Originally published at The Time Is Always Right
In my years of diversity work, I am pretty sure about one thing. The people who are “good” at talking about race issues are those who have practiced.
As a participant in discussions about race, I have heard certain white individuals (not all) lament, “I just don’t know how to talk about this stuff.” And then I have heard some people of color (not all) in turn, say, “I am tired of talking about this stuff every day.”
Part of the disparity in who is comfortable talking about it and who is not, stems from our different experiences with race growing up. If it was a present topic at the dinner table, getting ready for school as our breakfast was eaten and our shoelaces tied, or on the walk home after the bell rang, then we probably grew into adults who were comfortable with the topic of race. It was a part of everday life and our consciousness. It was an issue that was freely discussed, so it didn’t come with the fear and hang-ups others might feel when approaching the subject.
On the flip side, if race was never mentioned growing up, or if difference was brought up in a very passive or subtle way; and as a child, you had the feeling that such issues would not be welcomed at the dinner table because you never saw the adults in your life discuss such matters, then you grew up to be an adult without years of practice. Maybe you are uncomfortable with these discussions now; maybe you have figured out how to get practiced as an adult.
Due to our experiences growing up, we either became practiced in talking about matters of race, or we didn’t.
This is important because it means that practice gets you there. It’s not something that you are born knowing how to do (though you might argue, it’s something you are born into depending on your family’s orientation toward race/culture), it’s something that you practice. And practice now, or at any point, really, will get anyone more comfortable with the subject. Once more of us are comfortable (or just willing to come to the table), I am confident that we will make progress when it comes to how we address issues of race and identity in this country.
I know that practice makes progress because I was someone who was extremely uncomfortable with issues of race when I was younger. Hard to believe if you know me now. Growing up, it wasn’t a household conversation, and though it was an important issue to me, I just hadn’t had enough of an opportunity to discuss it. Or, I didn’t seek out opportunities because I was scared of what I would say, and then, what people would think of me (it’s a vicious cycle that way – you’re scared because you’re not practiced, and because you are scared you don’t take opportunities to practice).
When I got to Wellesley College, I found other mixed students like me. I talked about being mixed for the first time in my life, with another mixed woman who lived in my dorm. This experience made me realize how much I had yet to explore. I was determined to get practiced and involved, and I joined a couple of campus organizations that would help me do this. As I set out to practice talking about issues of race, I did the following:
I listened. Mostly, at first. Partially, to learn, partially to give myself some time. If you haven’t shared your experiences around race, or really spent much time reflecting on your identity, it can feel very vulnerable to be in discussions about race. That vulnerability doesn’t go away with time alone. It diminishes with practice. Still, there is something to be said for giving yourself a little time to get mentally/emotionally prepared to enter the conversation.
I shared my experiences. Little by little, I opened up to my classmates and talked about my experiences. The good thing about this is that there is no wrong answer (Sometimes I have the sense that people steer away from conversations about race because they feel there’s a right and a wrong). You are the expert on your life, and your experiences are as valid as anyone else’s.
I let myself be vulnerable. Hand in hand with sharing, I had to allow myself to be vulnerable. Issues of race, ethnicity, culture, identity, hold a lot of pain for many of us. I definitely shed my share of tears, both as I spoke, and as some of my classmates cried next to me. There is still so much healing that has to happen, and it’s always good to start with yourself. This worked for me at Wellesley because it was such a safe space. Make sure to find a group of people…or even just a person with whom you feel safe, and with whom you may begin to share your experiences and thoughts about race, culture, identity.
I tried not to be hard on myself. Sure, I said a few ignorant things in the beginning. That’s probably because I was ignorant (!). I felt bad at those moments, but I knew that if I let that feeling keep me away, I would never improve. You have to be strong and bring out your thickest skin for these conversations. If you are too sensitive and too self-conscious, you will never get practiced.
I stayed away from guilt and blame. Guilt and blame are a conversation about race’s worst enemies. They stop people in their tracks. Paralyze. Don’t allow a group to move forward in the discussion. Divisions are created and people become defensive. It’s easy to feel guilty at times, just as it’s easy to want to blame others. Rather than sinking deep into these feelings, question them. Maybe even voice them, acknowledge your discomfort with them and get to the root of them. Analyzing these reactions is better (for the group and the community at large) than acting them out. I believe that we each have a responsibility to each other in conversations about race. It’s not just about getting our own stuff off our shoulders. It’s about getting to a better place together, and guilt and blame have no place in that.
I practiced and I listened some more. One’s work is never done when it comes to race and diversity. Once you believe you know it all (what would that even look like?), you run the risk of shutting people out. Keep listening, learning, sharing your experiences and asking others about theirs. Being practiced in discussions around race means being able to really hear other people too.
I made room for others. I believe that once we are comfortable with discussions around race, the greatest thing we can do is to make safe spaces for others. I remember how it felt to be scared. To know how important it was to talk about these issues and yet still, want to stay away. Because I remember that feeling, I have always tried to welcome those who aren’t comfortable, those who are vulnerable, scared, and perhaps those who have felt attacked and guilty. I have taken on the responsibility of making the conversation less scary for others and welcome others to do this with me.
If you are like me, you wonder why our conversations about race feel cyclical. Go nowhere. Our ways of dealing with race don’t progress as a nation because we don’t have momentum carrying us. Something bad happens (truth), we talk about it for a while, and then conversation dies out until another bad thing happens (i.e. a hate crime). Our national dialogue never gets practiced because we talk in spurts. In pockets, people initiate dialogues on race all the time (see activists, academia, or other such educational entities). We have to figure out how to connect the pockets so it becomes a more wide-spread conversation.
To be clear, I am not asking everyone to talk about race everyday. I am asking us to get practiced so that we can get to some depth about the subject. Simplicity isn’t going to get us to solve the inequity and hate that still plague us today.
Practicing the ways in which we discuss race is a necessary first step and I hope that if you are reading this you will reflect on where you are and commit to getting more practice. I will always talk with you!
Jen Chau is the Founder and Executive Director of Swirl. She is also an independent consultant, focusing on supporting non-profits with organizational development, change management, building HR processes, diversity work, and executive coaching. Jen received her BA in Women’s Studies at Wellesley College and her MS in Organizational Change Management from Milano, The New School for Management and Urban Policy. She currently lives in New York City and writes about her experiences in activism every now and then at The Time Is Always Right.