“In conflict you don’t bring a knife that cuts, you bring a needle that sews.” ~ African Proverb
How to Frame a Conversation about Race in America
Ideally, such a dialogue would lead to developing a broader range of options for living into Dr. King's future where people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
Color Explosion. Photo © Alice Merkel
What follows are three suggestions for framing a conversation on race which might ease the way toward creating those better options for our collective future. These suggestions are for people who are willing to self-reflect and look deeply at the role that racism plays in their lives. Those who’ve convinced themselves that they’re “color blind” or that the problem of racism exists entirely outside of themselves will not be good candidates for the kind of dialogue I am suggesting:
1. Begin with the premise that we are all racists – at least unconsciously so.
Three Suggestions for Framing a Conversation on Race
Participating in a dialogue where everyone is willing to acknowledge and own their racist assumptions, conditioning, tendencies and behaviors is likely to produce radically different outcomes than a dialogue where only some people acknowledge themselves as racists. If you are having trouble thinking of yourself as racist, perhaps taking the Harvard Implicit Association Test will give you some insight.
The Psychology of Blink: Understanding How Our Minds Work Unconsciously - Part 1 of 2 with Dr. Anthony Greenwald (right)
The IAT measures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy). ~ Project Implicit
From the article: "This is a composite of images shown on the Implicit Association Test for racial bias, which asks test-takers to associate words with rapidly flashing images. It is part of the Project Implicit online lab, which was created by three professors, including University of Washington professor Tony Greenwald."
Likewise, it is critical when listening to how racism has affected someone to refrain from giving any type of advice – the chances are quite high that your well-meaning words will not be received in the manner that you hope them to be. A simple "Thank you.", perhaps modified by something along the lines of “That must have been really hard for you.”, will go much further than any advice you might feel compelled to share.
Let’s underline that last point: waiting for clarity and resisting the rush to action that so often wells up inside of us when we are confronted by uncomfortable issues is a critical part of acting intelligently and it’s grossly under practiced. Conversations about racism offer us a practice field for developing the kind of patience and thoughtful care required to deal effectively with the enormity of the many interlocking messes that we find ourselves confronted with.
That common ground can then be fruitfully explored by examining the many ways that racism wounds us both individually and collectively, touching each of us to a greater or lesser degree.
Wounding Racism Polarizes People in COmmunity
1.) Racism wounds us when we are its target.
2.) Racism wounds us when we target others.
3.) Racism wounds us when we witness it in action.
This framing allows us to see that virtually everyone has experienced the effects of racism at some point in their lives.
Three Approaches to Framing a Conversation on Race
The questions framed below are designed to allow people to start where they are with the people closest to them – no special training, facilitation or set up is required. They’ll work just as well if everyone in the conversation shares the same racial background, as they will if the participants all come from different racial backgrounds. They’ll also work as starting point for a more coordinated effort should a community organization wish to invite their members into the conversation.
- How has racism wounded you?
- How has racism made you stronger?
- What is a forgiveness you are withholding due to racism?
- How are you generating and sharing compassion?
- How has racism wounded you?
- How have you healed those wounds?
- What is the healing you bring to others suffering from racist wounds?
- What forgiveness lies between you and your desired relationship with racism?
- Tell a story from a time when you first felt the impact of racism in your life.
- Tell a story from a much more recent time when you felt the impact of racism in your life.
- What has changed for you in the interval between these times?
- What arises for you in reflecting on this?
May your conversations be fierce, yet kind-hearted. ~ Ken Homer, Collaborative Conversations
Author Ken Homer is the founder of Collaborative Conversations: Include More Voices - Make Better Choices.
Ken Homer helps organizations leverage collaborative conversations to access awareness and insight for 21st century business transformation and enlightenment. Learn more about Ken at his Author Page here.
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