Shaka Senghor went to a bar in Cambridge, Mass. to celebrate with friends after completing his first TED talk. The close friends were drinking beers and rapping along to the music. When the n-word came through the speakers, his friends froze, not sure of what to do—keep singing or censor themselves?
He thought to himself that this was a moment when he could ignore the uncomfortable pause or talk about it. After all, there are many other derogatory words in rap songs, but this had made his friends stop.
"We owe it to ourselves to have an honest dialogue with those that we care about," he said.
Senghor, a national outreach representative for BMe Community, recalled this moment of epiphany on Thursday at the "Race: Let's Talk About It" panel during the Ashoka Future Forum, where Fusion was a media partner.
"I never thought about white privilege being a burden," he told Fusion.
Senghor, who spent 19 years in prison, said that when he got out he was ready and willing to begin a productive, financially successful life for himself and his family, but was faced with unexpected roadblocks along the way.
"I never imagined the level of discrimination that comes with that," he said.
He said he believes that the onus has been placed on minorities to fix problems of racial inequality, when in his view, responsibility should fall society as a whole.
"When it comes to race in America we are completely dishonest," he said.
Alexandra Bernadotte, founder and CEO of Beyond 12, a nonprofit that uses technology to help students complete college, was thrust into the center of the debate after she posted a "rant" on Facebook, expressing frustration at her friends and colleagues. She was shocked that they had remained silent as stories of unarmed black men killed by police officers continued to make headlines.
Bernadotte, who also participated in the panel, said she was most surprised, because these were people that were "normally vocal."
"Americans don’t know how to talk about race,” she said.
As an education professional, Bernadotte sees the impact that race can have on the national school system. She worried that young people today have been "sold a bill of goods" by being told that they "are living in a colorblind society," causing them to be confused and surprised at the racial tension that still exists today.
She praised citizen journalism and social media for allowing the conversation on race to surface in the mainstream media and in day-to-day interactions. She was particularly impressed by the impact of the Twitter hashtag #crimingwhilewhite, which spread as people posted stories of what they perceived to be lenience by the police because of their race.
She said that there needs to be an emphasis on how to talk about the issues of race on its own, without lumping it into other conversations about inequities, like gender and the economy.
“The most dangerous conversation about race is the one we don’t have,” she said.
Trabian Shorters, founder and CEO of BMe Community, a network of black men who are trying to make a difference in their communities, said that to change perceptions of black men and women in the United States, people need to "start from a place of positivity."
He pointed out that black males are often the face of societal challenges, but not recognized for their accomplishments.
"For America to do well when there is no racial majority, we've got to have everyone engage and value all people equally," he said.
He said he isn't trying to whitewash the negative aspects of the black community, but wants people to stop denigrating at the outset. For example, he said that he introduces his co-panelist and co-worker, Senghor as an author and an innovator, not a felon.
"To define people by their worst characteristic is a mistake," he said.
Geneva Sands is a Washington, D.C.-based producer/editor focused on national affairs and politics. Egg creams, Raleigh and pie are three of her favorite things.