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Conversations About Race: Start From Within

Growing up, many of us learned not to discuss politics, religion or money if we wanted to avoid highly-charged conversations. Race is another topic I would add to that list. Race is so taboo that we do not even talk about the fact that we do not talk about it.

On a recent webinar on race, one of the African-American coaches shared that a White friend was surprised that they had not discussed race or racism during their 30-year friendship. I, on the other hand, was not surprised. When we do talk about race, difficult feelings are brought to the surface—anger, guilt, shame, remorse, sadness, grief and defensiveness. Who wants to talk about that?!

I still think about a conversation from 15 years ago that effectively ended my friendship with a White friend, particularly in light of the many race-based conversations that began this summer.

The conversation started innocuously. Then my friend blurted out a statement that I could tell she regretted. Maybe there was even surprise that she thought it.

Our friendship took another year or so before it ended, but that night really marked its death. Neither of us was equipped to discuss what happened, how we felt, and what we each needed, or even the fact that we did not know what to do. More importantly, I did not understand what I needed to support myself in processing the painful emotions I was experiencing. If I did, I would have gone for a long walk or taken some other action to support myself and prepare myself to have a difficult conversation.

We continued to see each other. I even attended her wedding. I did eventually request that we talk about what happened. I think I cried. I am sure she apologized, but it did not go anywhere. Eventually we stopped trying.

If that conversation happened now, here is what I would have done:

Take a time-out.

In times of stress, the two ancient amygdala in our brain go to work preparing us for a flight or fight response. In that moment with my friend, stress hormones were likely coursing through my body. I might have felt confused and my heart might have been racing. I could have said, “Let’s take a breather. I need to figure out what I need to address this. But in this moment what I need is a time-out. I do not want to make this situation worse by saying something now I will later regret.”

Give your brain something to do.

Whether the conversation is about race or some other sensitive topic, the desire is to make the difficult feelings go away as soon as possible. In a culture that reinforces strategies for distracting us from things that feel uncomfortable, we may feel inclined to overeat, take it out on a loved one, drink or watch tv to numb the pain. In doing so, we set ourselves up for an endless loop of conflict, avoidance and numbness that prevents us from becoming aware of how to do it differently next time.

If I had the chance to re-do that past conversation, I would have engaged in an activity to calm myself. I would have meditated, journaled about my feelings, gone for a long walk or bike ride. I would have sat and done deep breathing, which neuroscience shows us can calm the brain and the mind. I would have asked myself the following questions:

  • What thoughts am I aware of? I feel angry, sad, helpless and hopeless. I wonder why I get close to some White people only to have them say hurtful things about my race. I want to know if she really believes what she said. I am tired.
  • What sensations in my body am I aware of? My heart is racing. I feel a heaviness in my heart.
  • Is there more that I need to do to support myself in this moment? I need a break from thinking about this right now. I need rest.

Talk to a trusted friend or adviser.

These days in a tough conversation, I would call a dear friend or mentor to help me think through my options. Sometimes what we most need in times of stress is for someone who truly knows us to remind us of our goodness, help us see our blindspots and remind us of our ability to handle any problem.

Ask yourself what your intention is.

There are times when I will assess that I do not have enough rapport, interest or energy to engage in a conversation around race. In the case of my friend, however, I would have shared my feelings and learned why she said what she did. I would have wanted to preserve our friendship.

I might have said, “I want to understand if you believe what you said. I felt hurt to my very soul by what you said. I want to know you hear me and that you see ME. I want to hear you and what you feel. I want to find a way forward. I hope you do too.”

The above steps may take one person days, another person hours and another person, with daily practice, minutes. What is most important is to give yourself options to prepare yourself for the conversation we too frequently avoid.

If you’d like to talk to someone at Nebo about more ways you can practice difficult and important conversations, we’d love to hear from you. Please send us an email at leadership@nebocompany.com.

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