Author Archives: Ilsa Govan

Recommitting to Action: A Response to Trump’s Election

Since Election Day, we’ve been whirling in a variety of emotions, ranging from deep sorrow to anger, and landing in a place of recommitting to doing everything we can to promote equity and justice and undo institutional white supremacy. Cultures Connecting strives to be a resource for those committed to this path. Here are some of our thoughts and links to resources for you and your organizations.

Circle of Influence Activity

Each one of us has a unique sphere of people, organizations, and connections we can leverage to make a difference. Try this tool to help you plan what you can do:

Write your name in the center of a blank piece of paper and circle it. Then write the names of organizations you’re involved with, people you know, events you attend, businesses you frequent, etc. Place these in proximity to your name depending on your closeness to them, indicating your inner circle where you have the most influence, and outer circles.

Think about what you might do at different levels. For example, you can organize a letter writing campaign with the five people you’re closest with advocating for the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. Or you can ask a business you frequent to create all-gender bathrooms. It is important none of us become paralyzed in this challenging time. Once we’ve identified our circle of influence, making change can feel less overwhelming and we can see how a small step one of us takes ripples out to others in our community.

Culturally Responsive Leadership Strategies

Many organizations were struggling with how to respond to the election. Leaders themselves were reacting to the outcomes, then had to set aside their own feelings to immediately support clients and employees. This proved challenging, and some organizations opted not to say anything, rather than engage the wide range of responses.

We believe moments like this present an opportunity to model culturally responsive leadership, and it is not too late to share an organization-wide statement about the election. Here are a few tips:

  • Reference your mission and vision that supports diversity, equity, and inclusion and make a statement reasserting your organization’s commitment to this mission.
  • Provide a space, time, and/or person people can come to and talk about the impact of the election or report incidents of discrimination. Have agreed upon norms for effective engagement during discussions. One of our favorite strategies is to encourage people to ask questions with genuine curiosity.
  • Avoid statements such as, “We need to wait and see,” or, “You don’t have any reason to be afraid…” Although intended to be reassuring, these statements can actually feel minimizing or invalidating. Instead, become curious. Ask people what concerns they have and why. Remember to explore someone else’s experience without inserting your own, trying to fix, or endorsing a political stance.

We’ve seen many other resources to continue to work collaboratively for justice. Please share your favorites in the comments.

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Racial Equity: Creating the Beloved Community

Liberty Bell Middle School & High School

January 13th, 2016

This is the text from a keynote given by Ilsa Govan.

Ilsa's mom holds her in her lap and second picture is of dad with Ilsa and Alexis in lapI was born in a commune to parents who wanted to escape from society and reinvent a safe, loving, environment for their children. From a young age, I had a strong sense of fairness. Although my parents supported my critical thinking and wanted me make the world a better place, sometimes my whining, “That’s not fair!” wore down their hippy sensibilities.

“Life isn’t fair,” my parents told my sister and I when we’d argue about not getting to stay up late on a school night. “Life isn’t fair,” they repeated when we complained about who got to sit in the front of the car. Despite their good intentions, the clear message was, life isn’t ever going to be fair, so you need to live with unfairness. And many of you, like me, were probably taught to stop noticing because there’s nothing you can do to change it.

Well, there is. Today we’re going to look at examples of ways to be an ally for justice.

An ally is a person who is not experiencing oppression and still chooses to stand up for the rights of those who are. This may be a straight person who stands up for lesbian, gay and bisexual people, a cis gender person addressing transphobia, a male feminist, or a white person who is fighting racism. Some of the most meaningful work and relationships I’ve had in the past twenty years have been through my work as a white ally.

One of the things I was never taught in school was about white allies throughout history who had stood up against racism despite the cost to them personally. So when I decided I wanted to advocate for racial justice, I didn’t have a lot of role models or information on what that might mean. In my life, a white person either pretended not to notice race and tried to treat everyone the same, or was a racist.

Some of you may have noticed a twinge when I talk about being white or when I notice out loud that most of you are white. That might come from you also being told that talking about and noticing race was racist. But the opposite is true. The only way to end racism is to notice how different people are treated differently because of their race. If we don’t notice, or we pretend not to (I’m guessing most of you did notice my race, especially at an assembly honoring Dr. King) it makes it a lot harder to stand up against injustice. Turn to your neighbor and say, “You have to notice race to end racism.”

