In this month's update, Institutional Assessment Implementation Committee member Jaya Karsemeyer Bone shares her suggestions for navigating difficult conversations around racism (with supporting words contributed by Regina Renee Ward).
Difficult Conversations: How to offer an open hand if you are not a person of color
In COVID-19-times, it feels different to consider what is meant by “difficult conversations.” We are not having conversations in close proximity. They are by text message, Facebook Messenger, and comments on social media. They are by FaceTime and Zoom. But they are no less charged. Perhaps we can newly consider those conversations that made us want to run away, now that we are away from one another due to social distancing.
As members of the Institutional Assessment Implementation Committee, implementing the recommendations of the Institutional Assessment for Systemic Racism, we actively seek ways to support meetings in the difficult work of becoming anti-racist faith groups. There is much Friends can agree on—we don’t want to be racist! We never meant to be racist! Racism has no place in a healed community, in a faith organization seeking wholeness and unity with the Divine.
But then what? Data clearly indicates that, in various ways, the Religious Society of Friends has historically perpetuated, and continues to perpetuate, racism in its organizational structure, demographic, language and habit—what then?
A difficult conversation is often made difficult by the presence of conflict. Consider these definitions:
Conflict (noun) - A serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one. (Dictionary)
Conflict (noun) - Something to be avoided at all cost especially if it may result in someone having hurt feelings. (Quakers in your monthly meeting?)
Does this sound like something you've experienced in your meeting? If you sense conflict and are ready to embark upon a difficult conversation, try these guidelines:
- Educate yourself. Particularly with regards to racism amongst Friends, there are many assumptions made. If you are white and speaking with a person of color, know that the depth of this person’s experience is unknown to you. If you are sincere about any intention to work towards the eradication of white supremacy, you must put aside the posture of knowing, and be a listener. Also, the information and experience you need to hear or read about is available in other spaces besides the direct sharing of people of color! You can start your education with the many resources available through FGC and other Quaker and non-Quaker publications dedicated to understanding and insight.
- Ask to have a conversation in a neutral location and at a time that is not strained. Conflict can be about opinions and views, and sometimes it is about something else entirely—particularly as we are dealing with a global pandemic. Feelings of distress and powerlessness may come up in any number of interactions. Leave space to be calm and centered. If necessary, step away from the heat of the moment and request consent to revisit this topic or issue, potentially creating new possibilities and a way forward.
- Speak plainly. Express your thoughts and feelings, speaking from your own experience. Hyperbole, and even expressive language, can escalate a disagreement into a sense of animosity and extreme polarity. Stay with “what is” and speak as concretely as possible.
- Listen actively, deeply, and sincerely. Instead of thinking of how you will respond, just listen to and digest what is being shared. Gently set aside the desire to counter, point out flaw, or nitpick. Hear the intention, even if you find yourself taking issue with the language that is being used. Being with someone in this way is a rich opportunity to “answer that of G-d in everyone." The experience of unity, of one-ness, is available to us always, anywhere, with anyone.
- Be open and willing to change your own behavior and/or opinion.
- Remember the Divine! Call on hir. Take a moment of silence.
- Offer an open hand. Sometimes we cannot meet in person. "I offer an open hand" can be conveyed electronically. Even typing it unfurls something tightly wound inside. Offer it despite, or perhaps because of, discomfort.
Suggested Further Reading
- On Vocal Ministry: Nurturing the Community Through Listening and FaithFulness - Pendle Hill Pamphlet #460 by Barry Crossno and J. Brent Bill
- Say the Wrong Thing: Stories and Strategies for Racial Justice and Authentic Community by Amanda Kemp (foreward by Lisa Graustein)