Conversations About Race
So here I am, sitting with fear myself right now. I feel it in my stomach and in my clenched jaw. As I write and delete and write more, I want to cite some research and tell you all about what I’ve learned about difficult dialogues and managing conflict and building bridges and coalitions across race.
But writing about all those things doesn’t feel true for me. So I will start this way.
I am biracial. My partner is biracial. The children in our lives are mixed race. I have facilitated dialogues on race and deeply explored issues of race and racism, along with other forms of discrimination and oppression.
And I am afraid.
I am afraid of saying or writing the wrong things. I am afraid of being judged. I am afraid of being misunderstood. I am afraid of not being direct enough or being too direct.
Doing it right or doing the right thing
You want to know what this fear boils down to for me?
That somehow I am not doing the race conversation right. Because it is such an important conversation to me, and I am committed to creating a different world and advancing justice, I want to do it right and I want to do the right thing.
Like the vast majority of people, I’ve been trained to believe that if I do something right, then it will fix the problem.
I want to do it right with the children in my life. I want to do it right for the children in my life and for all children.
I want to do it right because discrimination and oppression are real, painful, and even deadly. The stakes feel huge to get this right.
If you are struggling with how to have those conversations with children, or you’re struggling with a comment a child has made, or you’re struggling with your own experiences around race, you may think there is a right way to do it.
The reality is we don’t have great models in our society about how to have conversations about race. The conversations in the media or politics are certainly not great models. In my family, conversations about race were pretty awful. Perhaps that’s why I went into the work I did and I felt compelled to figure out how to do it better, do it right.
I’m not going to tell you how to do it right. But, I will tell you that the fear you feel about the conversation is one that the vast majority of people of all races feel. We may feel fear for different reasons, but deep down we are scared.
It’s not about them, it’s about us
So what can we do with this fear? How do we move through the fear and still have the conversations that can connect us to each other?
The first thing we can do is stop pretending we’re not afraid. You don’t have to do this out loud. You can even do it internally with yourself. We can be afraid and scared. We can not know what to say and we can struggle with it. And all of that is okay, it’s normal.
The expectation we have created in adult-child relationships, human-to-human relationships really, is that we must know the right thing to do in any situation. And when we are unsure, afraid, or struggling with words, we feel inadequate, perhaps even shame.
Maybe we were humiliated, punished, or shamed for not knowing the “right” answers or for doing things the “right” way when we children. We have been trained to believe there is a right answer to everything.
Because we’ve been trained to get the right answers, the discomfort of the not knowing what to do, or what to say, can overwhelm us in the moment. So we fake it, we avoid it, we bluster our way through it, or we shut down.
The fear of not knowing what to do is triggered by our past experiences. We also carry fear from previous conversations about race that may have been painful, frustrating, or even harmful.
The difficulty of the conversation is not about the other person, it is really about ourselves.
When we are in fear we move out of the present moment. Our mind races, our bodies react, adrenaline pumps. We project what the other person is thinking and doing.
We learn to hide when we are afraid, we can get defensive and this keeps us from opening the way to authentic, connected, even challenging conversations about race.
My real life process
As a parent, I’ve been faced with situations where the children in my life say things about race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, language, nationality, any identity, that are huge triggers for me. One of them might say something about a group of people that I think is discriminatory, offensive, or just downright wrong according to my beliefs.
Other times they say the most insightful and amazing things that show me they have great empathy and deep understanding. But it’s easy when they say those things. Those are the things we proudly post on Facebook or share with our friends.
It’s really hard when they say the other stuff. The stuff that punches us in the gut.
Here’s the cycle that happens for me:
- What the #!$@&^&* did he just say? (Hopefully this first part happens in my head, but sometimes it doesn’t.)
- Holy crap, where did he learn that? (Really? Did I really just say that to myself?!?)
- How can he even think that?
- Simultaneously my jaw clenches, my stomach tightens, and my mind starts racing.
- I might pull it together enough to not react externally.
- I might react and shut down the child with my reaction with a demand about not ever using a particular word again in MY house. (If you just inserted a word into that sentence, that just might be one of your triggers.)
