Tools for Normalizing Generative, Mobilizing Racial Dialogue
Uncertainty, violence, trauma, and chaos were marked features making 2020 a year like no other. Mountains of unrelenting drama and loss left many relieved to have made it through, and hopeful that the new year would bring much-needed healing and change. The turmoil that seems to be haunting us demands reflection as its presence has forced many of us to restructure our lives and begs us to examine how these experiences evolve, build upon, and connect to one another. This evolution of life is ongoing, often flawed, and sometimes beautiful. I present this article in that vein… evolving, imperfect, and unfinished. It is with this in mind I am calling this article a "work in progress" that will be revisited for updates as relevant data emerges. Embodied racial justice leadership takes a similar path and is also a winding, unfolding lifelong process. This article attempts to explore and highlight a few developmental and capacity needs of the racially just leader.
As I make final edits to this writing, the U.S. marks more than 400,000 Covid-19 deaths, growing numbers of Covid-19 diagnoses, and a national vaccination roll-out riddled with messaging and logistical challenges. In the midst of this pandemic that is approaching its year-long anniversary, the U.S. seems resolutely divided. Racial injustice, rising unemployment, and economic uncertainty seem to be in lockstep with the pandemic. Joseph Biden is about to be sworn in as President, making history with Kamala Harris the first biracial Indian/Jamaican female to ever hold the office of Vice President. In the midst of the pandemic, capitalism remains an unrelenting and ever-present force that permeates every aspect of our lives. Political and economic fissures put on display the dominant structures that entangle Americans in a brutal hierarchy designed to keep those closest to power focused on maintaining their power and the rest of us busy, distracted, and unable to slow down enough to notice the individual and collective injury to us and our environment. White skin continues to be tendered as a highly valued and sacred currency that explicitly and implicitly steals and mutilates for power, advantage, and access while it simultaneously withholds the same power and access to Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies. On January 6, 2021, the world witnessed an unambiguous exhibition of white dominance when the president of the United States openly sanctioned a violent attack on the U.S. Capital.
The delusion of white supremacy and all that it encompasses continues to present dynamic challenges to every aspect of society. Leaders with aims toward racial justice have an enormous responsibility to bring change and transformation into their practices. We know that the office, classroom, and community are microcosms of the larger society and the elevated racial dynamics are playing out in each of these spaces. The ways racial kinetics play out is contingent on many things, including the racial identity of actors, the region, leadership, power structures, and organizational cultures that in many ways determine what is acceptable and what is not.
Organizational and university responses to the January 6 insurrection ranged from pure outrage denouncing the violence to Twitter and Facebook terminating Trump's accounts, to boards making public statements about changing their corporate political donation strategies. Curious about how leaders were responding to the crisis, I perused the language of leaders in seven organizations (manufacturing and universities) that made public statements condemning President Trump following the violence at the Capital. The National Association of Manufacturers urged Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump and "preserve democracy." While remarkably powerful and extraordinarily unprecedented, not one leader specifically called out the delusion of white supremacy which remains an underlying, underacknowledged force behind the attack. The common thread connecting most folks, according to Emily Peck of the HuffPost, is the belief that they are losing social status, "their place in a country where white folks will soon be in the minority and where many women no longer seem to realize that men should be in charge." Peck went on to say that much of the pain comes from the belief that the rug is being pulled from them, "that the benefits they have enjoyed because of their race, their group’s advantages, and their status atop the racial hierarchy are all in jeopardy.”
That this force remains unnamed in many organizations is one of the ways denial continues to plague our relationships and structures. The subtle ways denial permeates our lives keeps us at bay from getting to the painful truth of our collective entanglement in this violently dominant system. In a speech shortly after the insurrectionist attack, then President-Elect Joe Biden pleaded with the country, an attempt to convince its citizens that the chaotic scenes that unfolded at the U.S. capital did not reflect "true America" placing the blame on a "small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness." His declaration is an example of the ways centuries of socially-sanctioned murder, subjugation, land theft, and discriminate violence are the foundation of a system designed to create advantage for some at the expense of others, and how it remains discretely hidden in plain sight even as it plays out before our eyes.
