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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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Reflections from the 16th Annual White Privilege Conference

I returned to the White Privilege Conference for a 9th time this March. What keeps me going back? Every year I gain new insights into myself, into my work, and into ways to challenge institutional isms. In addition, the amazing group of people that make WPC special co-create a space that feels like a second home. Seeing the familiar faces and all the new connections keeps me motivated beyond the conference, as I realize just how many people care passionately about making our world a little better.

One theme that stood out was the idea of “calling people in” versus calling them out. Loretta J. Ross spoke about this in her keynote, highlighting the importance of bringing more people into movements for justice. She used a story about talking with her brother to illustrate how loving someone can be a powerful motivation to think critically about oppressive comments. Many other speakers and workshops also touched on this idea. They emphasized the importance of actually caring about the person you’re talking to, not trying to situate yourself as superior to them, asking questions, and relating to their experiences.

I then had the opportunity to practice this in a workshop. When talking in triads, a white woman made a couple of racist remarks, what I would call microaggressions, towards a man of color in our group. Part of her response when we pointed this out was asking him to say stereotypes about her because she said she wanted to be hurt, too.

This reminded me of an experience I once had in an all-white group where a couple of people essentially said, “I want to be called out, not called in. Sometimes that’s what I need.” This is problematic to me for a few reasons. First, more people hurting because of racism is not going to end racism. White allies wallowing in or even embracing the pain of being called out in order to somehow feel better about our unconscious bias or privilege feels messed up. And the idea that stereotypes about white women or calling out a white person would somehow be equivalent to, and therefore off-set, stereotypes or other forms of racism directed at people of color is also false.

In our white caucus I heard many people talking about not having the skills to call in other white people. I posed a few questions to move us beyond thinking of this as simply a skills deficit:

  • What do you fear will happen if you call someone in?
  • What do you get out of your current behavior (calling out)?
  • What would you have to give up?
  • How do you feel about the people you are calling out?
  • What does calling people out have to do with internalized superiority?

These are all questions I continue to ask myself. In the triad, I related a personal story to what the white woman was saying, while still pointing out the problem with her comment along side (not on behalf of) the man of color. She asked me for more resources. It seemed to end with her staying engaged and wanting to learn and change. At the same time, I didn’t really care for her and noticed myself feeling superior to her.

And so I will to return to the White Privilege Conference and other spaces where we can continue this journey of exploring what collective liberation means and what it will take for us to get there.

In Solidarity,


(Special shout out to Heather, Kay, Tilman, Johanna, and Ilana this year!)

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Being the Change

By Caprice D. Hollins, Psy D and Ilsa Govan

A question we regularly grapple with at Cultures Connecting is what does it mean to live out our values and practice cultural competence? On a daily basis we come face to face with our own socialization around race, gender, class, religion, and multiple other factors that make up our identities. We also work within systems that privilege some at the expense of others. This shows up in our relationship with each other.
It is painful when we realize we’ve been behaving in ways that contribute to the problems we are working to change, especially when the people who we’ve offended or those who offend us are those we care about the most. This makes it all the more challenging to engage in a conversation, for fear of harming the relationship in some way.
We know that attacking creates enemies and avoiding the conversation leads to inauthentic relationships where eventually two people who once cared about one another grow apart. To nurture our relationship, we sometimes find ourselves having to engage in courageous conversations in spite of our fears, knowing the risk is much greater when we don’t. Here are some things that we try to keep in mind that you may find helpful.
When bringing up a concern to the other, we do our best to…

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Understanding and Embracing Cultural Diversity

Plenary Address for The Arc’s National Conference
Saturday, August 3rd, 2013
Bellevue, Washington
I’d first like to acknowledge we are on the land of the tribes that make up the Puget Sound Salish people. One of those tribes is the Duwamish, of which Chief Seattle was a member. His name might be familiar to you. However, you may not see the Duwamish tribe listed on maps of the area, because they are still fighting for federal recognition and are at a critical moment in this struggle. If you are interested in supporting this community, please go to and make a contribution to their legal defense fund. As people who are understanding and embracing diversity, I appreciate you letting me take a moment to call for your support. That’s what happens when you ask an activist to give a keynote.

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No Fixing

Another norm for engaging in courageous conversations and anti-racist activism is No Fixing. I’ve found this easiest to explain with a metaphorical story.

A few months ago I was riding my bike home from work when I was hit by a car. I was going straight and I saw the driver at an upcoming intersection look left, directly past me, then pull out into the intersection to make a right hand turn. Luckily she was moving slowly, as I was right in front of her (in the bike lane, btw) when she drove into the intersection. She knocked me over, causing a bit of damage to the bike, but mostly just scaring both of us.

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