- Sometimes I have the presence of mind to stay in the dialogue and see their statement as an interesting point of view that I want to learn more about.
- One time, more recently, my reaction sent the youngest child in my life into the bathroom in tears.
- My own shame, blame, and guilt kicks in for not being a good enough parent to avoid having my child absorb any of the discriminatory culture around him.
- Alternatively, I experience shame and guilt for having sent someone who is much smaller and younger into the bathroom afraid and sad.
When a child says or does something that triggers our old stuff, our fears, we move out of the present moment.
For example, in the most recent incident with the youngest child in my life, I was able to start with some innocuous questions. And as each step in the conversation progressed I kept getting more and more triggered. These were thoughts and fears that came up:
- I hate that show he watches on Netflix, it teaches him all this crap!
- I can’t believe a child of MINE is saying this!
- I have totally screwed this one up.
- What if he grows up and becomes one of those kids who bullies and beats up people based on their identity? (this may seem like an exaggeration, but this actually crossed my mind in all the turmoil I was in)
- What the heck am I going to do with this?
- I write and speak on social change and social justice, what if somebody finds out or he says this to other people?!?
- I’m a fraud, I should just stop pretending I know what to do about these things.
Most of the thoughts and fears that came up had to do with me and how I felt.
He ran into the bathroom crying after I unleashed a lot of judgment and shame onto him. Hmm, good thing I’ve had so much training in facilitating difficult dialogues.
After he came out, he was willing to sit on my lap. We talked and reconnected in ways that he and I both needed. I apologized for not seeing his true heart. I began to understand the gift of the trigger and the fear.
What I realized and continue to realize is that we aren’t going to do it right. We aren’t going to always know the right answers or the right way to have the difficult conversations.
That in and of itself can be a gift in our relationships. But more importantly, if we can let go of doing it right and being right, our ability to move through the challenges of difficult conversations about race is increased. The more that we can live with uncertainty, the more that we can learn from the process of the discussions and not be fixed on it looking and ending up a certain way.
I don’t have to pretend to know the right things. I can talk with the children in my life about my own struggles with these issues. I can be real and honest that we don’t know all the answers about how to change things and make them different.
I can create room for them to have their experiences as well. I can truly hear and try to understand those experiences.
They are growing up in different times and places than I was. I am different from my parents and they are different from me. I can want certain things for them or hope to shield them from painful things, but the reality is I can’t fix them.
So the triggered place, this fear and reaction, can be a gift. We can learn from the triggers and embrace the discomfort we may be feeling. We learn about ourselves from that triggered place.
Here’s the scenario I create in my head about how to do it right:
I would sit, listen, talk and just be present in all the right amounts. I would not react, but I would explore how and why they believe or feel the things they feel without judgment. I could explore the ways I believe I learned stereotypes and internalized discrimination and oppression and enacted that on others. I would listen and hear from them how they learn things. It would be peaceful, open-ended, heartfelt dialogue about difficult issues. I would help myself and help them explore the privileges we experience and how our world view is the product of all those things. That would be great if I could do that every time.
I’ve never done it quite as well as I just wrote.
But the point isn’t how well I do it, or how well you do it. The point is we are willing to be in our fear, acknowledge it, even talk about how it can be hard to talk about.
We can normalize through our words and actions that some things might be hard to talk about and we don’t know what to say, but even just admitting that can be the starting point to that open dialogue that has the potential to change both participants.
We want the world to be as simple as
A. I say the right things to my child at the right time.
B. I treat my child with respect.
C. He will not ever do anything to hurt another human being. It never quite works that way.
Instead we are faced with messy, sometimes hard conversations where we mess up and go back.
All we have to do is start. We’ll stumble, we’ll falter, we’ll be afraid, and we start over again and again.
Ultimately, I believe that is the way we create the change we need in ourselves that will change the world.
I want to hear from you about how you’ve dealt with your own fears about having conversations about race in your family?
When you’re triggered by the things children, or others, say, how do you create awareness of your own stuff, so that you can stay present in the moment?