The silence in our history books about white allies can leave us wondering, what is my role?

Each one of you has the choice to be an ally in order to create the Beloved Community.

The idea of the Beloved Community comes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Think about the kind of school community you want to experience every day. As explained by the King center, founded by Corretta Scott King, “Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”

You can choose to create the Beloved Community at school every day where people look out for each other, where everyone’s humanity is respected. However, in order to do this you may have to give something up.

My question to you is, What are you willing to give up to honor and respect the dignity of another human being?

06 Sep 1957, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA --- Elizabeth Eckford ignores the hostile screams and stares of fellow students on her first day of school. She was one of the nine negro students whose integration into Little Rock's Central High School was ordered by a Federal Court following legal action by NAACP. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

06 Sep 1957, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA  — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Keeping this question in mind, let’s look at some examples from the past. Since we’re celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let’s look at an image from the civil rights movement. For years, black people and their allies fought to end segregation. But winning the court case Brown vs Board of Education was just the beginning for black students. Here’s a picture of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock 9 going to Central High School. The Arkansas National Guard had to be called in to escort the students to school.

Notice the expressions on the faces of the white students. I wonder what they feared would happen when she entered their school?

What would they have to give up in order to welcome her as a part of the community? Possibly the approval of their friends and family. Even deeper than that, white students had to give up the idea that they were inherently superior and therefore deserving of better schools than black youth.

white knight with red cross over him

It is easy to see people who experience oppression as victims who need help, rather than recognizing the strength and resiliency they possess. As allies, it is important we don’t come from a place of thinking—they need me to fix them. I sometimes call this “white knight syndrome”, coming from the idea that the princess is incapable of helping herself and needs to be rescued.

cover of book Warriors Don't CryIn her book, Warriors Don’t Cry, Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine, told the story of the harassment they endured, including having acid poured on her eyes. She wrote of her friend Link, a white boy, who used to tell her about dangerous areas at the school or plots other white students had to hurt her. Many of the white students who were initially friendly, were beaten up or harassed throughout the year and stopped talking with the black students as a result. White allies had to give up their own safety.

Now for a moment, try to imagine the emotional impact of the fear the Little Rock Nine felt walking through the school halls every day. Day after day knowing they were literally risking their lives to get the high quality education everyone deserves. What toll might that take? Imagine how strong they must have been.

Here’s another historic example. About 112,000 Japanese Americans on the west coast, many Washington state farmers, store owners, and families, were incarcerated and held in camps during World War II.

woman points at sign on building that says, "Japs Keep Moving this is a White Man's Neighborhood"What would the woman in this picture have to give up in order to welcome Japanese Americans into her community and honor their human dignity? Perhaps her fear of being unsafe, her belief they were the “other” rather than her neighbors. As in the case of school desegregation, there were those allies who stood up against the government and supported their neighbors by caring for their homes and land until they returned.

george takeiGeorge Takei, the actor and writer who played Sulu in Star Trek, was put in an internment camp as a child and has produced a play about his experiences. This is what he has to say about our collective responsibility to our community.

Now for a moment, consider the emotional impact of being suddenly seen as criminal and forced to give up your freedom.

When I was in junior high, our school mascot was the Redmond Warrior. I remember when some people in the school community wanted to change the mascot. Even though I’d only gone to school there one year, I identified as a warrior. I’d played sports where people cheered for us Warriors.

For me to give up this mascot and honor the dignity of Native people was difficult. I had to give up part of my identity and acknowledge that I had unintentionally hurt people by celebrating a racist symbol. This was difficult, as I’ve always seen myself as a good, kind person and certainly not a racist. I imagine this is the way many Washington football and Cleveland baseball fans feel—they would have to give up the idea that they, as kind-hearted people, had hurt others.

pictures of racist mascots including Washington Redskins and Cleveland IndiansIt was through organizing in partnership with local Tribes that students from diverse ethnic backgrounds advocated for changing the mascot. Even though there weren’t many Native students at our school, we still listened to their concerns and honored their request. Through the efforts of allies following the lead of Native people, they secured a 95% vote from the student body to change the mascot.

Now think for a minute about the emotion impact on Native youth at my school having their rich culture reduced to stereotypical images and tomahawk chops.

Kim Davis with frownLet’s look at a couple of examples from this past year. This is Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis. For those who don’t know, she is the woman who refused to sign the marriage certificates for lesbian and gay couples, even though the law said she must as part of her job.

