Question Bridge White Women, a social experiment, seeks to bridge the gap between the diversity of thought in one demographic, white women — and to initiate honest civil discourse
A question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words.~ Krista Tippett
In an age of competing certainties, where we are both more interconnected than ever but also more polarized — how do we build bridges of understanding across the great divides of race, politics, class, and religion?
If you ask Taylor Swift, she’ll counsel us all to just, “Calm Down,” which isn’t bad advice (it’s also a great song and video). But there’s a more active and engaged response, and it’s embedded in the very structure of an ongoing multi-year transmedia project I’m a part of called, Question Bridge: White Women in America.
White women are not often asked how their skin color frees or confines them.
What does it mean to be a white woman in America today? What gives us hope? What keeps us up at night? How do we feel about the state of our bodies, our lives, our families, our communities, our nation, and the planet?
The project aims to help shape a civil national conversation, one that respectfully shows great diversity of thought within a single demographic while also highlighting the points of surprising convergence.
And we chose white women, in particular, because we want to explore the forces that resulted in a voting pattern that split this group almost cleanly in half in the 2016 Presidential election — a great divide that mirrors the ideological rift in the nation as a whole.
The Question Bridge format is simple and straight forward: Once a white female signs up to participate, we invite her to sit in front of our camera, imagine a white woman different from herself in some way, and then ask any questions she wants to. She is then invited to answer pre-filmed questions from previous participants.
To date, more than 70 ideologically diverse white women from 7 different American cities have asked all types of questions — environmental, political, personal, religious, and more. Life and death, caregiving and childrearing, President Trump, climate change, abortion, immigration, faith, body image… nothing is off limits.
Our team of four white women, two journalists and two filmmakers — does not intervene. We never tell the women what to ask or how to answer (other than, at times, to encourage concision). We are there to facilitate a safe and inherently intimate dialogue in a judgment-free environment. Most importantly, we are there to listen.
It appears to be a revolutionary concept to not only ask people what they think, but to give them the opportunity to ask questions of others.
We begin by encouraging them to ask meaningful questions. We give them the platform, the space, and the respectful quiet that allows them to grow comfortable with the camera and the process. As they speak we glean a sense of their aspirations, obsessions, and political bent. Then we choose the appropriate recorded questions for them to answer in turn. Every single time, a little bit of magic happens. Having begun with their own questions, they are uniquely open and thoughtful when they answer the questions of others.
During a filming in Phoenix, Arizona, a mid-aged Republican woman asked a provocative question that has been fun to take on the road: “In our political discourse we talk a lot about diversity. Do you think diversity of opinion is as important as diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation, or some of the more standard diversity markers we see? Why or why not?”
Her question touches a bruise without aiming to hurt. More, it invites exploration and conversation rather than defensiveness. It aspires to the kind of generous inquiry championed by Krista Tippett, journalist and host of the public radio program and podcast, On Being. In her book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Tippett writes:
“We want others to acknowledge that our answers are right. We call the debate or get on the same page or take a vote and move on. The alternative involves a different orientation to the point of conversing in the first place: to invite searching — not on who is right and who is wrong and the arguments on every side; not on whether we can agree; but on what is at stake in human terms for us all…
“There is value in learning to speak together honestly and relate to each other with dignity, without rushing to common ground that would leave all the hard questions hanging.”
Hard questions are welcomed on Question Bridge. Women have asked: “What does white privilege mean to you?” “Why do you hate me? Is it because I’m a Republican or because you think I voted for Trump?” And, “Why don’t you worry about climate change when it will likely have devastating effects on your children?”
Yet, because the temperature of our current political climate has been lowered here — and because the women are not physically confronting each other — defensive or angry responses to these and other questions have been the exception. Almost all the answers are revelatory and heart felt.
“White Women in America” is the third in the Question Bridge series. The original concept and product, “Question Bridge: Black Community,” was created by conceptual artist and photography professor Chris Johnson, who is the Executive Producer for Question Bridge: White Women. Chris, an African American male, found early on that by limiting the project scope to a specific demographic, participants were less defensive and more vulnerable and willing to state their views.
