We will submit program proposals on topics we know little about.
We will sign up to be on committees on topics we have little experience in.
We will volunteer to mentor someone when we’ve never been mentored ourselves.
But when it comes to talking about “hot” topics, especially surrounding race, why are there a thousand excuses on why we don’t speak up or engage in the conversation? What stops us from diving deep into conversations that have the potential to change the landscape of our environments? Is it fear? Lack of knowledge? No interest in the topic? What would it take for colleagues to engage authentically around these topics?
These questions have plagued my mind for quite some time, especially in light of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. As an African American woman, I felt that my blackness was again threatened and those around me were not interested in engaging. How could something so important to me, not be talked about? I did not know the answer and wanted to know more.
So, last week, I was talking to a white colleague about my frustrations with the lack of conversations surrounding Ferguson and race in general. I expressed that I wanted to engage with my colleagues about the topic in authentic ways but I kept hearing excuses on why that was not happening. She shared with me that as a white woman she at times feared that her talking about these issues would take away space or voice from people of color. She did not want to do that to people of color, which is why she did not engage.
This insight was new to me! I had not thought that could be a reason people didn’t engage. I took a moment and could finally understand where she was coming from. Still, I did challenge her to think about what message her silence conveyed. Have you ever been silent (for whatever reason) when you could have spoken up? What is the difference between taking up space and engaging together? These are all tough questions, but ones we must consider as we engage in these important conversations.
I thought of a few “excuses/fears/etc.” that I’ve heard recently and ways we can attempt to overcome them. By thinking about how to address these excuses/fears/etc., we have the potential to learn and grow in deep ways.
|Excuse/Fear/Reason not to engage||Way to overcome the excuse/fear/etc.|
|“I don’t know what to say.”||Be honest and share that you don’t know what to say and then sit back and listen to others. You don’t always have to be the contributor.|
|“I don’t want to take space away from people of color.”||Invite people of color to the conversation so they’re a part of it with you. As well, express your desire to be a part of the conversation rather than the focus.|
|“I’m white. What qualifies me to talk about race.”||Your white privilege allows you the power to talk about race with other whites in ways people of color sometimes cannot. Use your whiteness for good.|
|“140 characters isn’t enough space to have a substantive conversation.”||Start the conversation there and then move the conversation to a google hangout, in person or on the phone. Twitter is not the only place these conversations can take place.|
It can be risky to jump in when we do not know all the answers. It can be scary to talk about a topic we know little about. However, I know I would rather my colleagues engage in the conversation about race and make a few mistakes along the way than not engage at all. I am committed to being on this journey with my colleagues in having these conversations and being supportive as we make mistakes together. I’m not saying it’s always easy, sometimes it’s real hard. But we have to take the risk and do it anyway. So here’s your open invitation, to join the conversation. Are you going to let go of what is holding you back? I know I am. I hope you’ll join me.