What would she have to give up in order to honor the humanity of couples who were entitled to the same rights as her family?

She might have to sacrifice friends and family who shared her religious beliefs. She would have to give up the idea that her interpretation of the bible and God’s law was more important than the laws of the United States. Or she could hold on to those beliefs and give up her job.

closed doors

I was at a friend’s house one time and he got frustrated with a video game he was playing. He threw the controller down and said, “Man, this game is so gay!”

I asked him, “You mean the game is homosexual?”

He said no, he just meant it was bad. We went back and forth for a while about how that insulted an entire group of people when he used “gay” as a slur. I finally ended up just asking him to not use the word in that way around me.

Even though there were no lesbian or gay people present, I spoke up because those comments rob all of us of our humanity. I want to live in a community free of bigotry. Not just because we don’t want to hurt someone in the room, but because it is the right thing to treat all people with respect.

Now think for a moment about the impact on the lives of lesbian and gay couples who, finally gaining the right to marry, were then turned away by a member of their community who didn’t believe in their inherent shared humanity and rights.

Dylann Roof holding a confederate flagHere is another recent example. This one is painful to talk about. Many of you may recognize this is a picture of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered 9 black people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last summer while they were holding a prayer circle. He said his intent was to start a race war.

Paul Davis Taylor displays a Confederate flag in front of Little Rock Central High School on Sept. 3, 1957. Taylor was among some 500 people who gathered across the street from the school, which had been scheduled to integrate. (AP Photo)

Paul Davis Taylor displays a Confederate flag in front of Little Rock Central High School on Sept. 3, 1957. Taylor was among some 500 people who gathered across the street from the school, which had been scheduled to integrate. (AP Photo)

This image is of a white student who was protesting school integration at Central High School in Little Rock.

Following Roof’s horrific crime, retailers Wal-Mart, Amazon, Sears, Kmart, and Ebay all said they would stop selling merchandise with the Confederate flag. The flag was removed from cities across the south and taken off of specialty license plates in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. In South Carolina, where the people were shot while praying in church, they passed a bill to remove the flag.

What did people have to give up in order to remove a flag that stood as a symbol of hate and struck fear in the lives of members of their community? What did they have to give up to say, we will not honor a flag that divides our community?

confflgI imagine many people felt a connection with the flag to their history and independence. They had to be willing to believe that something they held dear would cause harm to others. And a part of their identity as proud southerners was tied to this flag.

Yet they chose to do it because, as these pictures so clearly illustrate, no matter what it meant to them, this flag had been used as a symbol of hatred.

Listen, believe, and follow the lead of those most impactedSome of you probably saw the video of Bree Newsome taking down the confederate flag in South Carolina because she didn’t want to wait another day seeing that symbol in her community.

Bree Newsome is assisted by James Ian Tyson in taking down the confederate flagHer white ally, James Ian Tyson, listened to her concerns and helped in the way she needed. He did not situate himself as center-stage, but rather, supported her in taking the action she wanted. Both of them were arrested.

It is important as allies that we don’t try to take over and do what we think is best, but rather we listen to the communities most impacted by oppression and follow their lead.

Now imagine the emotional impact of seeing a confederate flag in your community that was just used as a symbol of hatred by someone who killed nine people because of the color of their skin.

There are other words and symbols we can choose to let go of. I was in a workshop one time and a white man asked me why I wouldn’t say the “n-word”. He repeated the full word several times and insisted he should not have to be censored. I told him I chose not to use that word because it was a weapon of hate. My question to him was, knowing the harm it causes, why would you want to?

It takes a deep level of humility to accept feedback when someone tells you you’re causing harm, especially if that is not your intention. This is no easy task. So often we want to protect our identities, even if it means denying the truth.

drkingquoteAllies for justice know we will make mistakes and embrace the opportunity for truth telling. For it is only through telling the truth that we can have real reconciliation. And through truth and reconciliation, you can build the community you want.

One that honors and respects the dignity of all people.

One that chooses not to cause harm not because you have to, but because you want to.

One that believes life doesn’t have to be unfair.

I invite you to stand together now if that is the Stand for love, justice, fairness, liberty, you would like to build together.

Stand for fairness.

Stand for justice.

Stand for love.

Stand for dignity.

Stand in celebration of Dr. King’s message and your collective hope for your Beloved Community.

