At a training for trainers I recently co-led, an African-American woman, the only one in the entire group (another African-American was there for only three days), initiated and volunteered to lead an evening program about racial identity. With the support of another person, and within the space of less than an hour, she facilitated a discussion that surfaced a number of issues and questions for several people in the room.
In my experience, which is neither vast nor tiny, any time the question of how we relate to our own and other people’s race is raised, complexity and pain come to the room – before, during, or after the event. I myself have been in a major quandary about how to find useful ways of supporting these conversations, and am doing less than I used to in this area, because I have rarely seen the pain that arises, both for people of color and for white people, be engaged with in ways that supported significant transformation. I am grateful to a few colleagues of mine that are continuing to engage in the inquiry year after year, in the NVC and Diversity retreat, where I believe they are breaking ground in creating a space where radical honesty, complete care and respect for everyone in the room, and deep learning for all happen regularly. Slowly, I have some hope that their lessons will support others, as well as me, in conducting race dialogues that are truly fruitful.
Until then, I applaud any of us who tries, who engages, who says what we truly believe, who shares and invites others to share what we are afraid to say of our experience. However little I know, I am confident that not talking about race is not going to get us anywhere new.
After the end of the retreat, one person approached me in writing and asked a couple of pointed questions. These questions, and the topic as a whole, are so significant to me, that I chose, with that person’s permission, to answer them publicly. This is what today’s blog is about. I will call the person who initiated the evening Cassandra, and the person who asked the questions Julie.
What Gets Acknowledged
Julie’s first question came in reference to my choice, at the end of the circle, to acknowledge Cassandra publicly for all it took for her, as the only Black person in the room – all the work she had to do to get to a place where she could initiate and lead this event with such poise and grace even while hearing what I had every reason to believe were painful and difficult statements from some of the people in the room. Julie was uncomfortable with my choice. She wrote that at that moment she wanted to, but didn’t, say: “But what about what it took for others to get here? Especially others who may have encountered barriers that are not as visible.” Julie was, at the same time, aware “that there is a place for [comparing] in terms of recognizing things like structural injustice.” Mostly, she wanted to know, as facilitator of the larger event within which Cassandra conducted the evening, what led me to choose to make the specific comment I made.
Here’s my own transparency, next. It was a risk for me to do this, and I wasn’t sure in the moment whether or not what I did made sense. What motivated me to say what I said was years and years of knowing how much people of color absorb when they are in a group of overwhelming white majority, and the number of times I was wondering how that could continue to go on without ever being acknowledged. The many times I wanted to acknowledge it and didn’t find enough courage, and the relief I felt in that moment of knowing that I had enough courage to do it precisely because I was the facilitator. In other words, blunt words: I used my power as facilitator to give me the strength to speak what I have often wanted to say. The power of just having access to privilege by virtue of having lighter skin than others was not enough to balance the risk of getting negative responses, which is painful to admit and true.
In addition, I didn’t want Cassandra to have one more experience that doesn’t get acknowledged when I am the facilitator, and, therefore, in some ways, holding responsibility for everyone’s well-being.
This clarity in the moment came with some fear – that Cassandra would not welcome the acknowledgment, that others would have precisely the experience that Julie had, and that I just didn’t understand things well enough, as an immigrant to this complex reality of race relations (albeit thirty years into it). I was willingly taking on the fear, and, still, when Julie asked me the question, the first thing I did was check with a local African-American friend and diversity trainer, who put my heart to rest by appreciating my choice. I am dismayed to see just how much inner uncertainty I still have about this issue that required me to get some external validation – being questioned by one person I was no longer internally sure of my choice.
