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From Peril to Promise: How to Make Racial Dialogue Work (#12)

Aug 25, 2020

 

People all over this country are seeking to engage in racial dialogue. The goal within organizations is to heal, first by surfacing racial divisions and people’s disparate points of view. Then, armed with this knowledge, build a more inclusive organization.

How are people in an organization supposed to move from silence due to suppression to a full expression of all that has been silenced? How is the organization supposed to move from the revelations that come from those expressions to a state of genuine healing?  And does healing look the same from both sides?

This blog post is about one of the impediments to such dialogue: differences in styles of expression by those doing the informing (people of color – referred to here as nondominant group members) and those doing the listening (normally Whites, dominant group members).

 

When what I mean is not what you are hearing

More times than I can count, I found myself as the only Black or one of two Black people discussing a race-related issue. In one group, I was clearly the most demonstrative. I waved my hands more. My voice got louder as the conversation ensued. The topic itself was upsetting and intensely personal to me.

As I looked around the room, it registered that only one of the Whites seemed to be listening. Finally someone said, “Jean, calm down.” I was infuriated. I’m talking about systemic racism experienced by family and friends for generations and now I’m expected to be calm. Yet I recognized that I was losing them when I desperately wanted to be understood, so I stuffed it all back in.

What I remember about this discussion was that I was the only one really invested in it. This was a situation where most Black people would say, “Yes, that definitely wouldn’t have happened to a White person,” while many White people would say, “You’re reading race into something that’s not there.”

I was confused and hurt that these White colleagues whom I knew to have antiracist identities did not see the racial implications of what had happened. I remember feeling flushed and aggravated and increasingly resentful. Then the admonition, “Jean, calm down.”

The conversation shifted to another topic and everyone left saying what a good meeting it was… except me.

 

Why did they shut me down? Why did I let them?

That was a decade or so ago. Since then, the term “tone policing” has come into use. Tone policing occurs when people stop listening because the way their sentiments are being expressed are so disturbing and off-putting. The shift is toward how something is being said rather than what is being said. As defined, tone policing is viewed as a tactic to shut down authentic communication.[1] 

But maybe the intention is only to block emotionality, not authenticity.

In this case, I absolutely knew that my emotionality was off-putting. Tone policing wasn’t a tactic to deliberately suppress me. This group valued authenticity. They were just uninterested and turned off. They thought the topic was not all that important and I was over the top.

The question is, whose responsibility is it to do something about it?

In this case, I took it on. I shut myself down because I wanted to be heard. The price I paid was suppressed anger at being shut down. The group I was with never knew the price I was paying because I never told them.

Rather, over a period of time, with me constantly moderating my emotionality, the anger began to leak out. I became occasionally inappropriate. Emotionally, I withdrew just enough to protect myself, but not so much (I hoped) that they would notice. They might not have intended to block my authenticity, but that was the effect.

man climbs to the top of a mountain to find a single cherry tree 

Who gets to define what is civil discourse?

One of my good White friends told me that in 30 years of marriage her husband has only raised his voice to her once. I was raised listening to a lot of yelling and loud voices. Loud voices did not make a conversation uncivil. Honest expression of upsetness was okay. Contempt and belittling were not.

Contrast that to those White homes where the imperative is to be nice at all costs, where anger is simply not allowed. 

Now put a White person raised like that and a Black person raised like me in the same group for a racial dialogue and we have a problem. What the White person would consider to be too aggressive and out of bounds is much milder than where I draw the line.

How might we have a racial dialogue when there are such disparate differences in how to express emotions and what emotions it is okay to express? 

There's research to back this up. In several studies:[2]

  • Blacks were more behaviorally expressive than Whites in dealing with conflict
  • Blacks were more tolerant of hostility surrounding conflict than Whites
  • Blacks expected more negative outcomes from Whites when addressing racially sensitive topics than Whites expected from the conversation
  • Blacks were less bothered by discussing race than Whites
  • Blacks viewed more topics as related to race than did Whites
  • Blacks had a greater tendency toward self-disclosure than Whites

 

I will pause for a moment and say how relieved I was to review this literature once again. Thinking back over the many times when I have been accused of finding a racial angle where dominants thought race was only incidental, or when I was too emotional where the Whites valued calm and evenness, it’s reassuring to know as a research geek that this truly is an empirical phenomenon. 

