What do you do when someone does something that requires critique?

Do you:
a. Keep your mouth shut so you avoid risking the relationship
b. Say what you need to say, as directly as possible, not worrying about the person’s feelings, and risking that the person may no longer wish to associate with you further
c. Work to find language to express what you need to, working to use the info to build the relationship, hoping to inspire consideration and new understandings

When it comes to confronting race issues…all three seem like pretty common paths taken. In my life, I’ve found myself using all of them on occasion, depending upon the larger set of power dynamics that change with each discrete situation. (Not that they are all equally helpful! I’m trying very, very hard to create a practice where choice “c” occurs without any trepidation.)

Lately, I was confronted with the choice again….but in a new way. This time I was removed from the situation, not part of the original event. And, therefore, I had to negotiate how to..

1) support my colleagues to express themselves
2) raise the issue to those in higher positions of authority in a way that doesn’t break down the initial trust I’m trying to form on campus around these issues.

The last thing I need is to become the “gotcha” girl on campus, always ready to catch your mistake!

The choice is clear for me, but the path took some time to clarify. The information had to be shared, both with the instructor at our College who used some course content in a way that reinforced stereotypes, and with the Chair who oversees the program.

But, how I would do that was essential. I needed to give myself enough time to approach this in a way that invited self-reflection, from one colleague to another, as opposed to a reactionary stance that either “told on someone” or “shamed and blamed”.

In the end…what did I do? How did I respond? I spent a good deal of time speaking with my colleagues about their capacity to use their voice to name what they observed (supporting them to witness for themselves), and I also used my own in order to support us all becoming more aware of 1) how we teach, 2) the messages we deliver, and 3) how damage can occur even in a room where everyone is laughing.

It’s one of those things that seems completely obvious to anyone familiar with this work. Yes, of course, have the conversation. It’s basic ally work!

The trick is, each situation feels different and holds a different sense of precarious footing. Understanding and supporting each other to keep making those “right” choices to the best of our ability felt very, very, very important.

In short, I had to support my colleague of color who was hesitant to approach a white male instructor. She had had so many experiences being invalidated in past situations that she felt the entire endeavor was likely either fruitless or to inspire additional pain. Instead of dropping it, however, we approached the instructor together, as a team. We offered our praise for what had been done well, and then we offered our recognition that some subtle bias was present in the ppt shown the session prior.

Thankfully, this instructor responded favorably (a bit to our surprise). He had been wholly unconscious of how his image choices would affect students, and I do believe he is likely to rethink his choices in future semesters.

Even though this may seem like a fairly minor issue, it was actually rather anxiety provoking for both myself and my colleagues. Neither of us relish confronting race issues head on. But, we did…and we had an opportunity to share our experiences with others at a lunch gathering on campus a few days later.

Perhaps the best part, however, was that three days later I was approached by one of my other colleagues who had been present at the lunch. She wanted to offer a compliment to us for having offered ourselves as a model. She then reported that, for the first time, she approached a presenter after a college presentation to inform the speaker about some areas where discrimination and bias were recognizable. She let me know that before, she wouldn’t have had the courage to face up to the need to speak directly to the presenter. Instead, she would have complained to friends later and just sat steaming.

The point? We support each other to take risks when we take our own risks. When we form communities in which we can share our experiences, we become models that those around us can use to challenge themselves.

I’d lost sleep over the earlier situation for a couple of weeks. But that night, hearing that my colleague and I inspired someone else to action….I slept soundly.