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A Powerful Moment that Changed My Life–Guest Post by Louise Penberthy

Louise Penberthy attended our Train the Trainer workshop in August 2015 and shared this reflection with us. Throughout the article she references the Norms for Courageous Conversations that helped her stay in a place of learning, despite the tension.

by Louise Penberthy, Productivity Coaching and Mediation

Picture of road sign that says, "Caution No Warning Signs Next 21 MI"

I took the training on “Strategies for Facilitating Conversations about Race” with Cultures Connecting and had a powerful, life-changing experience during the training. I want to tell you about it, and tell you what the trainers did that made it possible.

I was in the training because I want to help people talk about race, especially white people. I was also there because of a journey I started 15 years ago, when I fell in love with a friend of mine, married him, and started deliberately and continually learning about the community of color I married into.


Pointing out the tension in the room

At the end of the first day of the training, Dr. Hollins – who was leading this part of the training – asked if anyone wanted to share reflections on what we’d done that day. As a couple of people were sharing, I debated whether I should share a thought I had. Unconsciously remembering the norm Take Risks, I shared.

I said that I’d always been (mentally) hard on white boards of nonprofit organizations, because they weren’t diverse. I was thinking about my experience with white theaters, for example, how they do their one nonwhite play a year and wonder why that audience doesn’t come to the rest of their season, when the reason is obvious! But, I went on, maybe I didn’t have to be as hard on white boards, because white people and black people tend to support different organizations.

Then Dr. Hollins was walking closer to me.

She asked me, “Did you notice the reaction in the room?” Tired from two nights of not enough sleep and from an intense day of training, I was too frazzled to notice. Looking back on it, I remember frowns, looks of astonishment, sudden intakes of breath.


Asking me if I’d listen, be curious

Dr. Hollins asked me if I was willing to listen to some people in the room tell me their reaction to what I’d said, to be curious.

I’ve been cultivating my natural curiosity about people for many years, so of course I said yes.


Asking others if they’d share

So Dr. Hollins asked if anybody was willing to tell me their reaction to what I’d said. She called first on a white woman sitting nearby – I’ll call her Lucy.

As Lucy spoke to me, I practiced the norm Listen for Understanding. After 13 years as a mediator, I’m good at this, but anybody can do it. Just tell yourself, silently, that while the other person is speaking you’re going to accept everything they say as true.

When Lucy had finished, Dr. Hollins asked me if I would express in my own words what I understood Lucy to say. This is harder, but what I tell my mediation clients to do is to imagine that they have to faithfully pass on to a third person what someone has said. Unfortunately, at this point I don’t remember what Lucy said, but I know she pointed out ways I was mistaken.

Then Dr. Hollins called on a Latina woman I’ll call Josefina. Just as Lucy had done, Josefina embodied the norm Speak Your Truth.

What I heard in what Josefina said was her pain at being a token person of color, of people (white people) constantly interrupting her, of white people presenting her ideas and recommendations as though they were their own. She said that I shouldn’t go easier on white boards of nonprofits, but be even harder on them. That the reason they’re not diverse is the same reason that they don’t effectively serve communities of color.

It wasn’t easy for me to hear two people speak their truth about something I said that offended them. Especially in front of 60 people. I certainly did Experience Discomfort! One thing that helped me was how compassionate and supportive Dr. Hollins was in leading us through this conversation. Not only of me, but of Lucy and Josefina, too. I felt that she cared about all of us, and wanted us to get the most out of the exchange that we possibly could.


Sitting in nonclosure

After absorbing what I’d heard for a few minutes, took a breath. I got as far as “I apologize for offending you,” before Dr. Hollins gently cut off the rest of my apology. She told me that listening was the only thing I needed to do, the best gift I could give. I felt incomplete, but after all, another of the norms is Expect and Accept Non-Closure. And maybe she was urging me towards the norm No Fixing, to keep me from trying to “fix” Josefina’s pain, and the pain of everyone in the room.

At some point, Dr. Hollins asked Josefina how she – Josefina – would have been around me without Dr. Hollins’ intervention. Josefina said she would’ve avoided me for the rest of the training. When she said that, a lot of other people in the room nodded. I was horrified, realizing that I never would’ve known why people were avoiding me. But now? Dr. Hollins asked. Josefina said she was fine with me. (And in fact she sat next to me the next day, which was a great gift she gave me.)