Now, to articulate the reasoning more fully, I want to start by saying that I absolutely know that every single person, even those with the most access to resources on the planet, encounters immense barriers, many of which are invisible, to living and thriving. I am confident that many people in the room that evening had had experiences that made the conversations we had that evening challenging. I was acknowledging Cassandra because what I saw her do was, to my mind, unique. She took on being the facilitator, which meant, in that context, absorbing challenging messages and continuing to choose to put her attention on holding the whole rather than on having her personal response. That takes immense strength regardless of racial experience, and especially when the experience of absorbing such comments is regular fare for her. In a segregated society, white people can most often protect themselves from the discomfort of engaging with the structures and habits that support this separation. Black people simply cannot. This is one of the ways that privilege works: it allows those who have it to not notice it and its effects on others.
Given this way of seeing reality (which, granted, others may disagree with), I hope I regularly find the willingness to acknowledge what I see happening in the room even if there is some added discomfort for white people. Although I want to act with care, always, I believe that experiencing certain discomforts may be essential to growing in awareness and finding the courage to take action to create change.
Why Talk about Race – and how
Julie also raised another question which I wanted to address here. This one was more about the content of what Cassandra included in her activities. As Julie put it, “I’m longing for new questions. … are we still raising the same questions we were discussing 30 years ago because there has been no progress as a society? Or are we still doing that because we are not recognizing the progress that is there? Or both, and different people benefit from different questions because they are at different stages of awareness?”
This, along with Julie’s comment that “some of us know more than we are given credit for by the people who lead such trainings,” has led me to reflect deeply about the “why” of these conversations. Is the purpose learning? Is it awareness? Is it creating connection? Something else? Does knowing certain things lead to change? Do those of us who have been through some kind or another of diversity training or race dialogues act differently? Does any of it change the structural conditions that reinforce the separation and mistrust that continue to create suffering for so many?
If the rooms of, say, workshops in Nonviolent Communication continue to be full of white people, even when the trainer is not white (as is often the case here, in the Bay Area, where three of our core trainers are people of color and the classes continue to be mostly white), then I believe we haven’t found a way to change the conditions sufficiently. So I know I want us to keep trying, because, overall, I imagine that without being able to talk productively about race the progress towards a different future will be so hopelessly slow.
Grappling with the Challenge
And, yet, for myself, I have not been making it a priority to address the issue. Even in my writing on this blog, this is probably the third or fourth time, at most, that I am taking on this topic since I started writing over three years ago, generally weekly. I know what the reason for this choice is: I am not doing it because I have so much confusion about what can be effective. I haven’t, yet, seen anything – especially not in a context that people do not choose to enter – that led to results that gave me some hope that something fruitful would happen after the conversation was over.
The question of voluntary participation is huge for me. What happens at the NVC and Diversity retreat is so successful precisely because people are choosing to be there to address these questions. I don’t know yet how to extrapolate from there to respond to the fatigue and resentment that so often arise, not only from white people, when the topic comes up in other contexts. How to raise it meaningfully in contexts that are not chosen is something I haven’t figured out. I have, temporarily, lost my conviction about creating such conversations when I don’t have a vision of what I would do differently that might lead to results that give me more hope.
Part of the anguish is that while I can tell myself as much as I want that there is a good reason for my choice, I still know that my very hesitation is possible because I don’t live with the results of these conditions in a way that makes it impossible not to attend to them. I am protected, I am shielded. I am not the one who is followed by the security person when I walk into a store to buy something; it’s the young Black man who is. I am not the one who is less likely to get a taxi cab, especially at night. I can, and I clearly have, chosen to focus elsewhere.
I don’t give up, though. I want to believe we can create a world in which the dominant culture is no longer dominant, in which multiple cultures and experiences are not just tolerated or accepted or even embraced, and instead are an integral part of shaping what the culture as a whole looks like. I want to trust that we can change the structural conditions that so predictably result in different outcomes and life experiences for people of different groups. These are all intense and painful, overwhelming issues about which I feel such grief.
So what next? I’d like to hope that writing about it so directly will keep my own feet to the fire I so often invite others into, and that I will find my way to wrestle with all the internal and external obstacles. Working towards the future I want to believe is possible means learning better and better ways to talk with others across divisions that have kept us so separate, to come together, to share that work with others, however uncomfortable the journey may be. I hope to find support to continue.
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