But Can We Work Together, Though? A Black Woman and a White Woman Get Real

Nicole and Suzanne's podcast 'But Can We Work Together, Though?' examines how white and black women can work together on the biggest social justice issues today.

By Nicole Smith

Can white women and Black women do meaningful social justice work together in a way that is authentic to their unique experiences, and breaks down harmful dynamics of power, privilege, and bias? 

Yes. But it takes work. And it can be complicated. Thanks to restorative justice educators Nicole Lavonne Smith and Suzanne Hitchman and their new podcast But Can We Work Together Though?, listeners can learn from their open and honest discussion. The pair use their own interracial personal and professional relationship to guide reflection and action. We asked Nicole and Suzanne to share the history behind the podcast, tell us a bit more about themselves, and offer a preview of some of the questions they’ll be exploring together during the series. You can discuss how we can come together to build out empathy and work together to create solutions on Nicole’s post on the Rethink Together Forum. 

On June 16, 2019, we debuted our workshop titled But Can We Work Together, Though? A Black Woman & A White Woman Get Real About Highs & Lows of Interracial Collaboration in Social Justice Work to almost 80 participants during the 7th annual National Association for Community Restorative Justice Conference in Denver, Colorado. Nearly 2,000 people from around the country attended the event. At the time, we were both weeks from wrapping up a four-year whole-school implementation of restorative practices in two different Brooklyn public schools.

Suzanne: When the call for presenters went out for the NACRJ conference, I reached out to Nicole and suggested we co-present on the successes and challenges of our work over the previous four years. While Nicole was excited about collaborating, she came back with a more intriguing and more personal proposal: she suggested we bring ourselves and our relationship more fully to the table and create space for what this work has always been about to us–creating openings for vulnerable and critical conversations about and in service of racial justice. I was immediately intrigued and excited, and also vulnerable, nervous, and already a little out of my comfort zone. In my life, I have learned that when these particular feelings arise, it is important to move towards them, and so I said “yes.”

Nicole: For our workshop, I had proposed that we discuss the complexities existing in collaborations between Black women and white women, particularly when engaging in racial justice work. The idea came to me following multiple conversations with my closest women of color friends, who expressed that while they are not opposed to friendships with white women, they haven’t been able to (and in some cases have had no desire to) cultivate these relationships, while others thought these relationships to be nearly impossible. I started reflecting on how I’ve managed to cultivate a number of strong interracial relationships, and what my conditions (primarily unspoken up until this point) have been for doing so. One thing that exists in my closest friendships with white women is our shared belief in the need for racial and social justice. But I wondered, what are the other conditions to success within these relationships? What, if anything, made these relationships worth the challenges? 

Suzanne: White supremacy impacts every single one of us in different ways. As a white woman, it has become important for me to challenge the ways it lives in me. I believe that white women must actively reflect on how our behavior causes harm in conscious and unconscious ways. We also have to take active steps towards changing the ways it shows up in our organizations, communities, and policies, etc. I have come to believe that white folks need to do this work with other white people so we can process the range of emotions and resistance that will inevitably arise. We cannot ask Black folks (particularly Black women) to carry this emotional burden on their backs, by asking them to do the labor of educating us and making us better. We can’t ask them to endure further harm. But what about the relationships I’m currently in with Black women? What do my Black friends and coworkers want and need from me to be in “right” relationship (relationships free of domination and control, where power is shared and both/all parties are able to show up in and be seen as their authentic selves)? Is it healthier to not speak of the power imbalances between us? After all, our friendships and professional relationships are forged in a culture of white supremacy. It doesn’t seem healthy to ignore that. Racism is bound to creep up overtly and covertly. So, how do we address it in ways that are consensual and empowering and not rooted in white supremacy? Honestly, I’m not sure. But in the poem “Invitation to Brave Space” by Micky Scott Bey Jones, “We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.” Asking seems like a good place to start. 

Nicole: While neither of us knew exactly what would come of our workshop experience, I wanted to hold space for the conversation, and to allow people the opportunity to consider challenges and needs that could either hinder or support success within these collaborations. Participants shared that they had come to discuss race; to escape from or confront white women’s tears; to vent frustrations; to learn how to be better accomplices to people of color, and how to ‘naturally’ diversify their friend groups. What was clear is that this was just the start of a much-needed conversation. There are so many versions of this conversation to be had (between multiple groups and factions), and I believed that circling and other restorative justice practices could be a powerful way to engage in this discussion. And from this, BCWT Podcast was born!

Suzanne: In our circle in Denver, a white woman said: “I want to get past the lump in my throat and speak up more authentically.” This reminded me of my own experience as a white woman, and a pattern I have noticed among my white peers. We are really bad at talking about race! We are also not so great about being direct and contributing authentically in cross-racial relationships! We whisper over the word “Black” in sentences, we avoid and often block intimacy with people across race (getting to know folks as well as letting folks get to know us), we intellectualize instead of being present in our bodies and in our hearts, and we often approach equity and inclusion from a transactional place, instead of a relational place. Listening to the Black women that attended our workshop, I heard that they want so much more from us. Participants shared that they want us to “show up as you are, not who you think I need you to be”, “speak out when you encounter racism”, and ask that we “do it in hope, and not guilt.” Nicole says this very clearly to me in Episode 1, and I need to hear it and lean into it. Having an ongoing dialogue with Nicole about race as it shows up in ourselves and in our relationship is critical for the health of our union, and my health as a person that yearns to be in “right” relationship. 

By engaging in this conversation on a podcast for all who want to listen, we hope that we can model the vulnerability and messiness-in-action that is required to begin these conversations, and deepen our relationship and our fight for social justice. Interracial unions can be complicated, and even more so when the unions exist within the context of the fight for racial and social justice. Just how complicated? We’re willing to talk it out and see!  

Check out the first two episodes of BCWT Podcast.

And if you want to learn more about restorative justice practices, check out this post on how to host a restorative justice listening circle at your school.