The response to the increased and visibility of racial injustice, a proliferation of antiracism education, workshops and dismantling white supremacy symposiums espousing racial equity and justice have emerged and are more often than not, stand-alone, cognitively focused, one-time events. Implicit in the one-time-event is a return to business-as-usual mentality that does not integrate the often highly charged material into practice and thus cannot bring about substantive change. Rather these efforts often (re)produce the very dynamics racial justice actions are intended to change, leaving issues of race separate from all else.
In spite of the attention that racism and the delusion of white supremacy are being given, a major collective challenge that continues to keep us at bay from true racial healing and progress is our inability to face the truth about the nature, presence, and resultant universal (although unequal) and continual harm caused by denial and racial dominance. Race is always present, and its operations often function implicitly.
The concepts in this writing are presented as tools that support the development of capacities that when practiced consistently, can contribute what is necessary to look deep into the heart of denial and racial dominance, and face the truth that holds us as collective hostages to fear. A commitment to the false ideology of white superiority binds like superglue to its relational opposite notion of Black, Brown, Indigenous (and Other) inferiority, leaving in its wake recycled trauma-infused histories. These interdependent forces live deep within each of us and are supported by centuries of socially-sanctioned policies, practices, and laws that uphold racial structures.
A Brief Note About Talk & the Research Project
Implicit in the application of institutional practices and processes is the essentiality of language and communication. A significant and impactful tool then is discourse—various forms of text, talk, and interactions—that constructs the interpersonal relationships that flow from it. Talk is a principal component of organizational functioning and a primary way in which work is performed and involves purposeful talking and listening and writing. In addition to talk, multiple forms of documentation— reports, emails, assessments, policies, procedures, meeting minutes, newsletters, and blogs—require sound communication skills.
The capacities discussed in this document come from a research project that was published in 2020 (Navigating the Silences: Social Worker Discourses Around Race). The data that emerged around leadership was particularly enlightening. Research participants in leadership roles vocalized the ways in which their peers engaged in discriminatory practices and turned away from addressing the debilitating operations of racial dominance in their agencies. For example, one White participant noted that her all-White leadership team routinely avoided the topic of race and when it did make its way into meetings, quickly escalated into being conflated with liability, legal issues, and risks for leadership.
Findings of the project also suggested that access to day-to-day conversations around race were frequently denied by White practitioners through efforts to maintain positive self-image, comfort or to assuage fear. Black and biracial professionals utilized avoidance to manage agency, deflect negative stereotypes, and maintain professional image. Moreover, the critical analysis of underlying discourse structures of white participants revealed nuanced ideologies of racial dominance even with the intent of practicing ‘racially just’ social work. While the research project focused on social workers in the U.S., racial dominance is a global phenomena that directly impacts diversity, equity, inclusion and justice efforts.
The need for building dialogue and resource capacities. The research project offers examples of how access to racial dialogue was denied through themes of willful avoidance or turning away, comfort/discomfort, and risk and danger. In describing the theme of willful avoidance, participant narratives
“were punctuated by avoidance of, intentional looking away from, and indifference to what would otherwise be obvious, particularly in light of the profession’s stated commitment to justice. For many participants this phenomenon could be traced back to inadequacies in education and training in social work classrooms, field practicums, and supervision, which impact social workers’ ability to negotiate productive conversations around race. As a result, the topic of race was routinely avoided, considered irrelevant, and not discussed in interactions with colleagues” (Bridges Patrick, 2020, p. 116).
