As we approach the holiday season, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer an excerpt from Living in the Tension (Chapter 2) that provides a set of 10 approaches that might be useful when trying to remain present and open during critical conversations about race that challenge one’s self-concept. My hope is that you’ll find them useful. For me, they’re great to return to time and time again to remind me of what I too often forget. I’d be curious to hear about your own experience, as the ones toward the end have been most challenging for me to put into practice over the years.
Stop debating and explore people’s feelings
This is particularly important when listening to accounts of people’s direct experience of racism. Questioning the accuracy of a person of color’s experience never helps. Too often, people of color are not believed. Too often, it is a white person who dismisses the person of color’s narrative. Too often, people of color’s stories are altogether accurate. Too often, the anger felt by people of color over their dismissal is interpreted by white people as “playing the race card” or having a “chip on their shoulder.” Many people of color have developed a heightened sensitivity to this pattern, which is a completely understandable response. The best course of action is to listen to and explore people’s feelings. One can learn a lot when listening with a whole heart and allowing the inner debater to take a rest.
Recognize the value of perception
Recognize that the suggestion to another that what he or she is experiencing is only “perception” involves a great amount of shaming and blaming. Brene Brown speaks of the danger of blaming people in such a way. She writes, “Some pop psychologists preach that ‘There’s no such thing as reality, just perception.’ Not only is this inaccurate, it’s dangerous. Racism is real.” She then suggests that instead of dismissing someone’s concerns, one can ask questions such as, “How can I help?” or “Is there some way I can support you?’
Allow for differential emotional reactions
Brene Brown teaches that “we can each experience embarrassment, guilt, or shame over the same situation. It just depends on where we are in our lives.” This is important because when interacting with another person, internal guideposts and perspective on how one might feel personally in that situation might not allow for a true understanding of what is occurring for the other individual. Assumptions based on personal tendencies may lead to incorrect judgments of others and block the ability to extend empathy and compassion. For example, something one person might find mildly embarrassing could be extremely shaming for another. Responding with supportive questions instead of advice born of judgment can help tease out what is prompting another into his or her position. Gloria Anzaldua writes about the value of looking for the unconscious feelings that lie at the root of an expressed emotion. For example, beneath anger may be fear. Compassionate questioning that reveals the underlying emotion can help locate common bonds between people and mediate polarized conversations.
Dominant U.S. culture does not appreciate vulnerability. Showing fear and pain to another is often perceived as weakness. Few are immune to these social influences. The effort to hide one’s inner mess from being seen by others can prompt actions that are not authentic. No one is fooled. The statements, “I am feeling unsure right now.” or “I need a minute to process this,” help. They are honest, and when people recognize there is an authentic struggle happening, people are more likely to feel connected. When feeling confused, upset, or anxious, it is better to say it with humility than to try hiding it with defensive speech or shutting down the conversation altogether. Brene Brown’s research indicates that men are even less socially rewarded for showing vulnerability than women. In fact, they may be emotionally punished for it. Therefore, the approach offered here may sound easy coming from a woman, since men often do not receive the same type of validating responses to their sharing. In fact, men’s struggles to demonstrate vulnerability may be akin to women’s struggles with issues of perfectionism.
Be aware of emotional reactivity
One’s sense of self may be tested each time unsolicited, critical feedback is offered about how race might influence one’s behavior or thinking. Despite knowing that taking personal offense is unhelpful, the ego often goes into survival mode, resulting in a fight or flight response. The ego turns the situation into a threat, and those participating in it, the enemy. On a good day I might have enough inner strength to nod and say thank you for the feedback, even if there is emotional upset raging within. I consider it spiritual progress when I do not actively flee that kind of situation. Healing from racial trauma requires acceptance of these situations and the ability to recognize emotional reactions in the moment. This is essential because the more reactivity reigns, the more disconnection is felt. Conversely, the more one is aware of one’s internal state, the more one can act authentically and remain connected.
Sit in the transformative fire of emotion
Authentic cross-race dialogues often involve emotional reactions. The emotion may come from pent up pain from prior experiences or out of frustration, hurt, and anger at what is occurring in that very moment. Either way, conflict-avoidant people like me will want to escape anytime intense emotions rise. Yet, relationship-building across race requires white people to accept and engage with the rage of people of color. I cannot expect people whose ancestors experienced centuries of abuse to speak of their ongoing pain in calm, soft tones. Nor can I expect people who experience themselves and their children battling discrimination to speak without passion and anger. Ultimately, it does not matter whether I feel deserving of the heat or anger. As a white woman, in that moment I might be standing in for all of the white people who have injured this person and his or her family for decades. I may look like those who did harm. I may have attitudes reminiscent of those who did harm. My statements might have touched a painful nerve. It helps to remember that learning from whatever is occurring in the moment will help me engage with someone else’s wound in a way that does not compound the injury and, instead, aids to heal it. The heat may be unpleasant, but when lovingly tended, the emotional fire can burn feelings down to their elements, and from the ash something new can emerge.