Dr. Hollins asked the room how they would have felt if she hadn’t addressed the emotion in the room, hadn’t addressed how offended people were by what I said. Some people replied that they would’ve disengaged from the rest of the training. So it was important for Dr. Hollins to address the problem, otherwise she would’ve lost the trust of many people in the room.


Recognizing I’m not a bad person

Ilsa Govan was there, too, of course. I haven’t mentioned her because Dr. Hollins leading that part of the training, and Ilsa was mostly observing. But she did step in once, when I said something about “people like me” being offensive. She urged me, and everyone, to think of ourselves as “someone who’s done what I’ve done.” Rather than seeing myself as a horrible person, to realize that I’d said something offensive.


Thanking everyone

At the end, Dr. Hollins thanked everyone for their participation in the discussion, acknowledging that it’s not easy to do what we did.


Staying engaged

I felt really self-conscious when I arrived for the second day of the training, but I remembered to Stay Engaged. It wasn’t easy, but then this work isn’t easy, and pretty soon I felt better.


What I learned

So I took another step on what my husband calls my Odyssey of understanding the experiences and the feelings of people of color in this country. Even more deeply than I ever had before, I heard the pain, frustration, anger, and exhaustion that people of color feel every single day of their lives.

I also experienced how acutely uncomfortable it is to accept truths about how you’ve affected people, especially when it comes to race and racism.

I can use all of this in my own work. Not just learning the facilitation techniques that the trainers were teaching, but also my experience of how difficult the work can be – I can be more compassionate of the people I work with.

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Early, Often, and With Increasing Depth: Talking with Children about Racism and White Privilege

blacklivesLast December I was participating in a peaceful protest led by young people of color at West Lake Center in solidarity with Ferguson to call attention to the fact that Black Lives Matter. I saw many families with young children reacting in different ways to us protestors. Some were clearly annoyed. Others looked frightened and were quickly pulling their children away from us. Still others were engaged in conversations with their children, and, although I couldn’t hear them, looked to be explaining what we were doing and why.

Whether talking directly or sending messages through body-language, all of these parents were communicating something to their children not just about protests, but about race in the United States. With the Black Lives Matter movement emerging after Michael Brown was shot by a police officer to the recent murder of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson in church by a white supremacist, the time is now to develop more skills in talking with children about racism.

For many parents of color, conversations about racism begin very early as a way to help young children develop the armor they’ll need when faced with bias. Children are equipped to realize racial discrimination is not because there’s something wrong with them, but something wrong with the person doing the discriminating. And, on a more fundamental level, the talk about what to do when you see a police officer can be a life or death matter.

However, conversations about racism are far less common in white families. Many parents want to believe children don’t notice race or are afraid that by calling attention to race, they’ll make the problem worse. When, in fact, the best way to ensure white children don’t develop a sense of inherent racial superiority is to talk openly about systemic barriers facing people of color.

Here are two tips for talking with children about racism, white privilege, and white supremacy.

1. Practice.
We often avoid having these conversations with children because of our own discomfort. Practice talking with your friends about racism you’re seeing in news stories (note: this doesn’t mean post an article on social media). Recognize you don’t need to know everything and practice asking good questions. Pro tip: Start with friends you know agree with your perspective, then move into more challenging conversations with those who don’t.

2. Avoid Making it About Good vs. Bad.
Children are taught from a young age to see the world as full of good guys and bad guys. I remember overhearing a conversation between a six and an eight year old where the older child was saying she’d heard about a really, really bad guy named Hitler. The younger responded, “You mean, he turned to the Dark Side?” Although I laughed at this exchange, it illustrates how racialized good/bad is in media, as white and light are often associated with the protagonist.

Oversimplifying conversations about white supremacy to a good/bad dichotomy may feel like the easiest way to explain this to a child, but it actually makes things more complicated.

There have been many widely publicized cases of police officers killing unarmed Black people and many less discussed, but equally important, cases with Native people such as John T. Williams in Seattle. This is a pattern that results from institutional racism in policies and practices that Michelle Alexander does a great job of illustrating in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

This also happens in the context of a wide-spread culture in the United States that continues to treat Black people as less valuable, less intelligent, more dangerous, etc. than white people. It is easy for anyone of us to list the multiple stereotypes of Black people. And given that it is so easy, we must accept the likelihood that we’ve internalized these stereotypes (to test your own implicit bias, go to Project Implicit). Therefore, individual police officers, especially in stressful situations, may be more likely to see a Black man as dangerous, even if they think they’re not prejudiced.

