Wait! Before you talk about race, read this!
Okay class, the subject here is once again “race,” or more to the point, how you choose to talk about race “when nobody outside your clique is within earshot.” Even better, we’ll address how you could talk about race “when those others are side-by-side with you.”
Whoa, hold your horses; don’t run, don’t delete, don’t shout me down. Bear with me, please!
“For crying out loud Terry, why do you keep bringing up race?”
Yes, I hear that question from time to time. However, the truth is that race continues to bring itself up, so it needs no heavy lifting from me. All I do, however imperfectly, is to wrap words around it, to keep it front and center, to prevent it from sliding into wishful thinking, the “Hey, we have a black president now, so we can now move beyond race” abyss.
Hum, tell that to the families of the victims in Charleston. Tell that to the tattooed, cigarette smoking “I dare you say anything” couple that rolled out of that red pickup truck yesterday with the biggest confederate flag I’ve even seen with the word “redneck” etched across it’s surface.
Now as I’ve said many times before, by not talking about race we are in fact talking about race. That old saying, “Our silence speaks volumes” is an applicable truism here. Intellectually honest folks are smart enough to notice what’s talked about and what’s not talked about. And they often wonder why.
So what do we do?
Well before those of you who are ambitious enough to give a race dialogue a try, the advice here is to hold off until you do some introspection followed by some grappling with some important questions.
Let’s start with former.
Imagine yourself with your immediate family or otherwise your clique of others who look like you for reason of race (black, white, Asian, Latino, etc.), and you all are in front a big screen TV set in your living room when one of the following images appear on the screen; President Barack Obama, protesters of alleged police brutality, Bill Cosby, Caitlyn Jenner, a popular rap artist, North Korea’s Kim Jung Un, members of ISSIS, “illegal” immigrants, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, a small group of young black males, etc.
So do you immediately reach for the remote control and switch the channel? But if not, what does your typical conversation consist of when confronted with any of these images in the “safety” of your own kind? What some of the typical adjectives that flow from your lips and theirs? And if you happen to have young kids playing in the next room, and within earshot, what impact would your conversation have on them (think second-hand smoke here)?
How would that conversation stay the same or differ if others of another race or form of “difference” walked unexpectedly into the room? What might you hope that they didn’t hear from a distance?
Okay, moving right along, let’s assume that we’ve now piqued your curiosity about the potential for developing and talking about race in a multiracial context. Before taking that leap, here is a list of questions you may want to consider:
- What’s your vested interest in wanting to engage in such a dialogue? What do you say to others who advise you against this; to leave “well enough alone?”
- What are some typical “booby traps” that can sabotage the authentic cross racial relationship and conversation? What are the risks of leaving those booby traps set?
- If you deactivate the booby traps set by finger-pointing blame and/or guilt and other hot buttons from the dialogue, what are the chances for unanticipated breakthroughs and new possibilities?
- Should retreats into silence be allowed in the conversation? If yes, what are the risks and consequences of such allowances?
- How do you make it safe during the conversation for people to be vulnerable, and to interrupt those who seek to exploit that vulnerability?
- How does one “reel in” the strongly opinionated and help them to stay open to – and not dismiss – the realities of others?
- What are signs, subtle and otherwise, that the conversation is flowing along productively? Perhaps unproductively?
- How do you position participants to get to presenting and/or versus either/or viewpoints?
- If you remove “being right” as a factor in the interaction, how do you deal with those who are invested in always “being right” so that they don’t drive others into silence?
- For those who desire crystal clear outcomes and prefer to put metrics around the effectiveness of the conversation, how do you help them remain focused on the key issues when outcomes may be unpredictable and things cannot always be measured?
- What is a “failed conversation” and who defines it?
- If word gets out, as it probably will, that you’ve launched a conversation that’s drawing great reviews, how do you (or do you) allow others to join who have not been there from the get-go and experienced the incredible ups and painful downs along the way?
- Take a few minutes to reflect on the preceding questions. What new ones would need to be added to make your conversation a lot more meaningful?
An action for consideration:
- First, develop your answers to all the above question (or the ones of greatest interest).
- Next, have your cross-racial partner develop his/her answers to them, then the two of you compare the similarities and differences in your responses.
- Finish by sharing what you both learned through this exchange and discuss how you can use it as a building block to launch a conversation or to benchmark an existing one.
- Consider making this a large group assignment, a team-builder, or a leadership development exercise.
Okay, class is now dismissed!
©Terry Howard is a writer, story teller and trainer who resides in metropolitan Atlanta. He is currently a senior associate with Diversity Wealth, a member of the Cross Cultural Academy and Contributing Writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle. He can be reached at (470) 558-7310.