Dallas doctor leads talk on race relations in Greenwich
GREENWICH — A small group of town residents gathered to ask Dallas trauma surgeon Dr. Brian Williams tough questions about interracial relations at the Nantucket Project house.
Williams treated three of the five police officers who later died after a gunman ambushed law enforcement in Dallas in July 2016. He brought his experience as a black man and a doctor who supports law enforcement to the national discussion about police brutality after his comments in a CNN press conference after the Dallas shootings went viral.
Now, he applies the Hippocratic oath he took to heal the sick to a different illness: police violence in minority communities.
The intimate Q&A held Tuesday night was an episode of “the neighborhood project:” an effort by the Nantucket Project organization, which hosts an annual conference of ideas, to localize national discussions through special programming at its satellite locations.
Bruce Bond, co-founder and president of Common Ground Committee, a nonpartisan nonprofit based in Wilton, moderated the frank exploration of the state of American race relations at the satellite house on Mason Street.
Attendee Betsy O’Reilly asked Williams to describe the initial feedback he received after the CNN press conference.
Williams said the texts, emails, phone calls and boxes of letters were overwhelmingly positive, but he also heard extremely negative opinions. The harshest comments stung the most, he said, quoting anti-black sentiments (“You shouldn’t care for white people or police officers”) and anti-police ones (“I’m glad you let those police officers die”).
“They’re so committed to their racial beliefs or their beliefs about law enforcement that they can’t see the humanity in these people,” Williams said.
His activism has helped Williams to recover from the trauma he experienced trying to save the officers’ lives. Now, he hosts a radio show and a blog, contributes op-eds to The Dallas Morning News, donates to nonprofits and travels the country on speaking tours.
“I’m figuring this out as I go,” Williams said. “I could not tell you a very coherent plan, but I just didn’t retreat.”
He is also the chairman of his city’s Citizens Police Review Board, which aims to improve the relationship between the community and the police department. Ongoing violence has forced officers to confront their implicit biases while policing, he said.
Bond asked Williams to explain implicit bias and what the audience can learn from the concept.
Implicit bias is a subconscious preference for one race, the doctor said. The concept can help people come to terms with their biases without letting them take on racist intent. To gauge bias, Williams recommended taking Harvard University’s Project Implicit race test, which is available online at implicit.harvard.edu.
“If there’s one thing to take from this meeting, it’s to take that test,” he said.
Attendee Gretchen Bylow asked how Greenwich parents can develop conversations about race when, she said, said her sons go to a predominately white school and do not have much exposure to diversity in town.
“You see people constantly talking about diversity, but it’s not their day-to-day experience,” she said. “In a town like Greenwich, which is mostly white and affluent, what do you think we should do to raise kids the right way so they can have those conversations?”
Williams said he and his wife had the same dilemma in choosing the best school for their 7-year-old daughter. She was at an overwhelmingly white school, but they made the decision to transfer her to a more diverse one, he said.
“As a parent of a child of color, who has the means to let her go to a majority white school, I’ve decided I want her to go to a different school for the social aspects that I think will be important to her growing up,” he said.
One woman said that when she was in college, the administration encouraged students from different ethnic backgrounds to socialize. Those concerted efforts led to what she called “fireside chats” in some dormitories.
She remembered that a few students of color said they preferred sitting with other students like them, and asked Williams what students of a racial majority should do to respect that desire while still remaining inclusive.
Williams opened her question to the floor.
“You’ve just got to take the risk,” Khaitsa Wasiyo said. “ I’ve been through that same experience. Some kids just want to sit together and catch up on things, but this is a human conversation.”
Wasiyo, who is Ugandan, said tensions flare in her country between ethnic and language groups, but she said she first encountered the white-black racial divide in America. When she lived in Japan, she said that she felt more in common with internationals of different races because everyone was “Gai-Jin,” or “foreigner.”
Those experiences taught her to be open, she told the audience. The key for anybody trying to be inclusive through conversation is to focus on individual discussions, Wasiyo said.
After Bond concluded the official Q&A with Williams, smaller conversations proliferated. One attendee, Claude Johnson, said the doctor is a courageous and remarkable man.
Johnson emphasized the importance of leaving aside associations when people meeting people who have a different racial background or gender.
“Don’t be a prisoner of your definitions,” he said.