 

What if the topic itself is emotionally charged?

Notice in the list that Blacks viewed more topics as related to race than did Whites. So far I have mostly talked about the energy, tone, or volume of participants in the dialogue. Let’s up the ante and examine the perils in an emotionally charged topic like race.

Here is the dilemma for racial dialogue or any other where people have different ideas of civility. On the one hand, people want candid conversations in which different and difficult perspectives are laid on the table. On the other hand, some Whites may not be prepared to receive the full force of that information if it challenges their perception of themselves as racially sensitive.

I’m describing a variation of what is now called White fragility.[3]  A person of color is invited to express their feelings about micro aggressions. The White person reacts in horror, exclaiming “I’m not racist!” Everyone rushes to comfort the distressed White person, while the distressed person of color is now the bad guy.

In my own situation, I sensed some of the group members were veering toward a White fragility moment and shut myself down even though I wasn’t under any particular threat. What if it had happened in a work situation and the person telling me to calm down was my supervisor?

My colleagues in that meeting viewed themselves as racially sensitive. Here’s what makes this and similar situations so pernicious. We aren’t talking about Satan Reincarnated – the segregationists or the White supremacists. We are talking about well-meaning, normally good human beings who do or observe something offensive and then shut down discussion without knowing this is what they are doing. 

 

Common, but insufficient, principles for racial dialogue

So what are the implications for racial dialogue? Here is a typical list of how to conduct meaningful dialogue about contentious issues:

  • Speak for yourself and not others
  • Don’t judge
  • Assume good intentions
  • Don’t attack people who disagree
  • Challenge ideas not people
  • Stay open
  • Respect differences

What’s missing from these guidelines is recognition that what is regarded as an attack or judgment may differ according to dominant or nondominant culture.

 

The emotional tax

Imagine Vanessa, who has watched her White peers get promoted over her, with no good explanation. She’s never gotten meaningful feedback to help her grow in the job. Or she’s watched vacancy after vacancy get filled by a friend of the friend of the boss, all of whom come from the same university and share the same ethnicity.

Is she supposed to go into a racial dialogue and not judge? Assume good intentions? Can she even reveal what she has observed in that setting? How is she protected if she does? And if she expresses herself with emotionality, will her White colleagues believe that she’s being unduly aggressive and angry? How is she supposed to talk about her feelings of being overlooked and bypassed?

Now take that example in one work situation over a period of time and imagine the same scenario repeated over multiple groups over a longer period of time. The emotional labor involved is exhausting, an emotional tax stemming from feeling different and on guard. The result: lower productivity and sense of well-being.[4]

Please understand that I am not talking about people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They are beyond exhausted. I’m talking here about professional Black and Latinx people who have responsible jobs and whose colleagues think everything is fine, because the dominant modality for what is regarded as civil discourse is what holds sway.

All over the country I hear Black and Latinx people say how exhausted we are. What happened to me in that one group is a microcosm of what has happened to virtually every Black friend I have spoken with. The topic may differ from situation to situation, but the effect is the same. I know many Vanessas. We learn to not say what we are thinking and feeling and repeatedly shut ourselves down.

I talk with Black friends and colleagues and we’re exhausted.

I talk with my clients of color and they are exhausted.

Evaluating the immediate need to suppress emotions against the perils of needing to be heard in predominantly White settings is exhausting.

Repeatedly hoping that this time it will be different, only to have those hopes dashed again and again by people who cannot see what we see, feel what we feel, is exhausting. 

black man sitting, tired

 

9 suggested principles for racial dialogue

Back to the principles of racial dialogue. Given what I’m saying here, how might they be revised?

These are my preliminary suggestions. I sincerely hope some of my readers will add their own.

