We Need to Talk: An Invitation to an Authentic Conversation About Racism
Many of us take pride in our comfort discussing what society deems unmentionable – sex, eggs, abortion, desire and the like. Sure, we’re just fine saying vagina, but, make no mistake we have our own off limits topics. Each CoreAlign event brings into focus our inability to talk about race and power.
Like most taboos, racism is an impasse to real progress. For the last few months, having accepted there’s no going around, under or avoiding it, we’re trying to help create the best conditions for what feels like a dangerous conversation. Add to this, the painful exposure of the current state of racist discourse, actions and institutions in the case of Treyvon Martin and Paula Deen, and it feels like we are stepping off a cliff.
In the midst of all this, a dear friend suggested I do a T-group. She recommended it as a powerful form of experiential learning on leadership and race, so of course I signed up. A T-Group is a three-day conversation with 12 other people where we’re bound to discussing only what’s happening in the room. Imagine – an agenda-less meeting to learn about how groups function and develop more self-awareness, and boy did it prove a crash course on the dynamics of race in contemporary America. It took racism from the abstracts of “structural inequalities” to personal animus from zero to a hundred in just a few minutes.
One of the best aspects of doing a T-group was giving feedback to and hearing back from total strangers. Freed from the hangups embedded in maintaining existing relationships or cultivating new ones, I pushed my own boundaries, took risks and got direct; I gave feedback that was often more honest and clear than anything I’ve given to people in my work and personal life. I also saw how other people experienced me, unfiltered. It was an embarrassing, painful, amazing process – a great gift I’d like to go back to never again opening (maybe).
At the beginning of this T-group, where one other person and I faced an otherwise white room, I brought up race. My T-group goal was to get perspective as to whether people experienced me as an “angry woman of color”, as I’d been told before, and I stated as much to this group. But, each mention of race yielded an instant attempt at changing the subject, as quickly as I would point this out, someone would change the topic again.
Perhaps because I had no history with anybody in the room, I was able to recognize that the folks there avoided talking about race, not because they weren’t interested or discounted its importance, but because they lacked the capacity to tackle this topic. In the past, in similar situations, I’ve dismissed the people involved, silently declaring them hopeless or hurtful. This time, I could see the problem in a new light. I could pay attention to this inability to talk about race and be empathic. Unaware of what they were missing, I began to sympathetically perceive them as color-blind in a gorgeously technicolored world. I could only marvel at what they were missing.
Instead of lamenting others’ limitations, I realized that I had a choice. I could either invest in developing their capacity to talk about racism or I could accept them as they came. Our relationship, brief as it was, could be based on what they proved capable of doing; accepting this, I didn’t have to swallow my disappointment and pretend all was well with a smile. At that moment, I deemed it not worth the effort and dropped the topic. There were so many other fascinating dynamics to unpack.
However, on the last day, the issue of racism blew back unexpectedly. When a white woman told me she wanted to get closer to me, I told her that – for me – this would require her to see and get comfortable talking about race. She had been one of the most unapologetic and swift subject changers during the times when I tried bringing race to the fore at the outset. Hearing my need to openly discuss race as a pre-condition, the whole room erupted.
Three men, including the facilitator, yelled at me, insisting they “most definitely did not see race.” Voices raised, veins popping, indignant index fingers in the air, they shouted at me for caging them in a box labeled “white male”. They accused me of stereotyping.“ How dare I?” And “fuck you” to demanding that they acknowledge my Indian-ness, racism and the obvious brown hue of my skin.
I was stunned. These folks were losing their shit over a demand about facing race as a prerequisite to an authentic relationship. Immediately, they started dolling out feedback about how “angry, messy and unfair” I was. (I guess I got my answer about how people experience me.) The woman who professed to desire a relationship with me said she experienced me as “rich, arrogant and elitist.” Which one could simply shorten to “uppity.” I had become an enemy attempting to upend the tacitly accepted status quo of the invisibility of race and non-existence of racism.
This was probably the most honest conversation I’ve ever had in America about racism, and it was like any disaster – disgusting and mesmerizing in equal measure. There is so much more that I could tell about this experience (and feel free to ask me for more the next time we chat) but here I want to focus on what I learned.
Talking about racism is a scary, risky and threatening proposition. To even begin, we need to be willing to invest in each other, to say our relationships matter so much we’ll do what it takes to have them endure no matter how badly it goes the first (or second or third) time we “talk.”
Talking about race and power makes us vulnerable, and that goes for both whites and people of color. If we strive for honest, trusting and authentic relationships with each other, this requires a willingness to unveil our hurt and broadcast our shame, on both sides.
After all the shouting died down, I wasn’t willing to show how hurtful their behavior and words had been. This reluctance ended the conversation. We couldn’t return to a sense of understanding and connection as we had with other topics during our time together. We left the group splintered, unable to take that next scary step to connection that would have us trek through unknown and clearly scary terrain.
Talking about racism requires a commitment to kindness and a shared vision. If this group had had some shared vision for the kind of community we wanted to build together, if we had had an agreement to be patient and nurture each other through fear and lost status, perhaps we would have had a less raw and accusatory exchange. Perhaps we could have trusted each other and been more vulnerable. And perhaps, our shared vision for the future could have led us around to keep talking with each other until we reached some resolution.
Like many of you, I’ve participated in my fair share of diversity trainings – with abstracted nods to unpacking race and power. I’ve tried to teach others, been the symbolic spokeswoman for “my people”, and I’ve asked others to be my teachers, whether they were volunteering for this or not.
But none of that is the “talk” I’d like to see us having. This time, I have a different conversation in mind. A conversation that is personal, and accounts for each of our multiple, intersecting, identities and histories: a conversation that leads to a more honest relationship among us. A conversation that starts with an embrace of structural racism and then seeks to dig deeper, to go personal. It may not bring us closer, especially in the short term, but it will allow us to see each other for who we are, what we bring to our work and take from it, and – by extension – who and what we are not.
So, as I think about how CoreAlign is to host, convene, facilitate and participate in conversations about race and power, I promise to lean into risk, and summon up serious compassion. For whoever wants to join me in this, I promise to do my best to open myself up and talk about the hurt, shame, despair and hope. I admit no great eagerness to hash through the harm and hurt experienced around racism, but in my experience, staying silent about what’s hard to say doesn’t make it go away. So, I seek to launch this conversation in the service of a shared hope for a future where we all have the resources, rights and respect to have all the love, sex, family and community we desire.
I invite you to join me. Can we talk?