Susan Long and Tony McKoy work together at a Novant Health cancer clinic in Matthews and eat lunch together every day they can. They’re kindred spirits who just naturally connect with each other.

Long, 61, playfully calls McKoy, 53, little brother. His nickname for her: Sissy, as in little sister. They have thoughtful conversations about their Christian faith and share their favorite social media posts as they recharge their workday batteries. As patient service coordinators, their job is to help cancer patients navigate insurance forms, procedures and schedules.

On June 9, Long, who is white, noticed that McKoy, who is Black, seemed down as they took their seats at opposite ends of a picnic table to socially distance. What’s wrong, she asked?

Tony McKoy
Tony McKoy

McKoy had a lot on his mind. It was two weeks after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and protests raged across the U.S. McKoy couldn’t take it anymore. He was worried that something horrible might happen to his son, Michael, who was just graduating high school.

With chaos erupting everywhere, he was scared to death Michael might get pulled over by police … and wind up dead. And that was just the beginning. He was sad and exhausted with the never-ending ordeal of starting a new day with a fresh blast of anxiety about what could go wrong for himself, his family or any black person. And you probably don’t realize this, he said, but it’s more or less the same daily existence for many African Americans.

His answer flat-out stunned her. It literally changed her view, in an instant, of how black people adapt in America.

And she was instantly ashamed. All these years and she never knew. How could this be, she wondered as her eyes filled with tears. “It was literally an emotional shake,” said Long. "It hit my heart so hard. I didn’t like hearing that he has to feel this way, that his world was that way.”

Their story serves as a microcosm, of sorts, for a conversation being held countless times across America as the country comes to grips with the fact that people who have so much in common wind up having a completely different life experience that’s determined by the color of their skin.

The conversation is underway at Novant Health as well.

Breaking taboos

Being aware that something needs to change is the first step toward progress. But the idea of talking about emotionally charged subjects at work is hard to imagine for some people, experts agree.

But the conversations that Long and McKoy are engaged in are proof that talking can move the needle. And having honest conversations to create an inclusive environment is part of the organization’s mission. You can’t build healthy communities without a healthy society. And at Novant Health, part of that work comes from the inside.

The conversations have come in many forms in recent years with extensive education around bias, cultural “blind spots” and open forums with Carl Armato, Novant Health president and CEO. In 2019, Novant Health was named in Forbes’ top 40 employers for diversity.

Mike Riley

Other efforts have been more organic. Mike Riley, president of Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center, started a discussion group soon after the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte in September 2016. Scott’s death sparked a riot in uptown Charlotte and for weeks afterward nerves were raw. Riley knew everyone needed to talk – he felt the tremors rippling through his own hospital. But Riley, who’s white, was worried. Would it turn into a shouting match? Make things even worse?

A notice went out, team members filtered into a meeting room, he took a deep breath, and people started talking. It turned out to be a cathartic encounter that put many at ease for the first time in days. “I had, I don't know how many people come up to me after and say this was one of the best meetings I've ever been in,” he said.

Looking at it now, he said, “I think white people tend to kind of not really appreciate some of the things that African American people or people of different races go through,” said Riley. “But to hear somebody who you work with every day, talk about a story where they were pulled over by the police or treated badly by someone of authority … is really a lot more powerful.”

“Continuing the conversation” was born, and, since then, Riley has held around two dozen discussions in Huntersville. The first Zoom conference one was June 10, when more than 20 people talked about the recent unrest.

A few white participants admitted that for a long time they didn’t get “Black Lives Matter.” ALL lives matter, they thought. Why single out one race?

And then George Floyd’s name joined the long list of other African Americans who died during encounters with police. They watched the video – and they got it. Black Americans live a completely different experience at the hands of authority compared to white people. More than one team member described it as an “aha” moment.

La Shond Rawlins
La Shonda Rawlins

La Shonda Rawlins, a black team member and manager who oversees patient registration information, offered this: “When I get ready for work in the morning, I'm not just getting ready for work. I'm thinking about, when I go to work, there may be a patient – hopefully not a colleague ­– who may not treat me as a professional … there are people who may perceive me a certain way. Even if I speak with a certain tone, even if I'm dressed a certain way, even if I have a degree on my wall, even if I do all the right things, I may not return home alive,” she said.

“And so that's why people are so frustrated and upset and exhausted. Because even though the world says we have to do all these right things and we do these right things … there are systems in place that prevent us from living the same life that you have. We just want humanity and equality to exist for us.”

A quiet life versus a life of conflict

Long and McKoy and grew up in very different worlds.

Long was raised in south Charlotte in a predominantly white neighborhood and early on attended nearly all-white schools. Her parents taught her to treat everyone with respect. She started interacting with African Americans more when Charlotte desegregated schools with busing in the 1970s.