The study focused on social workers (who are ethically committed to eliminating various forms of oppression), this perspective can be useful in understanding the durability of racial dominance as people engage in efforts to dismantle it. As active, living parts of a power-over system, our responsibilities include examination of ourselves, how we contribute to its maintenance, and how it functions to maintain and reproduce the status quo. Moving forward informed by this knowledge, combined with a clear vision of racial justice, offers the possibility for transformative change.
Four Interpersonal Dialogue Capacities
The concept of embodied antiracism has transformative potential to realign and invigorate conversations around racism and can direct us toward “liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other” (Kendi, 2019). The mindset, values, and commitment required to perform such an arduous task includes the ability to generatively talk about racial dominance, injustice, diversity, inclusion and equity (amongst other things). The system of racial dominance is cunning primarily because its destructive nature is obscured and often consists of what is not said, what is not obvious, or what is imperceptible. The concepts presented here offer ideas of what "muscles" need to be developed to engage in the complex topic. These characteristics are developmental in nature and are strengthened when they are routinely practiced, and generative dialogue becomes a 'normalized' part of organizational life. In stating the task in this simplified way, I must caution against the common belief that this centuries old system can be transformed by talking alone or even with education, empathy, proximity (or any of the many other efforts made to dismantle it). At its core, the work of justice is about creating a new culture, a new way of individual and collective being.
Four interpersonal dialogue capacities that emerged from the research project are: 1) positive, encouraging, liberating dialogic environment; 2) adaptability; 3) readiness and willingness; and, 4) vulnerability. These capacities can be generalized to other settings and to other issues related to workplace dominance. A positive, encouraging, liberating dialogic environment is presented.
Positive, Encouraging & Liberating Dialogic Environment. The work of antiracism requires the creation of spaces where “tension, conflict, and challenge are invited and used for information and transformation” and “where strong emotions are seen as expression rather than personal attacks” (Bridges Patrick, 2020, p. 172). Virtual and workplace supervisory and team meetings, client sessions, trainings, hallway and water-cooler conversations all fall under the rubric of dialogic environment. A positive, encouraging, liberating dialogic environment is one that invites and creates space for brave and truthful conversations. Identified skills for creating and facilitating dialogic environments are: a developed racial literacy, heightened emotional intelligence, and an ability to navigate the tension, discomfort, and stress that accompany racial dialogue, while honoring the dignity of every person. This type of environment is not a space for comfort, but a generative one, one that is free of physical and emotional violence and one that exudes an atmosphere where people can be vulnerable. This environment is not specific to one space. “Whether a classroom, office space, or coffee shop, the environment can be liberating when grounded in dignity, and the humanity of all is recognized and honored” (Bridges Patrick, 2020, p. 172). The dialogic environment is one that invites vulnerability and should allow for levity, particularly given the tension that often surrounds racial dialogue. It should also be co-constructed, dynamic, and a space where participants can take risks that move them beyond their comfort zones to thrive from the challenges presented by risk-taking (Zuniga, Lopez & Ford, 2012).
Co-Constructing a Shared Agreement. There are many factors that influence interpersonal and group dynamics and one of the most essential relates to how professionals will engage with one another. Co-creating the shared agreement is an essential element for creating a generative dialogic space and the format described here is presented in the context of a structured focus group. As already stated, the long-term goal of focusing on dialogue is to create a culture where mobilizing racial dialogue (and other forms of oppression) is routine and normal.
Developing an agreement sets the foundation for creating the environment that allows for expression of emotion, participant accountability, and clarity around expectations. Relying on shared understanding of concepts allows for participants to more confidently negotiate conversations. Two essential questions precede the development of shared agreements: 1) what do you need to have productive conversations around race? 2) how will you hold each other accountable to your agreement? It is critical that professionals also develop similar processes contextualized within their workplaces. Processes should include co-created declarations that become the guiding force or vision for your group or organization. Reflection questions for structuring mutually-developed agreements could include: what do we care about? Or what do we want to change or develop on our team, organization? Safety and belonging are crucial to creating space for change. The notion of dignity is centered as a non-negotiable, grounding element to productive racial dialogue.
