Race and Technology

A blog about the intersection of race and technology.

Let’s Talk About Race – Part II

This is part II of a two-part blog entitled, "Let's Talk About Race." If you missed part I, you can read it here.

When people are willing to engage in a difficult conversation but do not know how, there are three tools I believe are essential: (1) Definitions; (2) Active Listening; and, (3) Engaging from the heart not the head. In my presentations around Washington State, here's what I share about those three tools.

President Lyndon B. Johnson established the Kerner Commission in 1967 to examine and investigate the causes of the wide-scale civil unrest that took place in mostly African American communities during the summer of 1967. The commission issued its first report on Race Relations in America in 1970, and has issued 10-year updates ever since, with a major 50-year update issued in 1968. Income inequality, employment inequality, home ownership inequality, segregation inequality, incarceration inequality; the Kerner commission did the numbers, kept track of leading indicators, and sadly, after fifty years, presented the dismal state of race relations in America—all of the indicators had worsened.

But there's one bright spot in the Kerner Commission's 1970 report, and it's a clear definition of racism. If you listen to the news media, from NPR to CNN to Fox, you'll hear discussions about race held on the basis of very loosely defined terms. People are described as being racist or anti-racist, or even reverse-racists. The Kerner Commission cut through a lot of the nonsense with the following simple definition:

RACISM = PREJUDICE + POWER

Anyone, the commission said, could be prejudiced, in fact most people are. We prejudge others in the absence of complete information, and often refuse to change our prejudgment even when more complete information is presented to us. I may not like you because of your skin color, but that makes me prejudiced not racist. Racism adds to prejudice actions that affect someone physically, economically, educationally, politically, or otherwise.

Reverse racism? In how many instances do people of color have the power to affect White folks physically, economically, educationally, or politically? Very few. So, the idea of reverse racism, for the most part, doesn't exist. Yes, people of color can be reversely prejudiced. I might not like you because you're White, but, according to the Kerner Commission's definition, that does not equate to being a reverse racist.

This is a distinction with an important difference. The Kerner Commission's definition unpacks racism into two components, prejudice and power, and allows for a discussion about both and how they interact. Take power, for example, which ranges from individual power to institutional power. On an individual level, power may be as simple as the power of privilege that accrues simply because of one's skin color. On an institutional level, power may represent the ability of that institution, say a bank, to make loans based on skin color, and thereby define or destroy communities.

One woman, in a presentation I gave in Bellingham, pointed out that she had worked for many years to feel empowered about her womanhood, and she didn't feel the Kerner Commission's definition reflected the "personal power" she relished. Of course, she was right, the Kerner Commission wasn't talking about "personal empowerment," they were talking about power combined with prejudice that results in racist actions.

But the point to all of this is that unpacking racism in this way allows for a wide-ranging, in-depth discussion about the nuances and gradation of prejudice and power, and this is precisely the conversation that we need to have, not the one that passes for a conversation on race by labeling people either racist or not.

Active listening is a second tool in having a conversation about race. Active listening has three essential components to it: (1) You listen to another person without speaking; (2) You repeat what another person has said without editing; and, (3) you respect the other person's humanity, even if you don't agree with them. All easier said then done.

In most of our conversations we talk past each other. We listen to another person not to understand or hear them, but to hear in what they say, what we might use to counteract them. All the while, we have a running conversation going on in our minds that proceeds along the lines, "Well he's said this… So, I can say that." "He didn't mention that, so I can score a point by mentioning it." "I don't agree with that, and I can prove he's wrong by saying this." This is a great debate strategy, but unfortunately it's not a good strategy to listen to another person. Here's an example of a conversation about police use of force between two people, first the typical way:

PERSON A: I'm really angry when I hear that yet another young Black man has been stopped and killed by the police. Black lives don't matter to them.

PERSON B: I don't understand why you're angry. Look at our community. It's not like that would ever happen here. Besides, all lives matter, not just Black lives.

PERSON A: You just don't get it? It matters to me because it's unfair and unjust. And, in fact, what if I were traveling in another community. I might get stopped by the police and treated in exactly the same way because I'm Black. I'm scared for my safety and the safety of all young Blacks, especially, wherever they are.

PERSON B: But aren't you just using race as an excuse? Maybe those young people should have simply followed the commands of the officers rather than running away. If so, I bet they would not have been killed.

And the conversation could go on, and on, this way.

Here's another way of having the same conversation:

PERSON A: I'm really angry when I hear that yet another young Black man has been stopped and killed by the police. Black lives don't matter to them.

PERSON B: I hear that you're feeling angry; that you feel Black lives don't matter to many.

PERSON A: Not just to many, especially to police and those in power.

PERSON B: Thanks for clarifying that you feel Black lives don't matter to many in power, especially to police.

PERSON A: Yes.

PERSON B: I would not be surprised if our community has such problems, if not the same then related. I'm wondering what it is we can do?

Same topic. Different conversation. Different tone. One conversation validates what each person feels, and what they've said, the other conversation does not. One conversation keeps both participants locked in their own ideological bubbles, the other may allow them to breakthrough.

The final part of active listening is respecting the humanity of the other person. It always amazes me how many people feel that just to listen to what some else says, means you agree with them. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the secrets to bringing about change is the capacity to make someone else feel "safe" about saying what they're feeling. No one changes when they're screamed at or confronted. People will change when they first feel respected and heard.

The last of three tools for talking about race is how to have a conversation from your heart and not your head. It's easily stated: Listen by asking yourself, "How does what this other person's saying cause me to feel?" Not by saying, "What does this other person's saying make me think?" And speak by saying, "This is how I feel." Not, "This is what I think." Again, easily said but not as easily done.

With these tools presented, I ask participants in my workshops to find someone in the audience they do not know and have a conversation about race. One person's the speaker, the other the listener, and after 10 or 15 minutes, they switch roles. I usually give them, as a starting point, a question to discuss, "When do I first remember that a person's skin color mattered?"

I've seen some incredible breakthroughs happen between two individuals who began from very different points of view. I've also heard people express thanks for a sense of how to even begin having a difficult conversation about race.

However, there's an important caveat to consider. The tools I've presented above only work with individuals interested in having the discussion in the first place. These tools are not a panacea for every situation that arises about race. It would be foolhardy, and very unsafe, to approach an avowed White supremacist, raising his hand in a Nazi salute, and to ask, "What are you feeling at this moment?" Other tactics and methods are surely required in this instance. But when two or more people want to have a difficult conversation about race and don't know where to start, or what rules to proceed by, the guidelines presented above are certainly a good place to begin.

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Thursday, 17 October 2019