Becca Balint: Navigating slippery conversations

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There's a steep rocky trail on one of my morning hikes that's now covered with oak leaves. I recently trudged up the slope as two walkers slip-slided down. Confident hikers, all, we marveled that we still lose our footing on these greasy autumn offerings. That's how we sometimes feel when navigating social situations in which a colleague, a friend, a family member or a stranger says something offensive; we often lose our confidence and stumble.

I was reminded of the perennial slick carpet of autumn oak leaves while facilitating a breakout session at the annual conference The Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future. In this dynamic two-day event, participants themselves create the agenda for the conference and then facilitate all the

workshops. This is not a space in which you can sit back and be a passive participant. You must walk on the oak leaves.

I've attended this conference in the past, but this year I facilitated the breakout session of all the white people attending the conference. In an adjacent room, Curtiss Reed facilitated a session for People of Color.

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These topics — racial justice, racism and white supremacy — are so complex and so fraught with intense emotions that sometimes those of us who want to have meaningful, substantive conversations feel paralyzed and don't speak about what's genuinely on our minds or in our hearts. For People of Color, there is the exhaustion and frustration that comes from having to constantly educate others about these issues. People of Color also face real danger when they speak up.

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Meanwhile, some white people deny that there's a problem. Others understand that racism is real but don't want to believe its systemic or institutional. As Toni Morrison wrote in the 2016 essay "Mourning for Whiteness": "So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble."

And then there are white people who truly want to be strong allies but don't always find the courage or the right words. Sometimes it's about finding a good moment to interject or using the right tone. And sometimes power comes into play. What do you do when it's a boss or supervisor who says the offensive remark? I know these issues are real and can be impediments to showing up as strong allies. The participants in the workshop for white people were honest and open with one another and wanted help.

Here's a way to begin to be a better ally when an opportunity to speak up arises. Start with a clarifying question: Why do you feel that way? Or — I don't understand; what did you mean by that? Curiosity gives someone the opportunity to reflect on what they said and why. Questions create an opening for a more substantive conversation.

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When others are around, sometimes what's called for is a clear signal to the rest of the group: "I'm not sure what you meant by that comment, but here's what I heard." Or "I don't think you meant to offend, but here's why that comment is hurtful." There might be situations in which there's no time to stop for clarifying questions. You can show your unease or displeasure through facial expressions and body language, and then follow up with the person after the presentation.

We have inherited a path covered in slippery oak leaves. But if we navigate them together with curiosity, humility, and tenacity we create the possibility that the people coming behind us will have a slightly less treacherous path.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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