McKoy grew up in the historic seaport of Bridgeport, Connecticut. His grandmother was a civil rights activist in Whiteville, North Carolina, about 55 miles west of Wilmington. In the 1960s, she was roughed up by whites and pushed to the ground at voting rights demonstrations. Fires were set outside the family home.

In Bridgeport, when he was 5, he and his mother had just gotten off a city bus with groceries in their arms and were walking home when a carload of white men pulled up and attempted to sexually assault his mother. The terrified little boy stood and watched as his mother tried to fend off her attackers. Moments later, several young Black men rolled by in a car, saw what was happening and fought off the white men, who left.

“She was never the same after that,” McKoy said. His mother died six months later of pneumonia. Growing up in his corner of New England, racial conflict and tension were never far from the surface, he said.

No more ‘walking on eggshells’

Fast forwarding to today: Race was once again on McKoy’s mind as he sat down to lunch with his friend. Just an hour before that, McKoy revealed in a Zoom discussion work group where people of different generations share ideas that he was tired of “walking on eggshells” around some of his white team members. At times, he said later, some black team members feel excluded by white colleagues at Novant Health. Based on his interactions with some colleagues, he said, he does not trust their view of African Americans.

That’s where his head was at when Long sensed he was down and asked how he was doing. His worries about the protests and what it might mean for his family’s safety came spilling out. He explained to Long that he’d already talked to Michael a lot about what to do if he got pulled over. Always start recording the encounter on his phone before the officer reaches his door. Have his ID ready and his hands plainly visible to avoid suddenly reaching for his license. Don’t argue. Do what they tell you. He said his son now has an Apple shortcut (users must install) that lets the driver say, "Hey Siri, I'm getting pulled over," to automatically start recording the encounter and take a series of other steps.

There were other lessons he’d imparted: Always accept a bag when making a purchase to reduce the chance of being accused of shoplifting and always, always ask for a receipt. That time-stamped slip can be proof of his whereabouts should he ever be accused of wrongdoing. And store security footage, he said, could verify.

Tony McKoy and Susan Long2

Long’s son is 30 now, but when he was late as a teenager, she worried about traffic accidents, not getting killed by the police.

Long had heard about George Floyd’s killing and the reaction across the country. Her husband had seen the story on Facebook and tried to show her on his phone, but she couldn’t stand to look. She was doing everything she could to avoid the news since COVID-19 because it was upsetting to be bombarded with endless waves of depressing information.

She loves her cancer patients, but the job can be emotionally exhausting as she and team members throw themselves into working with people who are often profoundly ill. Work schedules had been tough for weeks during the shutdown as clinics remained open to treat patients. If the news came on while they were getting ready for dinner, she changed the channel.

“I was an ostrich with my head in the sand,” Long said. "I said, ‘I don't want to know about it. It just makes me sad and sick.’ I'm ashamed to say it but that's the way it is. This has just knocked the wind out of all of us.

“I feel so horrible that I didn’t know this about his world. ‘Naïve’ and ‘stupid’ would be a good way of putting it. I didn’t run to my friend and say, ‘Are you OK?’ I feel ashamed to say that.”

Since then, they’ve had several more conversations and McKoy said it’s made them even closer. He doesn’t feel abandoned by his friend, and said he never raised the subject, either. “For some reason it just never came up,” he said. “It’s not that I didn’t want to, but there was no reason to.”

When it comes to his friendship with Long, he said, there is a line from the movie “The Princess Diaries” that says it all. The boy asks the princess why she chose him to dance at the ball. Her response: "Because you saw me when I was invisible."

She marvels at his strength as they continue to talk. “As sick as it made me when Tony just told me about his life, how he can still love God, still have faith? It must be so hard,” she said, her voice trailing off. “I don’t know ….”

For his part, McKoy said, “I wouldn’t give up being Black for anything, but yes, it’s been hard.”

Uncomfortable for a long time

Jay Flowers
Jay Flowers

And so, the conversations continue. At the online discussion hosted by Riley, Jay Flowers, a guest services representative at Huntersville Medical Center, acknowledged that some of these moments can be uncomfortable for white people. They should get used to it, she said. “For 400 years we’ve been uncomfortable,” said Flowers, who is African American. “It’s what we’ve been feeling for a long time. What you want to be educated about, you've got to be willing to be uncomfortable."

And she acknowledges that white people concerned about black colleagues don’t always know what to say or do. Her thought: As you approach African American friends, seek to understand and do your homework. And finally, she said, consider asking yourself this question: What would I do if this was a member of my family?

Difficult conversations: How to talk about race and racism