Erasing Racism – Communication

Systematic change is necessary to create the equality that marginalized communities deserve. When it comes to tackling the issue of racial equity, honest, open-hearted and open-minded conversations can inform us about the fundamental issues related to racism, can help bridge the divides, can help us heal, and can begin the lengthy process of change. Communicating with empathy gives us the chance to acknowledge the tremendous damage that has been inflicted by individual and systemic racism.

Addressing painful issues of race, white supremacy, class and culture necessitates taking a risk. But when we deconstruct our implicit biases and preconceived notions about race, we can become active advocates against racial injustice.

Many of us have friends, colleagues and neighbors of races other than our own. But how often have you initiated a conversation about race and about the differences that separate you? If you are anxious about doing so, I encourage you to muster your courage, a topic I wrote about in a previous newsletter. If you are ready to take the initiative to open a dialogue now, below are some guidelines to help you:

1. Approach the conversation with respect.

It is vital to approach the topic of race with respect. Respect for its weightiness and nuance. Respect for centuries of pain and oppression. Respect for multiple perspectives and narratives. Respect for the person(s) you are engaging with. Race, racism, and the racial inequity it breeds are topics that can polarize a space very quickly. Coming from a mindset of openness and a willingness to listen and learn goes a long way to diffusing potential tension before it arises, and preserving space for meaningful dialogue.

2. Put aside your preconceptions.

This doesn’t mean your personal experiences aren’t valid -- it simply acknowledges that personal experience can’t possibly give the complete view of such complex issues. The history of racism extends far beyond individuals; it encompasses years and years of both individual and community experience. The fight for equality and equity requires that we understand why systems of oppression and discrimination were initially established and recognize the need for them to be modified or abolished. That means developing a sensitivity to and an understanding of history and pain.

It is important to recognize and acknowledge the validity and reality of other experiences. By doing so, we can hope to have conversations that create teachable moments and generate new insights.

3. Examine your motivation.

When having a conversation about race, be aware of why you want to have the conversation in the first place. If it’s simply out of curiosity or to “fit in” or feel less guilty, you might want to reconsider. If you are ready to be part of change, and you want to understand racism better so that you can be a part of that change, then begin the dialogue.

Recent events following the murder of George Floyd, are not solely based on that single event of racism and injustice. Floyd’s murder has been a tipping point for the long history of systematic oppression and inequality. It is important to recognize and understand the connections between events, ideas, and movements. According to Robin DiAngelo in White Fragility, it’s easy to feel disconnected from this history when it has no direct tie to your reality.

4. Embrace the discomfort of not knowing.

On our way to new knowledge, we have to resign from a place of comfort and embrace the discomfort of not having all the answers. We don’t know what we don’t know. A willingness to be educated and informed is what will help us grow. This is true in life and especially true when it comes to race. Software engineer Noah Kaplan says: "Recognize that you don’t have all the sides to a story or know everything. Acknowledge that you don’t understand or know enough yet. Don’t let it hold you back -- let it push you to learn more.” It is not enough to recognize and remain complacent in this state of unknowing; allow the current world situation to be a catalyst for an active effort to become informed.

5. Find out what you don't know.

Developing a strong understanding of race requires a combination of individual and group learning. We can accomplish a lot on our own through offline and online resources. Articles, white papers, books, academic studies, webinars, and video series are just waiting to be discovered (a list of resources is available here). Engage in conversations with friends and colleagues. Those conversations can be tough, but there’s no growth without holding past beliefs up to new ideas or new knowledge.

When we have those types of conversations, we’re learning about the personal side of race and racism. To move forward, I suggest going beyond only personal conversations. This dialogue is only a starting point to becoming educated and understanding of the complex topic of race.

6. Listen and be open to questions.

Genuine listening takes patience and effort. It means not interrupting, not trying to show how your experiences are similar, not trying to fix the person, and not disbelieving the speaker. Try to seek answers to questions that you don’t know, and be willing to be educated on topics that you are uninformed about.

Real listening often results in questions. Asking questions shows a willingness to learn and to understand. By asking questions, you are making a conscious effort to better yourself and you demonstrate that effort to the other person. If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few thought starters:

  1. Tell me about a time when____________
  2. Can you tell me about an experience you had with ________
  3. Who has been an inspiration to you?
  4. When was it difficult for you to____________
  5. What has frightened you the most?

