Cross-racial socializing builds new friendships in the Heights

When was the last time you had someone in your home that did not look like you? That is the challenging question that forms the foundation of the book Racing Across the Lines:  Changing Race Relations Through Friendship by Dr. Deborah L. Plummer. 

As the president and CEO of the YWCA of Greater Cleveland, whose mission it is to eliminate racism and empower women, I was embarrassed to admit my difficulty in answering that question. I work in a very diverse professional world but I socialize and worship in same-race communities. This book challenged me to consider the patterns of my social interactions.

As part of the YWCA commitment to re-engage in our mission work of racial justice, I decided to explore this notion of cross-racial socializing.  I gathered a group of 18 women - Asian–Chinese, Indian, Korean; Latino–Mexican, Puerto Rican, Guatemalan; African American and Caucasian - for a series of five dialogue and dinner parties in my home. 

The women who were invited were intentionally similar in socio-economic and professional status, age and education. Geographically, they live in Cleveland Heights, University Heights, suburbs further east as well as from several west side communities. The primary point of difference, however, was race or ethnicity. The objectives of these gatherings were to raise awareness about other racial/ethnic backgrounds, increase the social network of the participants and, for those interested, to replicate this dialogue model. 

We were very fortunate to have Dr Plummer, a Cleveland Heights resident, to facilitate the dialogues.  We began with “cultural introductions,” an exercise in which we introduced ourselves with several specific criteria and explored our differences and similarities. 

In preparation for the next session, we completed an "adaptability assessment" which raised awareness about our individual reactions and responses to differences.  An "action plan" was included with strategies to enhance our adaptability. 

This session was shortly after the presidential election and we considered what the campaign and election meant to each of us. In the next session we examined our patterns of friendship as young children, adolescents and adults. With another tool we identified the dominant race and ethnicity of our current circle of friends and considered whether we wanted to choose to be more inclusive in developing new friendships. 

In our next session we will consider how our choices of social and leisure-time activities affects our cross-racial socializing.  And finally, we will decide where we go from here individually and collectively. 

When I decided several years ago to move into University Heights and then Cleveland Heights, I was particularly drawn to its racial and ethnic diversity. And yet as a resident I have done very little to expand the diversity of my social network. This project has raised my awareness about the value of friends who look different and it has enabled me to begin building new friendships.  

These dialogues have been rich and stimulating; they have been enlightening and have challenged some of our assumptions. As this nation collectively ushers in a commitment to change, each of us in our communities has an opportunity to be an intentional participant in that change.

Barbara Danforth has resided in the Heights for over a decade. She is president and CEO of the YWCA of Greater Cleveland, whose mission is to eliminate racism and empower women.

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Volume 2, Issue 3, Posted 5:17 PM, 02.02.2009