Safety, Belonging & Dignity. In honoring safety, belonging and dignity, consideration must be given to the fact that the socially constructed system of white supremacy ranks human value by skin color (and other intersectional identities). Value categorizations such as hierarchies, rank, and prioritization undermine all three and asks us to look beyond skin color, behavior, and social classifications (Hicks, 2011).
Safety, belonging and dignity are inherent to human needs and in trying to meet them all of us are (mostly unconsciously) tracking for safety, adjusting to belong, and organizing to find dignity. These three intrinsic elements operate collaboratively to support our optimum functioning. Trauma and oppression—both implicit in racial injustice—leave safety, belonging and dignity injured or unmet. In our attempts to recover from harm to one or all of the three, we develop relational strategies to navigate our experiences. In negotiating these experiences, we prioritize one over the other and in doing so internally sets us at odds with our own non-negotiable needs. We end up fighting ourselves because our inherent needs are at odds with each other none can win out over the others. We'll explore safety first.
Safety. I often hesitate when safety comes up in the context of racial dialogue because safety often becomes synonymous with comfort. This is challenging for me because oppression and injustice are forms of violence leaving me with the question of how does one talk about violence safely? What we must do is get more clear about what safety means in this context. Staci Haines (2019) argues that safety requires a look over time—past, present, and into the future—to see what needs to be addressed to establish or reestablish safety. When we do this we can see that social conditions do not allow for material, physical or relational safety for many of us. Safety contributes to the ability for individuals to be vulnerable and secure, authentic and without fear that vulnerability will be used against them. It also includes emotional, spiritual and relational safety that allows us to be in connection with people, the environment, and our own understandings of higher power. White supremacy and racism are violent and create trauma to us all. In healing trauma, we can generate safety and choices to act on behalf of ourselves and of others’ even in social and economic conditions that are not supportive of our safety.
Belonging. Being part of a family, herd or pack is part of human nature…we are social creatures. Belonging—being deserving of and able to give and receive love—is an inherent need. We long to be known by others and part of the "we." Racial injustice disrupts this natural process by separating and categorizing who is in and who is out. Traumatic experiences and systemic oppression caused by racial injustice betrays belonging. One's sense of connection, interconnection and mattering is deeply wounded. The wounds contribute to a profound sense of isolation for some, of not being understood or being understandable for others. For others, it creates a sense of being alone, abandoned, cut out, invisible or unacknowledged, unloved or unloveable.
Dignity. Racial justice requires that dignity be centered, “that all human beings are imbued with value and worth” and a sense that all persons are honored as contributing to the collective (Hicks, 2011, p. 4). Honoring the dignity of others is not connected to the unique qualities or accomplishments of people, rather it is the belief in one’s inherent value and worth. Dignity is an intrinsic part of being alive and cannot be granted through authority rather, is honored or violated (dishonored) with great costs to ourselves. The relevance of honoring the dignity of self and others cannot be overstated. Treating people poorly, with pity, or indifference because their value has been socially diminished, (which is what racial dominance demands) perpetuates the cycle of indignity and we violate our own dignity in the process. The second discourse capacity is adaptability, and is grounded in Heifetz, Grashow, and Linksy’s (2009) work on adaptive leadership.
Adaptability. Adaptability is generally understood as the ability to adjust to new conditions. It is an individual and group characteristic that must be practiced so it can develop and move toward maximum capacity. As it relates to inclusion and racial justice, this agility would support the development of capacity and skills necessary to fill the gap that exists between aspired values and living those values into existence. Within the adaptive individual or team/organization is a container or structure that welcomes and supports new ways of thinking and practicing. This flexibility shifts, expands, and shrinks to allow for imagination, time for critical reflection, for making and recovering from mistakes, and for evaluating and adjusting to new or different practices. Building adaptive capacity means accepting a constant state of moderate uncertainty, being open to shifting our “priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties”, and engaging fully with our whole selves, body, mind, and spirit. The third capacity is readiness and willingness.