 

  What To Do How and Why to Do It
1. Seek and describe any protections for nondominant group members who may decide to reveal what had been previously undiscussable. Talk openly about management’s agreements for protections and people’s need to be brave in the conversation. We are in a moment in time when the nation is undergoing a reckoning.
2. Encourage everyone to listen listen listen with empathy. If you don’t know how, listen for a surprise. To heal – to move past the racial divide – requires a willingness to learn and try something new.
3. State explicitly that cultural differences may influence what is perceived as an attack. Legitimize that it’s really okay for the conversation to be upsetting. Victory goes to the brave ones who can stay in the discussion.
4. State explicitly that nondominant group members may have pent up emotions that might be painful to say and to hear. Everyone should give one another grace to the extent they are able.
5. Prepare the nondominants to express what has previously been discussable.

Find the strength to rally and try new ways of explaining yet again and again because the dominants don’t know what they don’t know.
Not taking the risk could mean languishing in learned helplessness – the sense of powerlessness that comes from believing nothing can be done. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because if the nondominants do not speak up, the dominants will never know what’s wrong or how to make it right.
6. Suggest to the nondominant group members (or anyone) who may feel emotional to say “this is a very emotional topic for me.” In so doing, they increase the chances that people who are not used to that level of emotionality will hear it as intended.
7. Watch out for the pernicious equality of “both sides.”[5] Feelings of dominant group members may be known quite openly while those of the nondominant group may have been suppressed. Equal time is not equitable time.
8. Distinguish between calling out (finger-pointing and blaming) and calling in to community (explaining what has been uncomfortable or off-putting and appealing to the better angels of that person to do better). People can hear criticism if they sense a belief in their inherent goodness. If not, better to find a safer place to express your distress and resentment.
9. Have a plan for what will happen next. Nondominants may reveal what they could not before. Don’t let their plea for a new beginning be in vain.

 

A Healing Community

Recognize that the burden of getting along has traditionally been placed on nondominants.

There is another way. I have participated in a racial dialogue where we as nondominants were actually listened to.[6] At first, we were astonished that others cared enough to listen. Eventually after several weeks of this, we became curious about the experiences of the dominants. The freedom, joy, and eventual love that resulted is hard to describe.

It’s possible to realize the promise of a healing community, despite the perils. What it takes is the commitment to put in the time – to respect differences in communication styles and emotional intensity, and to listen.

a bear being caressed by two lionsNoah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary

 


Leading Consciously concepts and skills covered in this blog post:

  • Avoid emotional suppression
  • Check to see if you are making cultural assumptions
  • Engage in powerful listening
  • Distinguish intent from impact
  • Recognize that you may have blind spots
  • Ferret out any tendency toward internalized oppression
  • Surface undiscussables

 

Questions to ask yourself (note there are no wrong answers):

    1. What would it take for you to set aside your cultural norms to listen to someone else?
    2. How do you respond to uncomfortable conversations? How do you want to respond?

#BridgingDifferences #Dominant/NondominantDynamics #IntentVsImpact #InternalizedOppression 

 


[1]  Infographic:  What is Tone Policing and Why is it Wrong?

[2]   Davidson, M. N. (2001). Know thine adversary: The impact of race on styles of dealing with conflict. Sex Roles, 45(5-6), 259-276;

Olson, M. A., Johnson, C. S., Zabel, K. L., & Phillips, J. E. (2018). Different sides of the same conversation: Black and White partners differ in perceptions of interaction content.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 48(8), 424-436.

[3]   DiAngelo, R. J. (2018). White fragility: why it's so hard for White people to talk about racism. Boston: Beacon Press. 

[4]  Travis, D. J., & Thorpe-Moscon, J. (2018). Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace: A Research Report. New York, NY: Catalyst.

[5]  Sensoy, O., & DiAngelo, R. (2014). Respect differences? Challenging the common guidelines in social justice education. Democracy & education, 22(2).

[6]  Safe and Meaningful Conversations

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