, “Is this a uniquely American phenomenon?” “Discrimination has always existed throughout history.”  India came up as an example and the book Caste: The Origins of our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson was put on the list of future books.

I discussed the impact that racism has had within the Seattle region and redlining of neighborhoods. The ongoing impact of racism in the Northwest towards Native Americans and other groups.

As the table was set, a few talked about where they were in their own journeys, “I don’t see race.” “There has always been discrimination and racism is just another form,” “I don’t think I would feel comfortable if my mayor was of a certain religion,”  “The more we talk about race, the more it is an issue,” “I’m glad we are finally addressing the elephant in the room of racism and how we whites benefit from it,” “You know, know there are studies that show there really are natural differences by race, I mean that is why there are so many Black professional athletes.”

This time, I took Candice’s advice to heart. Instead of lecturing, I asked questions. “Why are you concerned about different religions? Why do you think you have come to believe that? What do you think has caused these differences we see– in health, housing, and wealth? What if we did stop talking about race, do you think that would make it better? Why is talking about racism important? Do you see other differences by race or gender in certain careers, like in your fields of technology and medicine? Why do you think that has happened in these areas?

I then started to bring Stamped into the conversation. In my reading of it, Kendi shows us how racist ideas are planted deep in American society, from religious leaders of the colonial era such as Cotton Mather, who preached that you could turn white if you just accepted his religious beliefs, to the inconsistencies of our early slaveholding founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson.  How these ideas have changed through the eyes of the white abolitionist William Garrison, to the writings of black scholar W.E.B. DuBois and then finally the actions of the scholar and Black Power activist Angela Davis.

Some of these people I had not really known about before reading this book and offered to my “Lazy Boy” book friends that this was a mutual learning journey. I also focused on a key point in Kendi’s book, that racism is not a fixed idea or trait set into a person’s personality. It is a belief system that is shown through beliefs and actions. I shared his definitions:

  • RACIST: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.
  • ANTIRACIST: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.

One can be racist and anti-racist at the same time, sometimes in the same paragraph. Since it is not a fixed trait, one can learn to become more anti-racist over time. That is a goal we can agree on.

I challenged my fellow friends and book club members to see if they were assimilationists or truly anti-racist in their beliefs and actions. There was some agreement and acknowledgement that we all had a part in being anti-racist and looking for ways to eliminate barriers that continue racist actions. There were ideas shared about how we could continue the conversation, what is the next book we should take on. The first steps on the journey had been taken and this time I had not closed the door to other’s personal discoveries.

As the sun set in my backyard and we all sat a little closer to the fire pit, I reflected on the challenge that Candice had given me to keep the conversation alive—that it is important for us to take our professional experiences into our personal lives and relationships to truly impact the change we want in our society.

This evening was a small step in that direction. The “Lazy Boys” had felt safe enough to open up. They knew it was a safe place to share their thoughts, to learn a bit, and to be challenged as well. I knew that I had been able, this time, to keep the conversation going and start to build an anti-racist society together.

David Cline is city administrator for the City of Tukwila, Washington and a graduate of the Leadership Institute on Race, Equity and Inclusion sponsored by ICMA, the Kettering Foundation and the National Civic League.

More from the issue

The mission of the National Civic League is to advance civic engagement to create equitable, thriving communities.

View All

Thank You to Our Key Partners