Readiness & Willingness. This characteristic captures the essence of one’s preparedness to engage in embodied antiracism dialogue and practice for the purpose of unsettling social and racial dominance. It is an ongoing developmental process that connects directly with individual or group values and commitment. Within this capacity is conscious acknowledgment that one is willing to brave disequilibrium. Guided by a maxim from Irish novelist and playwright, Samuel Beckett, one must be willing to fail, to try again, to fail better, and to try better. Readiness operates as internally-focused action that speaks to a commitment to lifelong learning applied to practice, reflection, and, accountability. Willingness, on the other hand, captures one’s conscious, willful agreement to negotiate the historical and current operations and impact of white supremacy. Accompanying this assent are the implications of complicity of oneself, and the impact on one’s colleagues, clients, education, professional practice, and the larger social systems. A conscious state of readiness and willingness requires a continual recognition that change will invite distress. Both connect to the commitment, purpose, and resilience required to engage in efforts intentionally focused on dismantling white supremacy for the creation of a racially just society.
Unsettling racism demands that one consistently describe and name it (Kendi, 2019). Embodied racial justice then is a process that requires ongoing, consistent, intentional focus on our bodies, thoughts, words and actions, how they function and how they impact others and the larger society. We can view the concept of readiness and willingness as a developmental process that runs parallel to the work of antiracism. Every stage of antiracism work requires an ongoing and evolving recommitment to that process. From this perspective, embodied antiracism is a perpetual opportunity for conscious choice. One of the first steps for individuals seeking to make transformational change is to explore why one would undertake the onerous work of dismantling white supremacy.
Knowing Your Why. Engagement in the oftentimes gut-wrenching, dissonance provoking, and ultimately liberating labor of striving toward racial justice must be grounded in a clear understanding of the motivations and values driving involvement around such a risky and elusive endeavor. Value-driven motivation—the why of racial justice—informing one’s engagement will be frequently returned to in the course of carrying out the work. Ones why is ones purpose, a place from which to make decisions, a north star so to speak. This will be particularly relevant when participants are plagued by disappointment, fatigue, loss, frustration, fear or other strong emotions that arise and contribute to discouragement and abandonment of these essential efforts.
Your 'why' is a spiritual practice of projecting a longing forward beyond the confines of
ones body…an insistence on something "I haven't seen." It is fundamentally a promise to the work and risks it takes to manifest that future. -Prentiss Hemphill
Race scholar Ibram X. Kendi (2019) tells us that many Americans are committed to an idea of racial neutrality—a place where there is no complicity. Opting out supports the practice of distancing White bodies from recognizing their own complicity and harm caused by racial and social dominance. This place of so-called privilege allows White bodies to become spectators or allies that help Black, Brown and Indigenous bodies with their race problem. We must scrutinize the notion that privilege offers only gain for White bodies. In asking questions like "at what cost?" "to whom?" we begin to interrogate the assumption that opting out of racism is a privilege. By confronting the tenants of privilege that underly illegitimately obtained benefits problematizes material and psychic gains, and draws attention to the "soul harm" or "soul wounds" that perpetuate the universal and unrelenting trauma that is a primary element in the reproduction of racial dominance.
Every one of us has been "raced" and are intertwined, intentionally or not, within the system of racial dominance. There is no neutral. The sinister nature of racism and work toward dismantling it requires accountability. Those who are genuinely invested in the arduous labor involved in embodied antiracism will at some point, experience overwhelming guilt, will deny personal values in exchange for the belonging and acceptance of family and friends, or for the maintenance of personal agency, employment, and/or social standing. This will occur in spite of intentions to do otherwise and is the nature of the process. It is important to connect your "why" to collective justice and liberation rather than making it an individual endeavor that helps others.
