Author: Dana Morris Jones
Why is it so difficult to have constructive conversations about race? I’m not just referring to how uncomfortable they are, but to how ineffective they seem to be in enhancing understanding.
The easiest answer may be because our experiences are so vastly different that to achieve real understanding takes real skill. And the hard truth is that most of us either don’t have the requisite skills or we just don’t make the effort to practice them. Communication that bridges significant differences requires the ability to listen deeply to understand without judging. It also requires the discipline to not react, but to absorb and reflect before responding. It may also require a willingness to tolerate discomfort.
There is no doubt in my mind that the experience of being black in this country is something I, as a white person, can never fully understand. I can read about the history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation that still existed in my lifetime (and does today in some ways), and how the vicious cycle of being persecuted for trying to exercise basic rights (e.g. voting, access to housing, education) leads to the perception of black criminality which leads, in turn, to more persecution. I can read and listen, but I can never experience any of it except as an observer.
And as a white person, I can say that I am proud of how I and my ancestors have done our best to contribute to a fair and just society. I marched against injustice in the 60’s, my father worked to help disadvantaged people (mostly African American) afford to buy homes in the 60’s and 70’s, my immigrant grandparents overcame their own experience of discrimination to create successful lives and families. I believe in real equal opportunity and a society built on hard work, and fairness, and have lived in accordance with that belief. I’ve done some of the right things, but clearly, I haven’t done enough. As a nation, we’ve never come even close to creating an even playing field or a truly equitable society. We can acknowledge that people of color regularly encounter barriers and roadblocks to economic, educational, physical, social and psychological well-being that white people rarely do. Acknowledgement is the first meager but necessary step.
At the same time, we can ask also to be listened to and understood. We must be able to talk about our own experience without fear of being shamed, discounted or attacked. Many white people are reluctant to discuss their perceptions of black criminality and they may be inclined to defensiveness when they hear the phrase ‘white privilege’ which they often take as criticism instead of an observation about the inherent disadvantage of being a person of color. Deep listening without judgment, inquiry and reflection are required by all. Maybe that’s a lot to ask from people who feel so wronged. But it may be the only way to break through the inertia that has kept things the same for so long. These difficult and uncomfortable conversations are necessary if real change is to occur.
How can we begin to hear each other with real understanding and compassion? It takes work and real desire to bring about change. White people must try to understand the anguish, despair, and yes, anger that black people feel. We need to listen deeply to that other experience, without judgment. Our own sense of righteousness does not undo any of that experience. We need to ask questions and be open to hearing things we may not want to hear.
Only when we’ve had these conversations can we can start to work together to solve problems. The answers cannot be cavalier or easy. Words, gestures and symbols do matter and we cannot afford to simply react when we hear or see things we don’t fully understand. We have to dig deeper. Colin Kaepernick intended to call attention to the issue of excessive police force used against black people when he took a knee during the national anthem. I wonder if he was aware that it might be misinterpreted by many. When people propose ‘defunding’ policing, what does that mean? If it means redirecting funds away from punitive approaches to everything from homelessness and mental illness to peaceful protest and into investment in the socioeconomic infrastructure of black communities, it makes a lot of sense. If it means doing away with police departments, it sounds like a pretty bad idea to many. More talk, fewer sound bites and slogans.
We can’t rely on our officials, at any level, to do it all. We are all complicit in creating the society in which we live so we must all be part of making change. The wave that is washing over the country right now seems very powerful, but not everyone is being carried along with it. There are some who will wait for it to ebb and will be left unchanged in their attitudes and behaviors. Real engagement and dialogue can lead to greater understanding, acceptance and commitment to creating a better society. Find somebody to talk with.
Dana Morris-Jones is an OD consultant, mediator, facilitator and author of The Power of Difference: From Conflict to Collaboration in Five Steps