In a group addressing structural racism in organizational operations and programmatic work, we are reviewing proposals for action. A person of color notes some language used in otherwise sound ideas could unintentionally reinforce the separation the proposal seeks to address. The next speaker, a white person, explains what they intended the term to mean, why it was inadequate and why they settled on it for now.
What was the purpose of the explanation? If, as asserted, it was to agree with the original point, why not just agree? The outcry that greeted that comment suggests more was at stake.
The impact of the explanation was to (attempt to) erase the original objection—and the objector by extension. Where agreement validates, recognizes, and joins, explanation infantilizes and tells and thereby reasserts a power dynamic along recognizable and habitual lines. The person of color shifts from the expert on her experience and perspective to the recipient of a lecture from a white person.
At the same time, the explainer asserts for the person of color and all others assembled, including herself, that the “accusation” of exclusion and separation does not apply here. She absolves and comforts herself as one who could not be guilty. Moreover, the white person becomes the aggrieved, the one who is “attacked” by the person of color. In fact, at the break several people reassured the white person but not the person of color who was described as “able to take care of herself.” The necessary resiliency and self-care adaptations to exclusion and separation were taken as proof of lack of need. Note that people were not attending to the content of the original comment. The courage to name an issue in the face of majority silence and even ease, was not the focus, nor was the exclusion that led to the initial comment. Rather, being called to account captivated the group.
Multiply this instance and the pattern closes discussion. People of color report being reluctant to raise concerns. They see their hope dashed again as their substance and experience is set aside through explanations that do not address the issue. White people report fear of being implicated in a history and dynamic they consciously oppose as a matter of principle but often recreate in practice. It is one thing to know that structural racism exists and is patterned into our daily engagements, organizational cultures, and group habits. It is another to know how to engage effectively when caught in the pattern.
Here are a few practices I find useful. They are not unique to working across racial (or other lines of social identity and power), though they are especially useful then.
- Emotional reactions indicate something has been touched. Explore–What is at stake? What just got touched? Notice and name for yourself. It is more useful to claim confusion, frustration, fear, hope, avoidance, or whatever is happening than to ignore, act out, or fight through it.
- Access curiosity. Seek first to understand, especially in disagreement or defensiveness. “Tell me more” can go a long way towards building relationship and understanding.
- Test understanding—“let me see if I get this…”
- Explore possibilities. Make suggestions—so would X or Y work? Or seek suggestions—what options do you see?
- If things are too hot, take a break. Commit to return under cooler conditions. Then follow through.