Accountability. According to Kendi (2019) you’re either working toward antiracism or not. The work of antiracism absolutely requires feedback so we would be wise to welcome it. How we respond to feedback that others have been negatively impacted by our words is critical. As for the work...doing one’s own labor absolutely requires a thorough and on-going embodied inquiry into one’s racial identity, history, experiences of internalized racism and whiteness, and how they have and continue to operate in one’s life. People tend to think more highly of themselves and their progress. Accountability offers opportunities for processing, identifying blind spots, and allows for a more rational (though imperfect) self-perspective. Responding with tears, defensiveness, or hostile body language does little to further generative conversation, although (in formal dialogue settings) it can invite other participants to return to the shared agreements that were developed at the beginning of the conversation. The purpose of feedback is to bring attention to needs, challenge patterns of thinking and behavior, and to support learning, growth, and ultimately transformation. Engaging a coach or mentor that is committed growth and truth is essential.
Guidance and support from individuals invested in the growth of others and adept in aspects of racial dominance, antiracism and racial justice is essential. This can be in the form of individual or group coaching, mentoring, or accountability partnering. An abundance of educational resources is also available for lifelong learning. The work of racial justice includes engagement with ongoing practices to increase capacity and resilience for generative racial dialogue.
The Internal Labor: Soul Care. Emotional weight is carried differently and results in divergent consequences. An embodied approach sees self-care and connection to self as vital parts of racial justice work and includes attention to individual and collective being. An embodied approach also recognizes the connection of the individual to the collective, the soul or spirit, and the environment. Soul care argues for an intentional and ongoing focus on healing racialized trauma that lives in each of our bodies. The harm of racialized trauma demands that attention also be given to injuries such as: moral injury, learned voicelessness; internalized whiteness/superiority and internalized racism/inferiority; racial identity; and trustworthiness and betrayal in racial justice endeavors. Although vulnerability is positioned within the domain of readiness and willingness, its significance supports elaboration.
Vulnerability. Vulnerability in this context connects to one’s willingness and ability to allow one’s true self to be fully seen. Articulating fears, internal conflicts, and acknowledging mistakes also contribute to this capacity. Vulnerability then impacts one’s ability to authentically engage in antiracist dialogue and practice for the purpose of disturbing white supremacy. I use Brene Brown’s body of grounded theory work around vulnerability. Most fascinating about the word vulnerability is its early 17th century Latin roots that construct its meaning in injury. Out of the Latin term vulnerabilis evolved into vulnerare or ‘to wound’; and ultimately into vulnus or ‘wound’ (Oxford Dictionary). Brown (2006) positioned vulnerability as “open to attack" or "damage" (p. 48). Vulnerability becomes more likely when a positive, encouraging and liberating dialogic environment has been created and honored, and when safety, belonging and dignity are centered.
Returning to Kendi’s (2019) directive to first identify, name and then dismantle racism, developing skills and capacity to engage in generative dialogue around race is a first step and major undertaking. The capacities described offer specific practices that contribute to troubling racial dominance.
Threats to racial justice include fear, complacency, loss, and unwillingness to commit to the labor that disrupting racial dominance demands. In efforts to dismantle forms of oppression, our identities will be challenged, forcing us to contend with the incongruence between who we believe we are and what our actual day-to-day behaviors reveal about who we actually are. Devotion to certitude will be disrupted and at times will give way to uncertainty which will surely become a prominent feature in our lives.
Negotiating these challenges will require the development of adaptive skills to “fill the gap between values” and “current lack of capacity” to live into those principles (Heifetz et al., 2009, p. 303). The work of racial justice beckons, and transformation comes with great cost. The perplexing dilemmas that accompany efforts for introducing race-related conversations in the classroom or workplace should not be underestimated. After all, if we can't explicitly name and talk about race, all the ways it functions, and the places it dwells, how do we expect to solve the seemingly intractable problems that accompany it?
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Haines, S. (2019). The politics of trauma: Somatics, healing, and social justice. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
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