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Top 10: Conversation Deflections

Recently, my friend Grace Sandra wrote a risky article for CT on the vulnerabilities faced by black women. In it she discusses the links between her personal experiences, current events and statistics. Grace explains how this trifecta weighs on her personally, and by extension other black women as well. She ends by requesting that the Church not shy away from but instead engages the hearts of black women who feel as weighed down as she.

Sounds simple right? It rarely is. Unfortunately for many people attempting to speak truth to power, sharing our hearts on these issues (not just theories, but how they make us FEEL) is always risky. Sometimes those listening engage well, but we always know there is a chance things will fall apart. It doesn't always matter what the justice issue is- mass incarceration, education, immigration, or in this case racial justice- there is always a risk that our hearts will leave as broken as when we came.

I use Grace's recent experience as a backdrop 1. because the article is good and you should read it. 2. because the comments section managed to use ten of the most common deflections known to racial reconcilers. If it wasn't so frustrating, it would be amazing. So I thought it might be helpful to make a Top 10 List for those who are new and perhaps frustrated by how quickly these conversations can devolve.  

10. "No, it's a different -ism… " 

More than one -ism can exist in any given situation. Your denial that racism was present in the story I am telling you is insulting my experience and my intelligence. It might not be wise to assume you are the most learned in an -ism that you don't experience. 

9. "My singular experiences trump your lifetime of experiences."

Its really nice that you work in the 'hood, attend a church with some black people, learned Spanish, travelled to an underresourced community, have an Asian friend etc. Yeah, no. Your short-term experiences will never "trump" my lifetime of experiences.  Additionally, if none of these experiences have opened your eyes to the realities of racism, you're not paying attention. So you should probably listen to these stories. It will make you a better friend. 

8. "Why aren't you listening to me?"

This comes in numerous forms: Shouldn't we all be heard? Why doesn't my voice matter? We're tired of listening to {insert race} people. Haven't we talked about this enough? No matter the form, this is an attempt to silence people of color and exert power to control the conversation. Resist the desire to control. A conversation is going to be the easiest form of releasing power; if you can't do that, you will have little success doing so in systems, structures and interpersonal relationships.  

7. "You're feelings aren't valid until I'm convinced the cause of those feelings is just."

Ouch. This can often be an incredibly painful response for someone who is sharing the pain of their lives. If I said, "I had a bad day today," and continued to express what happened, would you judge whether or not my experiences legitimately add up to a bad day? Would you pick apart what you think valid and what is not? Would you dare tell me that you don't think my bad day is valid and walk away? Why is greater grace given to a single bad day than a lifetime of struggling against racism?  You don't get to be the judge and jury over anyone's feelings. Stop picking apart people's stories. 

6. "But what about what this other black person said?"

Newsflash: We are not all the same. We are allowed to have varied experiences, perspectives, and ideas. And we trust that you can take them all in. If you are basing everything you believe about race on one person, thats a problem. You should be quiet and take in a few more perspectives. 

5. "Scripture, Scripture, Scripture… All clear now?" 

Ummm, can we stop assuming that people of color haven't already reconciled their ideas, experiences, and studies of racism with the Bible? Please don't try to fix me with Scripture when I'm busy trying to fix a broken world. 

4. "History is not tied to today's problems"

Yes. It is. History matters, including slavery which is what most folks mean when they want to dismiss history. Racism wasn't created in a vacuum. It was constructed and you would do well to know how, when, and why. This information leads to all the ways race has then been reconstructed over time until today. 

3. "But others have it worse"

The fact that other people have been/are being oppressed isnt a good reason to stop having the conversation about this particular oppression. And it certainly doesn't dismiss it or make it okay. People of color are generally well aware of the different forms oppression has taken throughout history. We could probably school you on some of the connections between them, but lets be honest. You're not trying to dive deeper, you are trying to dismiss. Stop. Focus on this oppression. We can talk about the others later, if you can have this conversation well. 

2. Hyper focus on a micro-issue 

This may be one of the most effective tools for derailing a conversation. Hyper focusing on a minor example, story, or media event has the ability to shift the conversation into a fight over arguable specifics instead of connecting the dots between multiple forms of racism.   

