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
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.
At the end, Dr. Hollins thanked everyone for their participation in the discussion, acknowledging that it’s not easy to do what we did.
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.
You’ve probably seen articles or videos lately about introverts. Possibly you have friends you never would have suspected who’ve made references to being introverted. “Really?! You? But we met at a party where you were wearing hot pants!” Okay, maybe your friends don’t go to those kinds of parties, but many people who I’ve always thought of as extroverted are now coming out, as it were, as introverts.
At first, I was excited to see and learn more about this. I live with someone who fits every characteristic on the misunderstood introvert list, including dating an extrovert, and I thought it might be helpful for me to better empathize with him.
However, the more I’ve read, the greater my skepticism. I’ve been trying to figure out why this introvert stuff bothers me so much. It’s not because I think people are lying about their personalities matching the 23 Signs you’re Secretly an Introvert list on Huffington Post. It reminds me of horoscopes. I wonder what the science is behind this and who is making money doing the introvert speaking circuit?
And because any time labels divide the complexity of human expression, perspective and experience into two kinds of people (the poor ambiverts always get left out), I suspect they are far too simplistic and most likely based on dominant cultural norms. How could the categories of introvert or extrovert alone possibly apply cross-culturally, given the extent to which our gendered, racialized, class, language, disability, etc. experiences are so different?
Clearly the label of extrovert is based on white, hetero-patriarchal, Christo-normative culture. Although they don’t put it quite that way, the articles about introverts usually mention the pressure they feel by not fitting with dominant cultural norms. But that’s part of the problem. They don’t put it that way. And in so doing, take culture, privilege and power out of the picture.
I could let all of this go if it really were just some new pop culture phenomenon that made people feel better about themselves and helped us recognize and respect our many differences. However, another dynamic I’m seeing as a result of the introversion conversion, is privilege protection.
For as long as I’ve been facilitating conversations about race, I’ve had people saying they were shy, and that’s why they wouldn’t engage in the discussions. This holds weight to a point, and that point is when white people in particular use shy, and now the introvert label, as an excuse to disengage from race conversations.
Examples of privilege protection I’ve seen increasing lately:
- “Introverts” only talking with other people they know agree with them that racism isn’t really a problem. This reinforces their beliefs and keeps them insulated from those whose experiences and perspectives would prove otherwise.
- White “Introverts” not saying anything in front of the large group while people of color do the heavy lifting in conversations about stereotypes and white privilege.
- White “Introverts” looking at their phones during small group discussions when everyone else in the room is engaged in conversations about race.
- “Introverts” not sharing their vulnerabilities with coworkers, especially in situations where someone has just told them a story about the deep pain racism caused in their lives. The introvert is quiet and the first person wonders if they’ve revealed too much, if their story will later be used against them as they so often have.
- White “Introverts” refusing to attend training on cultural competency because they say workshops where they have to talk with others don’t fit their learning style.
Rather than introversion, much of this behavior actually lies in the fear of making mistakes, especially in public. In the fear that if we make mistakes people will assume we are racist and therefore irredeemably bad people. So in trying to protect ourselves from embarrassment or having to question our biases, we instead stay safe behind a convenient label.
The impact of this is we don’t let in new learning about ourselves that might reveal the ways we’ve colluded with systems of oppression, and therefore learn to change those behaviors. We don’t engage in conversations that can lead to deeper understanding of differences and significant change. By saying, respect my difference as an introvert, a person has a great excuse not to be involved in social change movements.
This doesn’t mean everyone who identifies as an introvert is practicing privilege protection, I know quite a few activists who identify with this label. But I’ll maintain my skepticism as long as I see the label introvert being used for overly simplistic groupings of people and the popularity of this idea providing a convenient way to maintain those same dominant cultural norms they want you to know don’t apply to them.
I wrote and presented the following at an Episcopal Women’s Gathering recently:
I’m going to give a brief overview of our approach to anti-racism work by explaining the norms we operate under. One of the first steps in dismantling racism is self-awareness. For me, as a White person, this means the on-going process of interrogating the dominant cultural norms I’ve taken for granted as “just the way people are” or “just how things are done”. In contrast, the norms of People of Color are often referred to as “cultural”. In redefining norms, we seek to make conversations and actions more explicitly equitable. The following are adapted from the work of Glenn Singleton’s Courageous Conversations.