Reflections on Facilitating Uncomfortable Conversations Around Race

by | Aug 14, 2015 | Blog

By Christen Clougherty, Ph.D.

One of the goals of Nobis World programs is to engage in the deep work of reflecting on our personal perspectives of power, privilege and systems of oppression. A participant asked me recently why I, a white, middle class woman chooses to engage in this work. It took me a moment to reflect on where this calling comes from. And perhaps my pause was a little longer because of a challenging program that had ended just a few days before.

While I believe in the innate worth of every human being, I recognize that the power dynamics of society gives preferential treatment to certain individuals or groups, while withholding from another. My commitment to dismantling racism and fighting against systems of oppression stems from my middle and high school experiences at the Carolina Friends School. My schooling opened my eyes to see how inequity and injustices found throughout history continue today. Rather than preparing us to be agents of change when we became adults, my school challenged us to act now! Through a culture of activism, critical reflection, and questioning the status quo students were empowered to stand up against injustices. Knowing first hand what an impact this can have on students led me to found the Nobis Project and work with teachers. It is my hope that K-12 teachers all over the country may foster in their students a critical analysis of power, privilege, and systems of inequity while supporting students to take action. We must prepare our students for the world not as it is, but as it should be.

I continue to be committed to this work because I know people in my community and around the world who are oppressed by unjust systems and institutions. It has taken me many years to see how I am also oppressed by these same systems that afford me my white privilege. I have found no better phrasing to illustrate this than the Aboriginal quote, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

We often talk in our work about power. Nobis defines power as a social force. It is the degree of impact of a person, institution, or system has in relation to others’ beliefs, behaviors, or values. Power is not necessarily only defined as ‘power-over’, it is also the capacity to act or to prevent an action. In this way power can manifest as ‘power with’ and ‘power within.’ And it is the ‘power with’ that draws me to this work. Our shared fate calls me to respond to racial inequity and injustice.

This work is ongoing, and this work is never done. For many years I followed a pattern of reaching a breakthrough to a new awareness and then feeling, “ahh, I get it now.” It wasn’t until I attended the White Privilege Conference that I realized that this is life’s work. It will never be done. My white privilege is complex and embedded in every nuance of my beliefs and my experiences. And my white privilege affords me the choice to take the day off and enjoy the privileges my race offers me; this luxury is not afforded to people of color.

Engaging in this critical self-reflection can be challenging and uncomfortable. And teaching or facilitating these critical conversations is scary, overwhelming, and imperfect. Nobis Project works with educators in building their skills in unpacking social issues, deepening understanding, and then taking action in their classrooms. We do this in our workshops and our Nobis World global service-learning programs. We model and are transparent with where we are on our own journey in this work. And I want to share with you my experience during our Savannah & The Lowcountry program this summer. The experience evoked powerful and emotional responses from participants. Responses varied greatly depending on the viewpoint each participant brought to the program. These emotional responses, long days, and various levels of privilege awareness among the participants made for a challenging dynamic to facilitate.

My skills were challenged this summer and I took missteps in addressing the conflicts that emerged. When the final participant left, I was left raw, confused, and alarmed that my actions left some participants feeling unsafe and unheard. I learned greatly from the experience and even more so from the participants about how to better facilitate in the future. And I am grateful for participants’ willingness to reflect with me on our experiences.

I learned that I was wrong in thinking that I should not speak up on behalf participants of color. Making room for participants of color to express their views was critical, but where I failed was in letting their voices be carried alone. I have power in being heard as a white person, and I can use that power in order to reinforce what was being said. I also learned that perhaps white participants can better hear a divergent perspective from me, a white facilitator – someone who shares their white privilege.

Additionally, I learned that sometimes those with privilege are not ready or willing to hear about how they benefit from systems of oppression. Privilege is characteristically invisible to those who have it, and discovering the wizard behind the curtain can cause cognitive dissonance that sends you reeling. I thought, in grave error, that I should try to keep the white participants as comfortable as possible to not lose them. I thought that if I held their hand through this process it would be of greater value because of the potential impact of having another person ready to engage in the ‘power with.’ And while this goal is admirable, I failed the group by spending more time working with those with privilege at the expense of those without. I perpetuated the oppression that I vowed to challenge.

At the start of the week we craft a list of guidelines of how to work together. One of the things that often makes the list is ‘ouch’ statements. We challenge one another to speak up when a statement or action hurts yourself or others by saying ‘ouch.’ I see some eyes getting big when we talk about the possibility of someone ‘calling you out’ for saying the wrong thing. I’m a perfectionist by nature, and I am petrified of getting it wrong. But what I share with participants is that the moments of being ‘called out’ are a part of this work. It’s what makes it uncomfortable, but it is what leads to growth. And I can say that once someone lets me know how I’ve ‘ouched’ them, as was the case this summer, I will never forget it. This discomfort provides a heightened sense of recall. Knowledge becomes understanding because the experience has been lived, and an emotional memory has been recorded.

As an educator I will not always get it right. Facilitating difficult conversations around race, privilege, and systems of oppression is challenging work. And it would be much easier to run away and close the door to future conversations. As a person with white privilege I am afforded this choice. But then who would benefit and who would lose? There can be no ‘power with’ if I don’t show up to do the work, no matter how uncomfortable.

If you are looking to deepen your skills in engaging in difficult conversations in your classroom, here are few resources:

1.    It’s Never Too Early to Talk About Race
2.    Uncomfortable Conversations: Talking About Race In The Classroom
3.    I, racist
4.    White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism5.    White Women’s Tears and the Men Who Love Them