‘Come Meet A Black Person’ networking event strikes a nerve

"My thinking is that someone has to bring folks together -- why not me?"

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

Cheryle Moses said the idea struck her like a lightning bolt, a sudden and random thought that flashed into her mind and sent her rushing to a computer to dash out a message to friends and strangers alike, inviting them to attend her “Come Meet A Black Person” event.

Moses, the founder of Urban MediaMakers, an Atlanta-area group of independent black filmmakers and internet content creators, routinely hosts networking activities to promote her group’s annual film festival and workshops. Typically, they get about 50 people to attend, eat home cooking, and discuss current events at their offices in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

But this year, thanks to her racially provocative theme and promotions on her online magazine BlackGwinnett, the invitation went viral, granting Moses more than her Warholian 15 minutes of fame and left her crying for joy over the outpouring of support (while shrugging at the criticism) for her event. With less than 24 hours before the Thursday evening networking party, she’s uncertain exactly how many people will attend.

“I’m still saying ‘Oh my, god,'” Moses said during a phone interview conducted in her car en route to her office. “You can never write fiction that matches reality. This is something that I put absolutely no thought into and it’s turned into something I could never have imagined.”

Moses deserves credit for trying. Given the current state of race relations across the country, a moment in history where nearly seven out of 10 Americans think race relations are poor, she’s making an effort to bridge a widening gulf separating neighbor from neighbor. This is not an easy task, nor one for the faint of heart.

Moses’ effort raises a pair of questions: First, who should take the lead in reaching out to make a connection to heal racial divisions? Is this a black person’s job or should white people consider a “meet a white person” event?

What’s more, black Americans no longer have a ’60’s-era passion for racial integration. Joe R. Feagin and Melvin P. Sikes, in their 1994 book Living With Racism: The Black Middle-Class Experience, interviewed middle-class blacks who recounted their experiences of being a racial pioneer and expressed skepticism that it was worth the effort, clearly expressing integration fatigue.

That, in turn, leads to the second question: Who is likely to participate in these interracial social meetings? Nobody will be forced to attend Moses’ networking party, so clearly the self-selection of the participants suggests that only people of bearing certain (presumably, open-minded) racial attitudes are likely to show up in the first place. But are they the ones who can — should — benefit the most from meeting a person unlike themselves?

The genesis of the event rests with a 2013 report by the Public Religion Research Institute, which found that three out of every four white Americans only have white friends. Moses said she read that study when it first appeared, has reread it more than a dozens times over the years, and decided there’s no better time than now to make an effort to change the direction of race relations in her community.

Dan Cox, director of research at PRRI and a co-author of the report, said in an interview that he was gratified that someone was using his work in a productive way, but was also a bit surprised because the study’s findings aren’t revolutionary.

To be sure, social scientists have long recognized that across segregated America, the absence of interracial contact contributes to racial animosity.

Indeed, social scientist Gordon Allport was one of 32 researchers who signed “the social science statement” — a supportive document included in the NAACP’s arguments to the Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case. Specifically, Allport theorized that four conditions were needed to eliminate racial bias: equal status among groups, common goals, interracial cooperation, and support for authorities.

Cox at PRRI said his research confirms Allport’s work and he doubted Moses’ networking event was sufficient to end racism in her community. “I don’t know that just simply getting people in the same space will have lasting impact,” he said. “If it’s just a one-off, feel-good meeting, I’m not sure how effective it will be.”

But he said it can’t hurt.

“We never designed our study to be used in this particular way, but we operate on open-sourced model,” Cox said. “If people want to do this, that’s a great thing.”

Moses is unfazed by naysayers and promises to continue her efforts, possibly conducting her interracial networking events across the United States.

“As a black woman living in Georgia, I know that racism exists and it’s on white folks to get other white folks comfortable with being around black people,” she said, adding that living in separate communities fosters racial distrust. “But my thinking is that someone has to bring folks together — why not me?”

Moses said almost as soon as she posted the invitation on her Facebook page and on Twitter, typical of any discussion of race in the cyber world, a blizzard of mixed reactions from black and white people followed. Some were curiously supportive and others were aggressively hostile.

Amid calls from bemused reporters at CNN, the Washington Post, CBS News, and others, Moses has fielded a steady stream of calls from strangers who haven’t been shy about sharing their opinions of her project. “I really socked a nerve,” she said.

One caller, a black woman, said the networking event was a horrible idea because it made it seem as if black people were animals in a petting zoo for white people. Another caller, a white woman, called to curse her, saying she was sowing racial divisions.

“I had to tell her that if she’d read it, she would know what and why we’re doing it,” Moses said of the white caller. “By the time I explained it all to her, I could feel her energy releasing and I could feel her smiling.”

As for those who heard her explanation but were still uneasy about her project, Moses could only shrug her shoulders and implore them to come and see. “My thinking is to bring folks here, feed you some of my cornbread and a bowl of my chili and give you one of my big, old bear hugs, then you will be my friend.”

“Maybe that’s not going to change a person’s heart,” she said. “But I’m doing what the universe wants me to do, so I’m moving along.”