If we just tell children that the officers who killed Freddie Gray were bad people, they might start wondering how all of these “bad guys” got a job in law enforcement. If we just tell children that Dylan Roof was a bad person, we miss the bigger picture of a pattern of white supremacy that persists and influences decisions and attitudes in this country beyond a few extremists.

Finally, good/bad framing leaves no room for change. When I’m doing workshops, people will often respond defensively to the idea that they could have said or done something racist. They talk instead about their good intentions, essentially saying, “I’m a good person.” But, it is impossible to live in the United States and not collude in some way with institutional racism. I want our children to grow into adults who understand that good, well-intentioned people can make mistakes because of their racial biases. I want them to be able to acknowledge, apologize, and learn from their mistakes. I also want them to see the potential for growth and change in others. That is much easier when we don’t see ourselves as “bad guys” when our biases inevitably show up.

So how do you talk with a child outside of a good/bad binary? Start early, revisit the conversation often, and add increasing depth. For example:

  • Point out stereotypes on TV shows, in movies, and in books. “What did you notice about the race or clothing colors of the “good guys” and “bad guys”?”
  • “There are a lot of laws that make our criminal justice system (or simplify to policing) unfair to Black and Brown people.”
  • “All of us have stereotypes and we have to try hard to be fair to each other. When a person is in a position of power, such as a police officer, they have to be extra careful in life and death situations to not let their stereotypes effect their decisions.”
  • “Throughout the history of the United States, Black people have faced violence from white supremacy in the laws, culture and some groups of people. Black people are very resilient and have fought hard for equal treatment. It is up to all of us to put an end to racism. One thing I’m doing to support justice for all is…”

By practicing these conversations we’ll become more comfortable with the discomfort. This will help us raise children of color who have a healthy, positive sense of their own racial identity and white children who don’t feel superior to others. As we stumble through these talks, we also learn better how we can address racism and white privilege and put an end to these tragedies in our lifetime.

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Activities That Work: Help Start the Hard Conversations About Race and Oppression

Dan Magill attended our workshop on Activities for Trainers in 2014 and we’re happy to share the following reflections on his experience.

By Dan Magill, ProActive Content

Have you witnessed or been the recipient of hurtful comments based on race or ethnicity?

Did you feel unable to respond in a healthy way?

Does your workplace have a culture of fear and avoidance when it comes to talking about race?

Do you serve marginalized populations and feel like you lack the ability to relate to your students and clients?

One of the reasons we continue to struggle with racial conflict and marginalization is because people are afraid to talk about it. And, many of the people who aren’t afraid still feel unsure of how to talk about it in a way that helps, rather than alienates.

Why are conversations about race so hard to have?

Is it the assumptions? The mistrust? The fear?

Perhaps you’re like me, who for the early part of my life as a white man, found it easier to just avoid the issue altogether. I have since learned that it’s much easier to avoid and ignore things that make us uncomfortable than to engage with them.

But then, that’s why we’re still struggling against stereotypes and marginalization decades after the Civil Rights movement.

If you’re like me, you know this is a problem, and you want to do something to help. But it’s hard to know where to begin. And whenever you have a chance to speak to a situation, you find yourself tongue-tied, afraid of offending someone, and ill-equipped to know what to say.

That’s why I attended the workshop by Cultures Connecting called Activities for Facilitating Courageous Conversations on Race.

Led by clinical psychologist Dr. Caprice Hollins and classroom teacher Ilsa Govan, this workshop challenged my privileged assumptions about how I fit into the multitude of experiences and backgrounds all around me.

Early in the workshop, we received tons of materials you can use when you conduct your own training sessions. This is the primary goal of this workshop: To equip attendees to lead their own workshops in whatever context they work in – a school, a workplace, a church, a volunteer organization – any place where lots of people come together from different backgrounds.

Can you talk about race in your workplace?

Where there are varying backgrounds, there is a lack of understanding. A lack of being known.

The materials provided gave me practical tools that I can use to bridge those gaps through honest and respectful conversation.

Here’s what you’ll experience if you attend this eye-opening workshop the next time they offer it:

First up, you’ll receive 7 norms that set the tone for any formal conversation about race. At the heart of these is a profound goal:

We don’t want a safe space. We want a brave space.

