10 racial reconciliation conversation deflections

Jun 19, 2014 by

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My friend Grace Sandra wrote an article for Christianity Today on the vulnerabilities faced by black women where she discusses the links between her personal experiences, current events and statistics. She explains how this trifecta weighs on her personally, and by extension other black women. She requests that the church not shy away from, but instead engage, the hearts of black women who feel as weighed down as she.

Unfortunately for many people attempting to speak truth to power, sharing our hearts on these issues (not just theories, but how they make us feel) is always risky. Sometimes those listening engage well, but we always know there is a chance things will fall apart. It doesn’t always matter what the justice issue is — mass incarceration, education, immigration or in this case racial justice — there is always a risk that our hearts will leave as broken as when we came.

I use my friend’s recent experience as a backdrop because the article is good and you should read it, and because the comments section managed to use 10 of the most common deflections known to racial reconcilers. The list below might be helpful for those new to and perhaps frustrated by how quickly these conversations can devolve.

10. “No, it’s a different -ism . . . “

More than one -ism can exist in any given situation. Your denial that racism was present in the story I am telling you is insulting my experience and my intelligence. It might not be wise to assume you are the most learned in an -ism that you don’t experience.

9. “My singular experiences trump your lifetime of experiences.”

It’s really nice that you work in the ‘hood, attend a church with some black people, learned Spanish, travelled to an under-resourced community, have an Asian friend, etc. Your short-term experiences will never “trump” my lifetime of experiences. Additionally, if none of these experiences have opened your eyes to the realities of racism, you’re not paying attention. So you should probably listen to these stories. It will make you a better friend.

8. “Why aren’t you listening to me?”

This comes in numerous forms: Shouldn’t we all be heard? Why doesn’t my voice matter? We’re tired of listening to [insert race] people. Haven’t we talked about this enough? No matter the form, this is an attempt to silence people of color and exert power to control the conversation. Resist the desire to control. A conversation is going to be the easiest form of releasing power; if you can’t do that, you will have little success doing so in systems, structures and interpersonal relationships.

7. “Your feelings aren’t valid until I’m convinced the cause of those feelings is just.”

This can often be an incredibly painful response for someone who is sharing the pain of their lives. If I said, “I had a bad day today,” and continued to express what happened, would you judge whether or not my experiences legitimately add up to a bad day? Would you dare tell me that you don’t think my bad day is valid and walk away? Why is greater grace given to a single bad day than a lifetime of struggling against racism? You don’t get to be the judge and jury over anyone’s feelings. Stop picking apart people’s stories.

6. “But what about what this other black person said?”

Newsflash: We are not all the same. We are allowed to have varied experiences, perspectives and ideas. And we trust that you can take them all in. If you are basing everything you believe about race on one person, that’s a problem. You should be quiet and take in a few more perspectives.

5. “Scripture, Scripture, Scripture . . . all clear now?”

Can we stop assuming that people of color haven’t already reconciled their ideas, experiences and studies of racism with the Bible? Please don’t try to fix me with Scripture when I’m busy trying to fix a broken world.

4. “History is not tied to today’s problems.”

Yes. It is. History matters, including slavery which is what most folks mean when they want to dismiss history. Racism wasn’t created in a vacuum. It was constructed and you would do well to know how, when and why. This information leads to all the ways race has then been reconstructed over time until today.

3. “But others have it worse.”

The fact that other people have been or are being oppressed isn’t a good reason to stop having the conversation about this particular oppression. And it certainly doesn’t dismiss it or make it okay. People of color are generally well aware of the different forms oppression has taken throughout history. We could probably educate you about some of the connections between them, but let’s be honest. You’re not trying to dive deeper, you are trying to dismiss. Stop. Focus on this oppression. We can talk about the others later, if you can have this conversation well.

2. Hyper focus on a micro-issue

This may be one of the most effective tools for derailing a conversation. Hyper focusing on a minor example, story, or media event has the ability to shift the conversation into a fight over arguable specifics instead of connecting the dots between multiple forms of racism.

1. “You’re making me feel bad; make it stop.”

Ultimately, most of the above responses are an attempt to guard against feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, frustration, anger and helplessness. Even when there is nothing accusatory spoken, just the race conversation — the retelling of painful stories — is enough to elicit an emotional response. Rather than let the emotions live, it is quite common for participants to resist.

I hope this is a good starting place. Before I close, I would like to offer another thought. Just sit in it. I know it’s hard. I know it’s uncomfortable. I know there is a lot of emotion. I am having feelings. You are having feelings. But it will be OK. Just join me in the pain, muck, mire. Don’t resist it. Let down your defenses. Pull up a seat and be witness, be a friend.

Austin Channing Brown works speaking, training, facilitating dialogue or planning strategies in reconciliation. She works at Willow Creek Community Church’s Chicago Campus as their Multicultural Ministry Specialist. This first appeared on her blog, austinchanning.com.


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