Allow the ego to be diminished
The ability to stay present in a challenging moment and sit in the heat of conflict and the expression of anger is a powerful capacity. Eckhart Tolle offers some important advice on how to do this. He speaks about how the ego is “more interested in self-preservation than in the truth” when feeling threatened by blaming, criticizing, or the sense of being mistreated. The ego then seeks to regain itself through dysfunctional responses. He goes on to suggest:
A powerful spiritual practice is consciously to allow the diminishment of the ego when it happens without attempting to restore it….When you are seemingly diminished in some way and remain in absolute nonreaction, not just externally but also internally, you realize that nothing real has been diminished, that through becoming ‘less’ you become more.
This is different than simply “not taking it personally” in a way that resists any personal connection to the issues. That reaction commonly leads to a dismissal of the issues raised. Instead, consciously allowing the ego to be challenged without trying to rebuild it with defensiveness allows a person to more freely imagine how the experience has something to offer.
Operating with this level of freedom supports the interaction in ways that heighten consciousness for all involved. It becomes possible to consider how some of the intensity may be caused by experiences unrelated to oneself, thus allowing one to accept the role of “stand in.” This capacity can open up space and time for one to recognize the parts of the message that offer important insights into what can be done differently in the future to avoid future injuries.
Recognize expectations held for others
Sometimes expectations of others are shaped by privilege and ignorance. Most of my experiences with people across race involve authentic sharing, caring, and compassion, but, unfortunately, that is not always the case. Often enough, people with whom I interact are frustrated by common patterns others have exhibited before either of us even enter the room. My behavior can inadvertently increase their frustration or anger. Expecting everyone to approach me with empathy and compassion is not helpful. Recognizing that my privilege may cause me to be insensitive to what others are going through helps me extend a listening ear and stay in the transformative fire.
Many people invested in social justice recognize the urgency of this work. Out of this sense of urgency, people can demand faster change from those new to inequity or privilege issues than is reasonable, resulting in disconnection. Gary Smith writes of this when speaking to his community:
I have sometimes felt as if I am dealing with colleagues who are not walking with me but are instead sitting over in ‘Stage Five’ shaking their heads at my cluelessness. This ‘Journey Toward Wholeness’ effort could do with a little less self-righteousness and a little more companioning. I want to do the right thing. My world is opening. I am increasingly finding colleagues who know how to companion.
He recognizes that the racial justice journey was “never meant to be safe,” and yet he is calling for it to be supported with compassionate connection, not judgment.
Recognize the gift of critical feedback
It helps to recognize extremely hard to hear feedback as a gift. It is an opportunity to learn something about oneself. Bearing witness to someone’s story allows for self-reflection upon one’s own. This can provide opportunities for maturation and growth. Of course, this only happens if one is able to remain calm and humble.
Michael Meade tells the story of a seeker who asked a spiritual teacher “for a practice that would help open his life to wisdom.” He was told to give money to any person who insulted him. He should do this for three years and then return. The man was a somewhat abrasive person, and so he received a lot of criticism and paid out a lot of money. After the three years ended, he returned to his teacher who told him it was time to learn some wisdom. He was sent to a city where a holy man sat before the city gates, launching insults at all who passed. When the seeker arrived and the insult yelled at him by the gate keeper hit its mark, he laughed. The gate keeper asked why he was laughing, and the seeker replied “for three years I have been paying for this kind of thing in hopes of finding wisdom and now you give it to me for free.” The gate keeper then bid the seeker to enter the city, saying “It is all yours.”
What a beautiful practice – to train oneself to see the value in critical feedback. It allows the critique to be accepted with humor and with the recognition that hearing unflattering things about ourselves is not a diminishment, but rather an opportunity to grow.
Mine for gold
Imagine for a moment that one is able to bring one’s full and nonreactive presence to a challenging situation, seeing it as a moment of gift giving. What happens if the feedback conveyed does not resonate or the message seems misperceived or illogical? Then one can mine for gold. Something golden is there and it is essential to stay in the moment long enough to find it. For example, references to George Yancy’s writing appear throughout Living in the Tension. Yancy’s analysis is strong, and his message clear. He has many valuable insights to share. Initially, I found his language abrasive. It was necessary for me to fight my defensiveness in order to keep reading. I am so glad I did. Putting down the text and simply moving on to another author who wrote more reassuringly to white readers would have resulted in a missed opportunity to check myself and find the gold.
Have you ever utilized any of these strategies when navigating through difficult conversations? What other approaches have you found valuable?