Safe means comfortable. And conversations on race are anything but. What I found out, and what the people in your life need to know as well, is that being uncomfortable is okay – as long as there’s a good reason to go there.

Within that brave space, Dr. Hollins and Ilsa took us through a series of activities. We spent less time on the actual activities than they would normally take, because the goal of this workshop is to enable the participants to run this same workshop themselves. After doing the activity, we spent a long time debriefing not just the content, but the kinds of challenges that come up during the administration of it. Questions such as:

  • How do you handle a participant who doesn’t want to be there?
  • How do you establish that “brave” space, so people feel comfortable going to the hard places?
  • What are some effective questions to ask? What should we avoid?
  • How do we keep on topic and allow people to air their feelings without the session becoming angry?
  • What do we do if it does become angry?

Going through the tunnel of discomfort

This was expertly demonstrated by the facilitators. In one situation, a fairly uncomfortable misunderstanding arose based on the language one participant used toward another – in front of the entire room with over 60 attendees.

Most of us (especially dominant whites like me) would have just stepped back and said, “It’s okay, I’m sure she didn’t mean it. Let’s try to stay on topic.” We’d probably pull them aside, maybe separate them, and try to reassure them that’s everything is fine. I know this because everything in my being assumed this is what they would do, and hoped they would do it really fast. This is that ‘avoidance’ instinct I still have to wrestle against.

But Dr. Hollins did the exact opposite of this. She kept completely calm, and guided the two people through the misunderstanding in front of everyone. Watching this was incredible, and the benefits were priceless:

All 60 of us got to witness what it looks like to go through what I call “the tunnel” – that scary place of conflict and uncertainty, where we can’t see what’s on the other side.

But if we don’t go through the tunnel, the same racial stereotypes, assumptions, biases, and misunderstandings will continue to plague us and perpetuate the lack of opportunity for people of color.

In that situation, what started out as discomfort, awkwardness, and fear of offense, turned into a moment of real breakthrough and a new understanding for both perspectives. Even better, we saw in person what it means and how it looks to have a courageous conversation on race. In public. And it was done in a respectful, healthy, and yet slightly uncomfortable space. Brave.

Does this offend you? Let’s talk about it!

We participated in several activities, and while we learned a lot about ourselves, we also left feeling able to facilitate them as well. Here are three we spent the most time on:

Agent/Target: How does it feel to be out of the loop? What’s it like to grow up and live in a place where you don’t know the rules, but still be held accountable to them? Everyone else knows what’s “normal,” but they won’t tell you. And then they get frustrated when you don’t join the crowd and respond the way everyone else does.

Stereotype Exercise: What are all the things you think about other races but would never say? This activity blows political correctness out of the water. You’ll see how all these attempts to “protect” us from offensive language has really just shoved the stereotypes we already had under the rug. They’re still there, affecting how we perceive people, how we treat them, how we interact with them. We just don’t acknowledge it, and hope no one notices. Here’s where I also learned what it means to “self-stereotype,” and why whites are the only ones who don’t do this. This activity can get pretty raw, but that’s because this stuff has gone unspoken for too long. Want to defeat your fear? This activity will do it.

Color Line: Do you want to know how people of other ethnicities experience life? For this activity, every attendee filled out a questionnaire asking about various beliefs and experiences, and then got scored based on our answers. Then, we lined up based on our scores. The resulting disparity spoke for itself, as a multiethnic room was suddenly split almost entirely in half. This is a stark picture of the reality of white privilege, and the kinds of bridges we still need to build.

In addition to these, the workshop briefly presents a few other activities, and gives materials explaining several more. I left feeling empowered and equipped to engage my peers in conversations about race in ways I never would have before.

And at the same time, I also grew in my awareness of myself and others.

One of the greatest fears (and lies) is that we shouldn’t talk about race because it will only lead to anger and division. But as the presenters astutely pointed out, we are already divided. The only way to come together is to go through the tunnel – to talk about this, openly, honestly, and fearlessly.

I came away with two great feelings.

  1. I experienced the purpose of these activities and grew in my understanding.
  2. I felt ready to engage with others and conduct trainings in my workplace and in my other circles of influence.

If this sounds like the sort of thing the people in your circles of influence would benefit from, I encourage you to attend this workshop the next time it comes around. Or, have Dr. Hollins and Ilsa come to you in person and lead it themselves.

Either way, you’ll be taking the small but vital step that far too many people have yet to take.

You’ll be talking.

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