Bob Ray Sanders

January 4, 2014

Talking race is tough; how about at dinner?

The revived Dallas diversity program is set for the MLK holiday.

Questions beginning “What if …?” and “Have you ever …?” are good ways to start a discussion on many important, and often very sensitive, issues.

A group in Dallas uses one of those phrases in introducing the revival of a very successful program begun in 2002. It engages people of diverse backgrounds to talk about perhaps the most dreaded subject in America: race.

No doubt you’ve heard some of these questions before:

• Have you ever crossed over to the other side of the street when seeing a young black man walking in your direction?
• When you see a middle-aged or older white male with a camouflage cap, do you make assumptions about his views on race?
• Have you ever cringed when a person of color entered the elevator and you were the other passenger?
• When’s the last time you saw a Hispanic person and wondered if they were in the country legally?

Note the emphasis in each question is on “you.”

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings last fall initiated a series of public discussions called “Conversations about Race.”

I participated in the initial one, in which the mayor gave the first official city apology for the death of Santos Rodriguez, a 12-year-old boy who was shot to death 40 years ago by a Dallas policeman as he sat handcuffed in a police patrol car.

That series of conversations will continue this year and will culminate in November when Dallas hosts a national conference on race relations.

But before Rawlings became mayor, the Leadership Dallas Alumni Association (LDAA) had begun discussions all over the city, but not in public auditoriums and arenas attended by hundreds or thousands of people.

No, the plan was to have intimate, but structured, conservations among eight to 10 people around the dinner table — in homes, faith-based institutions, corporate board rooms or private dining rooms of a restaurant — on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

More than 5,000 people participated in these dinners between 2002 and 2009, the last time the Dallas Dinner Table was held, falling victim to its own success.

That last year 1,600 people participated in the event that was organized by a small group of volunteers who were “literally on our knees, putting together the list by hand,” said board member Patrick Harrison of Southwest Airlines.

They plan to limit the number to about 50 simultaneous dinners this year, Harrison said, which means about 500 participants. He noted that with the use of technology, this year’s event will be much more manageable.

About 135 participants have already signed up, and all the facilitators have been selected and are in training, he said. And he points out that while it’s called the Dallas Dinner Table, they’d like participants from all over North Texas, noting that dinners have been held before in Fort Worth, Arlington and Flower Mound.

This year’s dinners will take place from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Jan. 20, and the last day to register as a host or participant is Jan. 10.

Organizers note that the diversity series facilities “communication and interaction among individuals representing the entire spectrum” of area residents, providing “an opportunity for candid, respectful conversations that foster a better understanding of the diverse cultures” in our community.

Participants are assigned in advance to a table. The evening includes an icebreaker, dinner and discussions centered on questions participants select from a card deck to which they provide a response, the DDT’s website states. The questions focus on personal experience, values, beliefs, fears, needs and goals.

There is no fee. The only things participants are asked to bring are an “open mind and willingness to share personal experiences.”

Sounds like a good way to spend a King holiday evening, and a great way to begin that talk about the issue so many find difficult to discuss.

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