he Trayvon Martin incident in early 2012, the trial of his accused killer George Zimmerman in 2013, and the uproar following the “not guilty” verdict a year ago on July 13th had a profound impact on both of us, but for different reasons (see two earlier pieces on Trayvon here and here). Susana is a Gen Xer from Los Angeles who experienced the 1992 L.A. Riots firsthand and after two decades of diversity, conflict resolution and social justice work, became disillusioned that the Zimmerman verdict was a sign little was changing in her lifetime. Melissa is a Millennial from Phoenix who has experienced an awakening to racial realities in the U.S. as she has observed her biracial friends and family be treated differently than her by society and law enforcement, witnessed her state erupt in nativist politics in recent years, and followed diverse voices on social media.
We are politically progressive, middle class White women with graduate degrees and international experience who are writers and interculturalists/diversity practitioners committed to social justice and inclusiveness. We believe that Whites remain stuck in our ability to talk or think about race, yet paradoxically, the promise of the USA being a healthy, peaceful, equitable, and prosperous nation ultimately hinges on our ability to have these conversations, hear, and heal. As Tom Atlee of The Co-intelligence Institute wisely put it, “What can’t be spoken erodes our spirits and empowers the darker, less free parts of our nature.”
This final installment in a four-part series contains our year-long reactions, reflections, and our call to action following the July 13, 2013 “not guilty” trial verdict for George Zimmerman, accused of killing Trayvon Martin in early 2012. [Read Part I Part II, and Part III].
Melissa: So we’ve been on this journey, exploring why well-meaning Whites shy away from dialogue on the reality of race in our society. I feel like we really tapped into the barriers – the blindness about privilege, the need for self-preservation, the discomfort with the messiness. But how do we move forward? How do we get from recognizing that better dialogue is overdue, to actually having it? And how do we make that dialogue meaningful?
Susana: I’ve got a few ideas from my experience and from our conversation Melissa! Some bullet points, if you will:
- Just start talking. The more we do, the more leeway we’ll have to make mistakes, and the more opportunities we’ll have to experience those conversations going well. We’ll get practice, and get better at it.
- Just say what you mean. Out loud. Use words like “race”, “Black”, “White”, “racism”, etc. Don’t try to make it pretty or nice. It’s not pretty or nice, but it can get better, and it will if we’re willing to have authentic conversations that move us towards meaningful solutions.
- White people — be courageous! Let go of perfection. Build your tolerance for discomfort, making mistakes, feeling clueless and being called on your stuff. Be willing to be vulnerable, to be embarrassed. Let it be messy. Resist the urge of your “downstairs brain” to make it all clear, easy, concrete, and tidy right away.
- Heal shame. That being said about courage and embarrassment, there’s a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is about “I did something wrong” and can be a healthy motivator to change our behavior. Shame is about “I’m wrong” and it’s only destructive. Experience healthy guilt and take responsibility for your behavior…and heal your shame. Dr. Brené Brown has some excellent suggestions in her work on shame.
- White people — ask out loud “What am I missing?” (thanks for this idea Jean Mavrelis!) when faced with obvious or subtle cues that you’re a source of frustration, anger, or annoyance.
- People of color — please (continue to) build patience and tolerance for our awkwardness and obliviousness. Remember that while our power and privilege is obvious to you, it’s not to us, and we don’t feel as powerful and privileged as we are. Know that many of us are afraid of you, and have our own stories of racial and other kinds of pain. Many of us are even jealous of you, your resilience, vibrance, close families and cultural roots. Our inability to be empathetic with our own pain often blocks our ability to be empathetic with you, truly hear you, and believe that your experience is real.
- Be patient. Because we are descended from the more nervous members of our species, it takes about 17 positive experiences to dilute the effects of one negative. We’ve hurt each other a lot, in multiple ways. This is not a 10-meter dash or even a mile relay. It’s a marathon relay.
Melissa: As someone relatively new to this, I think these points could be a very helpful starting place for me. From my perspective in the intercultural field, I would also suggest that we all:
- Consider misunderstandings aren’t always about race or power. The U.S. has many cultures, and therefore many ways of interacting. Sometimes, misunderstandings are a product of racism or power differences, but sometimes they emerge from communication and behavior differences that are really about culture.
- From this perspective I would extend to everyone your suggestion that we ask, “what are we missing?” With so many layers intersecting, there is a lot that all of us don’t know!
- Along the same lines, while we do have to get better about talking about race, we should remember that nobody is just their race! Continuously include different perspectives – not just racial ones, and not just on racial topics – in your organizations and communities as a best practice.
