I had the privilege of attending the National League of Cities’ Leadership Conference in Orlando this past week. While the presentations and “mobile workshops” covered a variety of topics, a central theme was the NLC’s initiative on racial equity, REAL.
For me, one of the most interesting elements of the conversation was the moment at which “push back” began to surface out loud.
Anyone who ever has had a conversation about racism (or sexism, or other “isms” that have a differential impact on the individuals participating in the conversation) knows the uncomfortable combination of silence and “yes, yes” responses that characterize its early stage. Often, given the setting, the structure of the interaction, and the amount of time allotted, that is as far as we ever get.
It’s only natural.
Most of us (perhaps I should add, Donald Trump and the Kardashians to the contrary notwithstanding) prefer to leave people with a positive impression. If I have a choice in a brief encounter, I’d much rather you think me a nice, intelligent, even charming man than a fool, a brute or worse. So I learned, as we all learn, to avoid controversial topics in casual conversation. We also learn how to defuse a controversy, especially through redirection, but also through careful humor or through polite but determinedly neutral affirmation (“That must have been very difficult for you.”).
But some difficult conversations must occur, and some controversies must be taken on, if we ever hope to see the difficulties diminished, let alone the controversies settled.
So it is with the issue of racial equity. It’s controversial; the range of opinions about the role of race in people’s lives is vast, the opinions often passionately held. It’s personal; it is essentially impossible to live in this country (and in most countries) and not be confronted with questions of the role of race, or certainly of ethnicity, in many aspects of social interaction.
When forced to deal with race and racism, the common responses from members of the advantaged community (usually, in this country, those of us who are classified as “white”) are polite silence and mildly sympathetic affirmations. We don’t want to offend. We also may find that we don’t really want to engage. So we show respect and wait to move on to another topic.
If the conversation continues, however, some of us eventually choose to push back.
Pushing back can take the form of questioning the evidence (“Have there been studies on . . .” or “Doesn’t the evidence also show that . . .”). It can take a more self-defensive form, expressed in more personal terms of sympathy combined with reservation (“I’ve always believed everyone should be treated equally, and I think most whites do.”) Or it can be more direct, a challenge to one or more key points of the story being told about race.
This is an essential, healthy moment, as long as it is done with respect (as it was at the conference). I was grateful to see it emerge. I also was saddened (as were the excellent facilitators, Julie Nelson and Glenn Harris) that we were not able to take the next step and seriously engage the concerns raised in the push back moment, due to lack of time.
That, perhaps, is among the most important lessons to be learned as we strive to get REAL. We must have time . . . time to inform and educate, but also time to discuss, to disagree and to seek common understandings.
Dealing with persistent, systemic inequities in our society is uncomfortable. It’s also hard work (part of, but only part of, why it is uncomfortable). The most important kind of progress we need to make, as the last year of violence makes clear, is coming to a broader and more fully shared understanding of the nature of these inequities. Then, and only then, can the work of addressing them be more than political appeasement. Then, and only then, can we grow in our sense of being one community, of many different hues and experiences, but with a common heart.