During a layover in the Phoenix airport on Friday, I caught the tail end of President Barack Obama’s remarks about the Trayvon Martin case. Struck by Obama’s words, I said to no one in particular, “It’s about time he said something about this.” The man next to me looked in my direction as I walked to get a snack, and I considered for a second going back and asking his impression of the president’s remarks. I kept walking toward the green licorice, but fate had other plans.
Who ended up being in seat 18B next to me? Yep. We smiled as we made eye contact, a mutual recognition that we had an overdue conversation coming and the time to have it.
For a living, I teach and facilitate dialogue. I train others how to — and why to — have challenging conversations that transform relationships and design community change. I have facilitated more than 10,000 hours of dialogue in the past 15 years.
I was feeling confident and curious. We got right into it.
“Well, looks like we are supposed to talk about it,” I said as he laughed. “What did you think of the president’s remarks?”
“I think I thought differently than you did,” John said. (We were a good few minutes into the conversation before we stepped back and introduced ourselves by name.)
I won’t rehash the entire script of our 1.5-hour flight to Salt Lake City. I will, however, admit to how hard and how important the plane ride was. I listened as John postulated on what must have happened between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. My blood was curdling a bit as I wondered how his brain was making conclusions (e.g., Trayvon must have been larger than Zimmerman and started to hit Zimmerman in fear) that were so different than the conclusions my brain was drawing (e.g., there is a lot of information we are missing.)
Rather than debate the misinformation, I posed questions, and John acknowledged there is a lot we don’t know. I also learned that John was talking in part from his perspective as a “tough, male,” father of seven, who would want to defend his own honor if he were in Zimmerman’s or Martin’s position. I tried to address the parenthood angle, asking if he had conversations about this trial with his children, or if there were implications for his white children outside of Salt Lake City, but that part of the conversation didn’t go very far — perhaps because my motive admittedly was less to hear him and more to tell him about the conversation some black families were having. I felt a responsibility to share with him what I was witnessing in communities where he did not interact.
It was a rather turbulent ride in all senses of the word. We hit all the big topics: the Zimmerman trial, gun control, war, family values, religion, faith, the Middle East, Abrahamic faiths, the U.S. Constitution. We ardently disagreed on a lot, and yet we agreed — for the most part — with the Constitution. He read my draft of an op-ed about the Zimmerman verdict and gave helpful feedback on the mix of unconscious bias research I cited with my personal narrative.
He educated me about Latter-day Saints and their traditions, carefully telling me when his views were slightly different than those of the majority of Mormons according to him. I listened curiously and appreciatively.
Then I had to start listening deeply. John started talking about government conspiracy theories. These were new to me, and as he was naming the people involved, I couldn’t help but notice the Jewish-sounding last names. I commented on it, and he acknowledged that most of the people involved with the conspiracies have Jewish last names. Then he shared his views on Israel and Palestine, which I was surprised to agree with for the most part. When he turned to how benevolent Hitler was before WWII, providing matchmaking services so no German woman was left alone, I literally had to remind myself to have compassion for this man. John has read books and attended talks that I have not, and this is where he learned the information he was citing. I had to look at him, listen, and remind myself that he has children. This man is a father. He probably tucks his kids into bed at night and cares for their education and wellbeing.
“John, I should probably come out to you right now as being Jewish,” I said, as both of our cheeks turned red hot. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.”
And I was. At first I hadn’t been covert about it intentionally, and then, I admit, there was a piece of me that was curious what he would say — and what insights I could gain — if he thought there were no Jews in our conversation. So I indulged in this “privilege of passing” for a few minutes. Although the very moment I disclosed my faith was challenging, I felt much more authentic the rest of the conversation. I was also able to learn that, like all of us, John was a product of his experiences: He grew up in Iowa surrounded by mostly white people. His social circle is mostly composed of Mormons. I was one of only a few Jews with whom he had interacted, and he was one of the few Mormons with whom I had interacted. His experience with black males like Trayvon Martin came directly from the media and entertainment industries. I wondered: If I had been raised in Iowa and grown up in Salt Lake City as an LDS, would I think and believe what this man does? If he had grown up with me in Shaker Heights, Ohio, an intentionally racially integrated community, would he believe what I believe?
I don’t know what John thought of me when he first saw me, after we spoke, or now, a few days later. But as we were exiting our aisle, John and I thanked each other for such civil and rich discourse. There was no yelling or fear mongering, yet our conversation would have made for entertaining and informative television. Despite our differences, we respected each other’s identities and acknowledged the validity of our human claims. Sustained Dialogue’s definition of dialogue includes “listening deeply enough to be changed by what you hear.”
After this genuine interaction on an important flight, we exchanged contact information, and I look forward to sustaining the dialogue. After all, we have yet to cover our views on same-sex marriage or discover even more about what we do have in common.
The names and locations have been changed out of respect to those involved.
Amy Lazarus is the Executive Director of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue where she previously served as the inaugural Executive Director of the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network. She was a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs, earned an M.S. in Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz School, and founded Common Ground at Duke University.
Image: Airline seating, Thorsten Nieder / Shutterstock.com