- Remember that race in our country isn’t just about Black and White. Depending on the communities and regions we live in, we may find that dialogue with Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino Americans is more salient and urgent.
- Aim beyond simplistic engagement and toward the cultivation of shared meaning. For instance, consciously create productive opportunities to engage across racial and cultural lines. Research suggests this is most successful when there is a joint project of mutual interest (like building a park), committed leadership from each side, and members from each group who have equal number, status and complementary skills.
- Explicitly talk about race with children early and often. Well-meaning Whites may not want to admit it, but research (and logic) show that children do see skin tone differences, and do pick up implicit, negative messages about what those differences mean in society. Our silence only encourages them to believe that racial difference is equated with badness.
- Explicitly walk children through discussions about images and narratives that promote stereotypes, and help them to develop the skills to critically deconstruct them. This not only helps them see that people are more complex than Black or White, but also is an essential step toward their realizing that they are actively creating our society with their own thoughts and actions.
Susana: You’re adding a lot of subtlety and important points I missed or hadn’t thought of, Melissa! Our partnership is a great example of what can emerge when diverse people – even just two! – put their heads and hearts together. To your final point there, I’d like to add that solutions need to be not just small-scale and individual but also large-scale and systemic. On the large-scale level, three main things come to mind:
- Emphasize impact over intent in the effects of our institutions — legal and judicial systems, healthcare, education, policies etc. Attend to and redress actual impact and consequences on groups and individuals, regardless of intent. Our emphasis on intent isn’t the dominant method of redress across the globe or time. There may be other ways that work better.
- Establish and hardwire systems to mitigate the effects of our unconscious biases and avoid ineffective triggers. Implement name-blind interviewing norms in the workplace, for example. Require calibration and decision making conducted by diverse groups. Collect data on how individual physicians and customer service people are coming across to members of diverse groups. Provide people – especially people in power – with ongoing training and coaching to be aware of and adjust their behaviors. Hold everyone to rigorous, equitable levels of accountability.
- Become more active, conscious consumers of products and messages. Insist on rigorous accountability, integrity and equity from our institutions, organizations and leaders.
Melissa: So the change has to come from within us, and within society at the same time. That makes sense, because all the good intentions and dialogue isn’t going to add up to much if there are still vastly different incarceration rates, stop-and-frisk rates, educational quality, access to housing, etc. And at the same time, these improvements in society aren’t going to come without the commitment and participation of individuals.
But what about our own resilience? For me, this is the challenging truth: That we need to take a big risk, really show up and be vulnerable and willing to grow, while also recognizing that it’s going to be a marathon, as you said. How do we avoid getting burned out? What is the salve for our tired hearts?
Susana: That’s a great question, how can we do adequate self care to keep going in this marathon relay? How do we not let our hearts become overburdened or our minds overwhelmed? That’s unsustainable and leads to burnout. So another suggestion:
- Practice (Fierce) Self Care – How this looks is something each person has to answer for themselves – what inspires you, motivates you, fills you up? How are we celebrating? On this marathon relay, we need to make sure we’re drinking water, tending our wounds, resting if necessary, and also hearing the cheer of the crowds!
Melissa: I think the key underlying all of this is the act of making a commitment, of saying that we want a better society that is better for all of its people. With that in mind, we have to:
- Be role models and advocates
- Speak up when we see unfairness and injustice perpetuated
- Start conversations when and where they need to take place, instead of waiting for a perfect place to begin
Susana: I think that’s a great summary, Melissa. Thank you for walking this path with me over the last year! I’ve learned a lot and value the connection we’ve built. I’m inspired to think our journey may inspire and better equip others to make small but meaningful changes so that in another 20 years I –we? — can look back and feel good about our collective progress as a nation — not deflated, angry and discouraged like I did a year ago after the Zimmerman verdict.
Melissa: Oh, me, too, Susana! You’ve taught me a lot about courage, and also helped me to realistically assess the road that lies ahead. As a Millennial, I have this urge to just fix society overnight, and it’s important to remember that a lot of people have been laying the groundwork before me. As we mark the anniversary of the Zimmerman verdict yesterday – with little to no commentary from the media or general public — it’s a moment for us to gather our energy and forge ahead so that the silence doesn’t become acceptance. Just as the other recent verdict – the one awarding the Central Park 5 damages for the civil rights violations they endured – justice does come. Not quickly enough, not steadily enough, but it does come. I hope that I can make a contribution to that long march, and that through our conversation, others will feel a stirring in their hearts to join us.
Keep the conversation going! What one action will you commit to taking in the next year to improve race relations and justice in the United States? What would you add to our list of actions? Comment below!