1. You're making me feel bad; make it stop.

Ultimately, most of the above responses are an attempt to guard against feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, frustration, anger and helplessness. Even when there is nothing accusatory spoken, just the race conversation- the retelling of painful stories- is enough to elicit an emotional response. Rather than let the emotions live, it is quite common for participants to resist. 

Now, I am sure there are more, but I hope this is a good starting place. Before I close, I would like to offer another thought. Just sit in it. I know its hard. I know its uncomfortable. I know there is a lot of emotion. I am having feels. You are having feels. But it will be okay. Just join me in the pain, muck, mire. Don't resist it. Let down your defenses. Pull up a seat and be witness, be a friend. 

Finally, I would like to acknowledge Grace, Brenna, Kathy, and others who chose to engage specifically in the convo that inspired this post. Despite the refusal of some to just sit in the pain being expressed in the article, it was incredibly encouraging to see these women tag team responses. You should also check out their responses in the comments section. It was beautiful and encouraging the way they encouraged folks to return to Grace's words.  

*For more on participating in race conversations well, check out this post by Emily Maynardthis one by Esther Emery, and this one by Christena Cleveland. Can you tell I just keep adding? Okay, I'm done now.*  


Purposefully Uneasy

Our Multicultural Training Team, uses a lot of interactive experiences to start honest, open dialogues. The interactive experiences are typically very simple, but certainly cannot be confused for being easy. In fact, our interactive experiences intentionally make people uneasy!   

Recently we led an interactive experience that involved participants revealing their first reaction to racially loaded identities (terrorist, poor, nerd, millionaire, supermodel, gang member, etc). As we spoke each identity out loud, participants had to write down the first racial or ethnic group that came to mind. All participants then posted their responses on the walls. For the most part, participants jump into this (and similar exercises) quite willingly, despite the uneasiness exercises like this cause. But occasionally, we have someone who just can't handle it. The last time we did this particular exercise, someone walked out. Afterwards, a woman who witnessed the walkout, suggested that next time "we should leave out anything that would create volatility in favor of doing things we can all agree on so that we focus more on creating community". 


Our response was a kind but firm, "no." I would like to offer three reasons why our team has chosen to use simple but uneasy experiences, and why we will continue to, even at the risk of losing participants.  

1. Building True Community.  Most people probably wouldn't associate the word "chaos" with the word "community", but I have found that groups who don't enter into chaos with one another are only operating on a superficial level of association, not the deeper level of community. Superficiality does not serve as a solid foundation for honest, open dialogue on race, and the only way to move beyond superficiality is to introduce a little controlled chaos- something that rubs us the wrong way, that digs into our psyche, that make us uncomfortable, that forces us to be ourselves. We must be willing to go to that deeper place where race lives if we are serious about creating reconciliation. Sing-alongs are not the same as reconciliation. And so, we use interactive experiences that will create some tension, some uneasiness and also some community. (Read M Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled or A Different Drum for more on building true community)

2. Creating a Shared Experience. The second reason our team is committed to using interactive experiences is because they lay a good foundation for beginning dialogue. One reason (of many) why its so hard to have conversations about race is because our experiences are so varied. Our racial identities were not formed in vacuums. They were informed by our families, socioeconomics, education, geography, generation and more. How do you bring all these variations into a room and attempt to have a meaningful dialogue? Our solution is to create a shared experience. This allows everyone to talk about the same experience, but to offer an individual perspective. A shared experience gives us all the same starting point, the same context, the same people involved... what differs are our reactions, our feelings, our thoughts. The shared experience creates a framework for the dialogue that helps people hear and understand one another. 

 3. Acknowledging What's Wrong. The basic premise of all of our trainings/classes is that race still matters. I am down for celebrating diversity, sharing one anthers food, learning about ethnic holidays, etc. Those are all good and beautiful actions. But to do that without acknowledging racial disparities, racial discrimination, racial stereotypes, racial bias, racial histories, and racial inequalities is to do a disservice to the very people I am attempting to celebrate. Our inter-activities give everyone permission to acknowledge and share the hard things about dealing with race in America. We don't pretend everything is golden, and we don't expect our participants to do so. Its healthy and honest to acknowledge what is still broken; how else can we galvanize to fix it? 



So far from trying to appease our participants and make it easy to stay in the room, we would much rather challenge everyone and ourselves by building community from (a little) chaos, creating shared experiences, and giving everyone space to acknowledge what's wrong. Thats how we move forward together, truly together.