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It’s bad grammar, I know, but it sounds better than, All my friends are smarter than am I.

Either way, I think they are. It’s a good thing. They make me think. Here’s an example.

One of my friends, let’s call her Sheena, was visiting the other day. Sheena was here for a class we were taking together, and she stayed with us. It was SO MUCH FUN, because Sheena is hands down one of the funniest people I know. She makes little old introverted me feel like a barrel of laughs, just because her fun-ness rubs off on everyone around her.

She’s funny. But she’s also kind and good-hearted and sweet and caring and loving and concerned about all kinds of evils in the world.

Which is why I wasn’t offended when she called me simplistic and naive.

Actually, she called my world view simplistic and naive, but whatever.

Sheena thinks big thoughts about big issues. She is definitely one of those smarter-than-me friends. She’s heavily invested in things like human rights, particularly as they pertain to all the stuff we hear in the news these days regarding the implications around our country’s treaty issues. She calls herself a settler, and lives and works as a teacher in Fort Qu’appelle, Saskatchewan, which is where, as I understand it, Treaty 4 was signed.

Sheena blogs at Treaty Walks where she writes beautifully about this treaty journey she has been on for the past few years. She’s been on radio talk shows and is friends with lots of journalist and political-type people, and it’s all really cool.

So we’re sitting around my kitchen table, talking about The Lord of the Rings and the goats and her girls and my boys and inevitably the topic of First Nations people and settlers and Idle No More comes up.

And in my simplistic and naive way, I say something like, you know, that I don’t think race needs to be such a big deal every time a white person and a First Nation person encounter each other. Like, why can’t it just be me and her, race-defining-adjective-free, sitting down and having a cup of coffee together and talking about our kids? Why do I always have to be so conscious of the fact that I am privileged white woman and she is historically wronged First Nation woman?

My friend Sheena gave me lots of reasons why that isn’t possible. She gave me examples and we talked history and culture and I see her points. I do.

But, dang. Does it have to be that way?

Is it really simplistic and naive to think that can change? Can’t I behave as if it has already changed? Can’t I ignore all the garbage and just see the person in front of me? One person at a time. One relationship at a time. Sure I’ll make mistakes. Sure I’ll misunderstand culture and history and put my foot in my mouth. But isn’t that the process of changing things?

I appreciate so much people like Sheena. People who delve into the issues and take brave stands and march and write letters and make speeches. People who walk their talk.

I think there’s room, though, for those of us who are just walking. Not with heads in the sand or anything. Not ignoring the fact that there are problems. Just approaching them differently.

Howell Raines grew up in Birmingham, Alabama during those days of riots and hangings and civil unrest. Black and white. Somewhere in all of that, it was his relationship with Grady, the family maid, that informed his ideas about race and equality and influenced his writing and his life. In his 1991 Pulitzer Prize winning essay Grady’s Gift, he wrote this…

Gradystein Williams Hutchinson (or Grady, as she was called in my family and hers) and I are two people who grew up in the 50’s in that vanished world, two people who lived mundane, inconsequential lives while Martin Luther King Jr. and Police Commissioner T. Eugene (Bull) Connor prepared for their epic struggle. For years, Grady and I lived in my memory as child and adult. But now I realize that we were both children — one white and very young, one black and adolescent; one privileged, one poor. The connection between these two children and their city was this: Grady saw to it that although I was to live in Birmingham for the first 28 years of my life, Birmingham would not live in me.

And this…

There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which such a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism. Indeed, for the black person, the feigning of an expected emotion could be the very coinage of survival.

And this…

Every white Southerner must choose between two psychic roads — the road of racism or the road of brotherhood. Friends, families, even lovers have parted at that forking, sometimes forever, for it presents a choice that is clouded by confused emotions, inner conflicts and powerful social forces. It is no simple matter to know all the factors that shape this individual decision.

As a college student in Alabama, I shared the choking shame that many young people there felt about Wallace’s antics and about the deaths of the four black children in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September 1963. A year later, as a cub reporter, I listened to the sermons and soaring hymns of the voting rights crusade. All this had its effect.

But the fact is that by the time the civil rights revolution rolled across the South, my heart had already chosen its road. I have always known that my talks with Grady helped me make that decision in an intellectual sense.

This is the power of relationship. This is the beginning. This is how it starts. The marches and the clashes and the political stuff… those are necessary and important. Those are the things that make the news.

But the real game-changers, I think, are born out of meaningful relationships.

They might not be equal relationships. They might not be well understood or even socially acceptable and will likely involve a lot of fumbly mistake-making.

But relationship, two people sharing words and tea, that’s where it begins. At least, that’s where it begins for me.

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