7. Internalize what you've learned.

Facts alone do not often change people’s views. We need to change our frame so we can hear the issue in a new way. Facts then provide important support to the new frame, especially when they are linked to broader values and meaning. It’s so easy to hear something new, to even be convinced of its veracity and how it should impact our daily lives, and yet three days later return to the same mindset we held before. It is not enough to merely hear or read about race; it is important to make an effort to apply these changes to your mindset and actions.

8. Commit yourself to change.

One easy way to start internalizing this practice is by identifying whatever race-based bias you might implicitly hold. We all have implicit bias. Acknowledging these biases and working to deconstruct them will make a difference. Because any change is hard, accountability is key. Find someone to take the journey of discovery with you. Read the same things; discuss them; keep the momentum going. When my partner and I started our corporation in 1981, being of different races and religions, we committed to learning about each other’s experiences. We suggested books to each other that would inform me about her race and her about my religion. We had many long and insightful conversations.

If true that it takes anywhere from 21 to 66 days to adopt a new habit, then active work is needed to change our views and beliefs regarding race and make a positive impact. Change doesn’t come easily, and consistent work over years of dedication will make a difference. Right now, as many of us are experiencing caution fatigue from months of safety measures related to the pandemic, committing to become anti-racist can counter that fatigue.

As I wrote in my newsletter of July 5th, creating a commitments statement that you can rely on daily is one step to change. Once you have put your commitment(s) in writing, find an accountability partner who will hold you to them.

9. Acknowledge your bias and privilege.

Before having conversations about race, explore the history of race-based privilege in this country and put your privilege in context. Privilege, loosely defined, is any unmerited or unearned advantage. In that sense, we all have experienced privilege. Part of the privilege associated with whiteness is the luxury of not having to consider one’s own race -- let alone the disadvantages faced by many people of color. Understanding this privilege may equip you to help amplify the voices of those who face racial inequality.

Privilege can be present in any circumstance. It is important to name privilege wherever it exists. I personally have directly and indirectly benefited and still benefit from my family’s white privilege. That’s part of my story. Being white and benefiting from white privilege does not disqualify you from having a voice in the fight for racial equity. This acknowledgement of privilege should invoke a willingness to listen, to be educated, and to understand how you can use this privilege for the betterment of others.

10. Get comfortable with your story.

Understanding who you are, your own values and morals, and goals and aspirations will help you to better formulate the next steps in building racial equality. Be honest with yourself and others. Stories are powerful tools to cultivate dialogue and bring us to a place of harmony. They don't negate our understanding of race. Think about these questions: What has brought you to this point? How do you want to use your past experiences to shape your future? How can you be a part of the change that you hope to see in the world? These are all questions that will help you to take meaningful steps towards a more just future.

11. Express gratitude.

Acknowledge that engaging in dialogue about race, bias, white privilege and racism are often difficult conversations. We can feel guilty for omissions or for considering that our non-racist beliefs were enough to eradicate systemic racism. Be sure to thank each other for sharing and for the courage and willingness to do so.

Moving Forward

"A mind that is stretched by new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

Oliver Wendall Holmes

I hope that we all become better able to talk about racism and come together to make a positive difference in our communities and in our country. If you share that hope, take action. Begin a cross-racial dialogue. Each of us brings a different story, a different experience, and a perspective to the table. Communicating openly and with empathy and oriented toward equity, gives us the chance to acknowledge the tremendous damage that has been inflicted by individual and systemic racism.

Eradicating systemic racism will take time. But meaningful conversations that serve as a space for learning and action planning can become the first step towards change and equality for our future. At the end of the day, a love for humanity means a respect and honor for all pain and a oneness of purpose toward dismantling ignorance and pursuing justice.

These guidelines have been adapted from Net Impact, a 501(c)3 that is committed to equity and inclusion.

Last week, I wrote about the effect that the coronavirus pandemic is having on evictions and homelessness and its disproportionate impact on black Americans.

Since I published that newsletter, I have learned of a resource for learning about the eviction rates in your town and/or community. If you are interested in seeing how elected officials in your community have responded, click on EvictionLab.org. And to provide direct help to those in need, JustShelter.org offers a database of resources in all 50 states that provide housing assistance, legal aid, and more. Remember: you can make a difference to an individual or a family that is facing homelessness.

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