People who are not white — myself included — don’t always want to be the ones explaining certain racial concepts or experiences to people privileged enough to never really have to think about race. At the same time, many of us do still want to be part of helping all people understand the wide-reaching impact of this odd construct.
Fortunately for all of us, the National Museum of African American History & Culture has just published an excellent online resource: Talking About Race. This website splits up its various resources by topic for different audiences, and I’m a huge fan!
Now I have a place to direct people when I’m not feeling up for the conversation myself. Maybe Talking About Race will help you, too, whether you’re looking to educate yourself, or looking for a place to send well-meaning people who want to talk to you about race when you’re in a place of prioritising self-care. May we all be free from suffering, and the causes of suffering.
Have you ever participated in an intimate class or group meeting that broke down in some way? What happened? How did your level of engagement shift as a result?
Maybe one participant spoke more than anyone else and you mentally “checked out” because you knew you’d never get a chance to contribute. Or maybe someone you really wanted to hear from kept getting interrupted, which made you angry, and you spent the rest of the session noticing how many times she got interrupted rather than hearing what anyone was actually saying. Did a group of people keep showing up late after breaks, making everyone wait? Did you become so hungry, or so uncomfortable from sitting still for so long, that you lost your ability to focus?
Group agreements can do a lot to prevent scenarios like these. By fostering a sense of psychological safety within groups, they can make it much easier for everyone to participate more fully, or even show up in the first place.
Here are a few of topics around which group agreements can encourage open and intimate sharing among groups, especially in diverse groups comprised of people with a range of identities, or whose cultural, racial, gender, and/or class experiences (to name only a few!) may differ greatly:
Schedule / showing up on time / timekeeping / what if you can’t make it
Listening / talking at the same time as others
Encouraging responses vs asking participants to receive each others’ contributions without responding or “fixing”
Assuming goodwill / distinguishing between impact and intent
Making space for all voices / permission to pass
Speaking for yourself / speaking on behalf of others / making generalizations
Addressing / identifying each other (eg nametags, sharing gender pronouns)
Side conversations / off-topic conversations
Use of technology / taking notes / photography
Personal attacks / value judgments
Availability of water and food
Body care: official “bio breaks” / people taking breaks when necessary
Accessibility / where to meet
If you’re the “holder” or facilitator of the group, it’s great to give participants the opportunity to co-create agreements prior to accepting them… though this is more practical for multi-day events when this process won’t take up too much of the allotted time! For shorter meetings with a new group, try setting aside even just a couple minutes to read out a prepared set of agreements, and asking people to acknowledge them with a quick show of hands.
As a participant, if you know there are certain group agreements that would help you feel safe or show up more fully, you might ask your facilitator before the event if they would be willing to address those topics as part of the intro to the session. If they are not willing to do so… well, then you have more information to help you decide whether or not that’s a meeting you want to attend!
I’d love to see examples of group agreements that you’ve found particularly helpful; please send any and all my way!
In most of the spaces I inhabited in Northern California, I had the privilege of being surrounded by very well-trained advocates for racial, class, gender, and a number of other forms of diversity and inclusion. The workshops, classes, community, and work events I frequented were excellently facilitated by people adept at leading the group through the setting of shared agreements. Once we had collectively affirmed those agreements, the facilitators and participants could lovingly but firmly call out — or rather, call in — any behavior that breached those agreements.
Even in situations where there were no explicit agreements in place, such as social gatherings, there was always someone more hip than I was to such matters who was willing to say something when anyone’s bias showed. In the rare moments when I did find I wanted to raise my own voice, usually online, I had people who could help me adjust my language before posting anything, and back me up once my words were out there.
These scenarios felt very safe and very comfortable. I benefited from the work of others; I could fully show up because I knew that what I shared would usually be received and held respectfully by the facilitator or the group itself, or that at the very least, someone else would intervene if anyone failed to check their privilege or veered into prejudiced territory, consciously or otherwise. And I trusted that my own missteps would be skillfully reflected back to me, giving me the opportunity to raise my own levels of awareness.
I wanted to start this story by stating that I didn’t have any interest in attending Stanford University in the first place, but that can’t be true. Why else would I have been there, surrounded by fellow students in a room much too small for the number of us who showed up to… to what? Impress? Ask questions of? Suss out? the guy Stanford sent to woo us into attending his esteemed educational institution.
This particular representative wore a suffocating air of self-importance along with his beard and tweed sport coat, and I quickly determined that I had made a poor decision by attending the meeting. “It wouldn’t be fair to compare our weather to that of other universities,” he humble-bragged at one point, ”but we do get approximately 300 days of sunshine a year.” I remember wondering: does it make it better or worse that he’s aware of how ridiculous he sounds?
But I perked right up when he asked, “Does anyone know what’s next door to the Monterey Bay Aquarium?”
I had recently been inside the building next door, lovely from the outside with its ancient wooden siding, the inside packed with dusty jars and odd specimens. The man who once used this lab was nothing short of a hero in my budding-scientist eyes. I’d read John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez for California Natural History, which chronicles Steinbeck’s adventures with the larger-than-life character; the first seventy pages of the book is a moving eulogy to a man who clearly made an impression on everyone who knew him.
In other words, I knew the answer to this one.
“Ed Ricketts’ lab!” I blurted, relieved that the conversation might finally going in a direction that interested me.
I fail to remember what response Mr. Self Important was looking for. He probably didn’t expect one at all, so comfortable was he in his mansplainer’s role, though that term wouldn’t be coined for another fourteen years. But I will never forget what he proceeded to say to me, or the derisive tone with which he dismissed me, my hero, and any desire I may ever have had to associate with Stanford University:
For years I told myself I wasn’t cut out for a 9-5 job. When I ditched that story, I found a job that ultimately inspired me to move across an ocean. As of last week, this has officially been my longest stretch of employment ever (not counting the years I worked for myself) and I’m not planning on leaving any time soon!
Whatever it is that I’m tapped into right now reminds me a LOT of a similar period I went through back in 1998 (dropped out of University; went to Australia to chart my OWN path; “discovered” art symbols God yoga Buddhism and so many other things that remain very important in my life…)
I still have lot of questions about how to make correspondence work in an era when we have too many communication choices. And I’m still hoping you’ll interact with me via this YouTube channel!
You can read more about the Paradox of Choice and the actual details of the jam sampling study here; I didn’t quite get the details right during the recording.