Why Is It So Hard to Talk About Race?

How one woman is reshaping the conversation between black and white people in a town still haunted by racism.

ATLANTA—Not long after a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, failed to indict a police officer for killing an unarmed black man, a prominent Atlanta organization hosted a community dialogue on race. Looking out at the mostly white crowd, the white emcee for the event posed a question to get people talking: "What's been your experience with black men?" To Bee Nguyen, who was part of the audience that night, the question itself was jarring. And it led her to notice something more troubling: There were no black men at the event.

"Why are we sitting around talking about black men?" Nguyen remembers thinking to herself. "Why don't we just sit down with black men?"

With the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner—and now Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina—have come calls for national and local conversations about race. To most of us, it's an uncomfortable topic. And when we do talk about race, it's usually with people who look like us. But having that intimate conversation without people from other backgrounds and races doesn't leave room to build empathy or gain a different perspective, much less actually listen.

That's why, not long after that awkward community event late last fall, Nguyen started her own race dialogues, called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Race." Her goal was not to tackle macro topics like education or criminal justice—or even a specific tragedy like Ferguson, as many other gatherings do—but to get to the micro level and talk about interpersonal relationships, with people of different races on a panel.

Nguyen, who runs a nonprofit called Athena's Warehouse that supports young women in Title I high schools in Atlanta, wants to answer questions like, "Why aren't we intersecting as a community? Why are we so separate? How can we better relate to each other? What is preventing people in Atlanta from being friends with each other?" But in this city, the answers to those questions can be painful and complicated.

While it is the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. and a city dubbed "too busy to hate" during the civil rights movement, Atlanta's issues of trust and equality between races are inescapable. Atlanta has the worst income inequality among major U.S. cities—the richest households make nearly 20 times more than the poorest, according to the Brookings Institution. And the ability to rise to another income level in Atlanta is the lowest in the country—a child raised in the bottom quintile has a 4 percent chance of rising to the top quintile, according to a Harvard study.

Even Mayor Kasim Reed ties the income inequality to segregation and the city's racial history. "You can't do a study like that and have no references to the racial context of the Southeast," Reed tells me in response to the Harvard research. "For 75, 100 years, there was a concentrated effort to suppress a group that was backed by the law of the times. It was illegal for black people to own homes, and it was enforced in these communities."

(Reed does note, though, the city's large black middle class, claiming: "Black people have a fairer shot in the city of Atlanta than they do in any other American city.")

It's this context, that makes some African-Americans wary of the rapid redevelopment that has swept across Atlanta in the two decades since the city was selected to host the 1996 Summer Olympics. After Techwood Village, the first public-housing project built in the United States, was demolished to make way for the Olympic Village, stylish apartment complexes and ritzy shops popped up across the city. (In 2011, Atlanta became the first U.S. city to get rid of all of its public housing.) Longtime residents began to get priced out, the surrounding suburbs became poorer, and the city started becoming more affluent. Before the Olympics, 67 percent of Atlanta was black, according to 1990 Census numbers. Now, just 54 percent of city residents are black.

"People talk about racism as systemic," says King Williams, a filmmaker producing the documentary The Atlanta Way on the city's housing history, which is due to be released in July. "Look at where the new development is going on. It's in places where all the poor people lived before, all the black people lived before."

For Williams, it's hard to look past race in even the most basic aspects of life in Atlanta. As we finish breakfast at Ria's Bluebird, he points out that this quiet café on the east side of town sits along Memorial Drive—and that this road leads 25 miles east to Stone Mountain, a daunting dome with the faces of Confederate heroes Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson carved into the rock. It's the Confederate version of Mount Rushmore, and the location where the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan was marked with a cross-burning in 1915. Today, Stone Mountain is the site of a theme park with racially diverse patrons.

Williams brings up another example—his favorite basketball team, the Atlanta Hawks, which is having one of its best seasons ever atop the Eastern Conference. Fans, he says, are ecstatic. They conveniently forget, however, about outgoing owner Bruce Levenson's 2012 email complaining that "the black crowd scared away the whites" at games and making other controversial observations about rap music and the lack of families at Hawks games. But the team is winning, and the arena is packed with those same black fans. "The irony of Atlanta," Williams laughs.

The issue of racism, Williams says, is rooted in trust, which is also the theme of Nguyen's local events. She has put on three in as many months, attracting a diverse, mostly Generation X crowd of around 60 people each time. Nguyen has collaborated with with a racially diverse group of panelists—and they don't hold back.

Nedra Deadwyler, a black woman who runs a company called Civil Bikes that gives civil rights bike tours, sat on the first panel in December. Three months later, she tells me that old mantra of Atlanta doesn't hold. "A city too busy to hate—but it's busy hatin'," she says.

As a panelist, Deadwyler opened up and told a story about struggling to communicate with one of her white friends. "One night, we were sitting around talking, and she said to me, 'Nedra, I can learn from you,'" Deadwyler says. "And that was the barrier. From that moment on our friendship changed because she decided that she was going to really open herself to a friendship with me and invite me to give something to her."

Another panelists, Laura Pritchard-Compton, is white but lives in the predominantly black Washington Park neighborhood. She runs a nonprofit gym called Urban Perform, which charges a flat rate $2 for classes in what she calls a "fitness desert," an area that lacks access to affordable exercise. On the panel, she recoiled against the idea of the "white savior."

"To anyone else, this white woman has given up her privilege to live in this poor black neighborhood, and now she's started this gym to help all these overweight black people get healthy," Pritchard-Compton says. "For me to portray myself as this white woman that did all these things to save them is not dignifying. That's making it look like I'm way better than them."

Like many areas across Atlanta right now, Pritchard-Compton's neighborhood—which was the first planned African-American neighborhood in the city and home to the high school Martin Luther King attended—is on the cusp of massive redevelopment. The new Atlanta Falcons football stadium is going up just down the street, and millions of dollars are expected to pour into the area. That would be good news for the local economy, but it causes concern for black residents, who fear being priced out of their own neighborhoods. Pritchard-Compton hears this in everyday conversations, and it's why those relationships between neighbors, black and white, will be so important in the months ahead.

These events hosted by Nguyen haven't made a widespread splash across the city quite yet, but she is tapping into a hunger to communicate about race in a way that happens all too rarely. "We need to have these conversations," says Ty McMath, a black man who sat on the first panel. "This whole idea is needed. It's not like we get in a room all at the same time to even talk."

Libby Isenstein and Janie Boschma contributed to this article