Brent Christie is the founder and former executive director of Jubilee REACH.
Race – a “hot button” issue and perhaps the most explosive issue in our society. Conversations about race and racism can be very uncomfortable, socially awkward, even a bit dangerous, as latent emotions, perceptions, and pain become unmasked.
I thought I was ready, even eager, to engage in the racial conversation when I was invited by friends and partners within the Bellevue School District to participate in a five-day conference on race: “Courageous Conversations.” That’s five days among 900 racially diverse “strangers” from school districts throughout the country.
The first prerequisite for participation in the conference was that I “stay engaged.” No matter how personal or perilous the dialogue on race, every participant was to stay engaged and committed to the conversation. The second related and requisite tenet was to “expect and experience discomfort.” I was about to discover (when unpacking my own and others’ perspectives and experiences about race) things were going to get uncomfortable. It didn’t take long.
In response to 26 statements of what I consider normal, everyday life and social experiences, each of us was asked to privately score “our truths” based upon our race or color. After totaling our scores, we silently lined up around the room, highest scores to lowest. Without a sound, 250 diversely mixed people became ranked according to their racial “truth experience score.” White males formed the front of the line and then clustered with white females. From there, the line extended from lighter to darker shades of brown to black at the very end of the line. The quiet was palpable; the visual, profound. Then our facilitator asked who had college degrees, master’s degrees, and Ph.D.’s by a show of hands. Ultimately, more hands remained raised at the end of the line.
Discomfort – The conference called Courageous Conversations just got real. Voices began to speak. Voices of color spoke most: first from observations, then from inner thoughts and feelings, then from profound personal stories of real life experiences. Polite turned to painful. As the conversation became more personal, penetrating and risky, the more silent I and my white colleagues became. Retreating to my “white male comfort club” was no longer a choice. My gut was churning.
Face to face in public for the next few days, I was facilitated through a deeper dialogue. In smaller groups, we unpacked. Through a persistent process of awkward (often gut-wrenching) dialogue, I recognized how truly unconscious I was of my privilege. Being oblivious to my state of entitlement and white privilege, I can actually irritate another person.
I absorbed stories from black and brown people, professionals with Ph.D.’s, being pulled over by police being told, “you people take advantage of our rights…” I empathized with a highly educated black mother defending her children when a white school teacher insisted her 8-year-old son “didn’t belong” and demanded he be placed in special education classes. When that well-educated black mother became upset and persistent, she was dismissed as “irrational and angry,” asked to calm down or be removed from the school.
Using only eye contact, we were directed to select a person of a different race to engage in a direct one-on-one conversation. Earlier, I had observed a black woman speaking in our general session. I was drawn to her pleasant, thoughtful manner. Fortunately, we made eye contact at the same time and our gesture to one another sealed our mutual selection of each other to engage in a courageous conversation. I learned Bernadette was a Ph.D. and school board trustee for one of the largest school districts in the country. Learning I was from Seattle, Bernadette explained how she loved Nordstrom. Then she shared her truth, “When I shop at Nordstrom, I always dress well. I have learned that when I dress casually, I’m looked at differently and I don’t receive the same service or attention.”
Bernadette said that she would be leaving the conference early to tend to a civil unrest issue (a video that had gone viral) in her district. The video was of her! She had challenged the stance of her white male superintendent on a racial matter at her school board meeting. As she left the meeting, the superintendent arranged for the police to forcibly arrest her as she departed the building. I watched the YouTube video in disbelief. Now knowing Bernadette, I was angry.
The third tenet of Courageous Conversations required I “speak my truth,” not passing off my own thoughts or assumptions as “some people.” I must own my own thoughts, feelings, and opinions without fear of offending, appearing angry or sounding ignorant.
The fourth and final tenet was to “expect and accept a lack of closure.” Conversations about race usually provide no resolution but can perpetuate a process of learning, understanding, even appreciation and perhaps empathy.
Intense – that is one way of describing “my truth” of five days of Courageous Conversation in New Orleans. I certainly became aware of how unaware I was. Unaware and unconscious of the liberties, privileges, even entitlements being a white male affords me in our society. Douglas Fitch, a Methodist pastor wrote, “We see things not as they are, but as we are.” I realize that many of my beliefs on race are based on misconceptions because I have never experienced being a person of color in school, living in a white culture, entering the workforce or pursuing a career,
For racial conditions to change, I also realized it is not my role to play “savior” or be the “big white fix.” Rather I must change – I must be the change. I must be culturally competent and conscious, and deconstruct the barriers and biases that assume there is something wrong with people based on their racial or ethnic makeup. I must be the change I want to see, stay engaged, experience discomfort, speak my truth, and expect and accept this is not going to be easy. I must get comfortable with discomfort.
And to Bernadette, on the chance that you may ever read this, I want to say “thanks.” “Thank you for speaking your truth to me, for connecting your eyes with mine, allowing me to hear your truth and see your heart as a mother, a courageous leader, and a friend during an intense week of personal discovery.”