This was a genius discovery, and it’s propelled the goodwill and intimacy that accompanies each encounter on the current Question Bridge. Join us. Questionbridgewhitewomen.com
Meet the Team
Meet the team members behind Question Bridge: White Women in America, and glean some insights about what the project means to them in their own words:
Marilyn Berlin Snell
Question Bridge: White Women in America is a chance for me to actively and respectfully listen. As a journalist for more than 30 years, I’ve always enjoyed this part of my craft the most. It’s an honor, and I take seriously the trust the participants put in me. I learn so much. In particular, I especially love the chance to listen and learn from white women, unlike me; it helps me break a bit free of the increasingly isolating circle of like-minded friends and colleagues in my life. Truth be told, I’m really afraid of the growing anger and even hatred aimed at the ‘other’ in the U.S. I want to do my part to constructively counter that dangerous force, and it requires me to get out of my comfort zone and try and ‘meet’ people where they are, listen to their fears and grievances, allow the time to explore what, if any, common ground may exist.
I am white and married to an African American man. My stepsons are Costa Rican and African American. By choice and inclination, I’m rarely in an all-white situation but this project has afforded me a chance to explore and live in my whiteness in intimate and growthful ways.
As to participant questions that have resonated with me, I have many favorites! They include: “What am I missing by not going to church?” and “I’m a white woman but I don’t think about it much. When I do think about it, at times I feel like I’m an oppressor because I’m white and at times I feel like a victim because I’m a woman. How do you feel about being a white woman?”
Life is full of moments seemingly extraordinary in their coincidental nature — moments whose acceptance or rejection can mean a turning point in life and a possibility of a new layer in depth of the soul. The chance to work on this project was just such a moment for me — an extended reach into the chasm of tension-filled and painful divisions exemplified in every part of our nation and a path to examine meaningful questions about my own position in this country as a white woman. Meaningful. Soulful. Extraordinary.
Working in tandem with this team of brilliant women, we have the incredible opportunity to draw light from the shadows that hide our demographic’s deepest fears and concerns, and do so in a manner that allows women to speak for themselves and allows viewers to take part in a rare experiment that values and examines deep truths over judgment.
We are living in a time of great division of morals and ideals, as well as how those both are manifested politically within our country. As an artist, I am interested in approaching this subject with a curiosity that allows for people to feel safely heard. For me, that is our only hope for understanding, and for potentially closing some of the divide in which we exist, particularly as white women. Difference of opinion is critical, as is being able to have your voice heard, and to have open discussions about differences, perceived or otherwise.
Question Bridge as a structure, provides the perfect platform for this kind of interaction and I am so excited to be a part of it.
I have been completely blown away by all of the women who have participated thus far. Their willingness to bring themselves to the table and be seen in this way, has deeply moved me, regardless of whether or not I personally agree with their opinions or sentiments.
I have found that listening is a brave act. One that often takes practice and patience, and I am so grateful to be able to join these three incredibly talented women on this journey of listening.
When Chris Johnson first asked me to join the Question Bridge: White Women in America team, I was honored and excited to try something that is so counter to my own training.
I spent much of my career as a journalist in New York City producing for public television with the broadcast journalist, Bill Moyers. Moyers is a masterful interviewer and an amazing listener. But we never went into an interview cold. We did a great deal of preparation to understand, in advance, where our guest might take us. I learned how to ask just the right question to elicit an honest and heartfelt answer. Question Bridge turns my experience inside out.
As each woman sits down we have no idea where her life experience will lead us. We don’t even know her questions ahead of time. She gets to take the driver’s seat, asking her questions and answering those of her peers. The four us follow, gently helping her navigate and make even the sharpest turns with ease.
In my work, I’ve always searched for diversity of race, gender, and politics. To acknowledge and explore the diversity within one demographic —white woman —was entirely new to me. At first I was apprehensive.
I thought, “How could it be interesting to listen to hundreds of white women?” I was so wrong.
Not only are we a politically powerful voting bloc, it is astonishing how complex we are as a group, how frank and forthcoming so many women can be… and how difficult it is not to jump in and start asking our own questions.
This exchange moved me with its honesty and courage:
Do you love your own body?
Body issues — I am 50 years old and still deal with them. I would say I don’t love my own body, but I try to fake it because I have young daughters and I don’t want them to hear me speaking ill of my body. So I try to be body positive when I talk to them. I try to, when we [go] to the beach, be willing to put on a swimsuit and go swim with them and be in a picture and do those kinds of things even though it is extremely uncomfortable to do them.
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