Do conversations on diversity, equity, and inclusion ever get easy? No matter how many years of training and experience one may possess, starting conversations centered on these topics can pose a significant challenge for many. Moreover, whether or not you’re called to start these conversations in a professional capacity, you’ll likely confront a need to do so in your personal life.It’s not uncommon for people to shy away from these difficult conversations, not wanting to address issues of systemic racism, White privilege, sexism, classism, and the like. One of the strong feelings that may hinder these discussions is fear. Fear of not saying the right thing, fear of authenticity, fear of offending others, fear of not fitting in, the list goes on and on. All too often these fears lead to avoidance with no movement toward embracing the need to converse. However, as we’ve witnessed recently, America has passed its breaking point with the racial injustices in our country. Individuals are no longer being silenced as they have throughout centuries of oppression. As we’ve seen in recent Black Lives Matter protests, the movement is here. America and the world are listening and ready for change.
So, where do we start? In an effort to bridge uncomfortable conversations, this essay will provide support to do so. The goal here is to invite and encourage everyone, White and people of color alike, to engage in a conversation about privilege, systemic racism and inequality. Throughout my career as a psychologist and professor, I’ve used various methods with my clients and students to engage in open conversations on topics related to diversity and cultural competence.
These Conversations Have ValueBefore diving into these topics, I want to give a little back story as to where my journey began. I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, from a German-American family, third generation. In Blackasotan Identity Lanes, Walt Jacobs notes that 14 years in Minnesota turned him into a Minnesotan, even after moving to California five years ago. Walt’s first year in Minnesota was my eighteenth, and when, as a freshman, I enrolled in his Introduction to Sociology course at the University of Minnesota. I later had the honor of working with Walt as his mentee and teaching assistant, co-authoring an article with him in the 2006 book Student Standpoints About Access Programs in Higher Education, and learning a vast new language on diversity. Walt was the first person to ask me, “How does it feel being a White female?” Growing up in Plymouth – a predominantly White suburb of Minneapolis – my friends and I didn’t learn much about the history and culture of people of color in Minnesota. Even though I had friends of different races growing up, this question struck me at the time and had a lasting impact. This led to many open conversations with Walt on race, inequality, and societal injustice, viewed through the initially limited lens of a social context provided by my homogeneous surroundings in Minnesota. Little did I know at the time, these conversations would prepare me for a world far different than I had known growing up in Minnesota.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota, I set out to further my graduate studies in the social sciences and pursue my doctorate degree in Psychology in Southern California. I gained a whole new perspective on the meaning behind White privilege. I quickly learned that Southern California was a cauldron of people of all races, sexual orientations, classes, etc. Stark social disparities including million-dollar mansions and celebrities existed within 30 miles of gangs and drive-by shootings. All while somehow coexisting under the same blazing sun. It seemed to this young, wide-eyed Minnesotan that in Los Angeles, pretty much anything goes. I leaned into the new world around me, and took the experiences as an opportunity for growth, both personally and professionally. My roommate was an Asian American male who was born and raised in LA and I soon became friends with his friends of various races. They took me under their wing and treated me like a little sister, introducing me to life in LA. I curated what some may call a “diversity IQ.”In graduate school and clinical trainings, I spent hundreds of hours working in inner city schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District and low-income mental health clinics. Often being the only White person in the room, my White privilege was something I had to learn to recognize and confront for myself. I began to grow a thick skin while remaining open to others’ experiences. Beginning to understand my position of privilege because of the color of my skin, I learned to adapt. I experienced many tense situations, and deescalated heated discussions among families and peers. I became acutely aware of the dynamics of the African American, Latinx, Asian, and Persian families I worked closely with. They trusted me with their stories, hardships, and triumphs, exhibiting raw emotion and unrest. They often turned to me with questions for which answers don’t exist because ultimately there is no singular, easily summarized explanation for all the racial disparities prevalent in our world today. Rather than answers, I offered a safe space, understanding, and empathy for them to start the conversation that could lead to healing. And in these conversations, they shared with me the oft-unspoken truths that they experience the second they step out onto their streets where they are treated differently than I am because of the differences in the color of our skin.
Personally, I wrestled with these concepts and they kept me awake many nights. At times, the helplessness seemed insurmountable. My Latinx supervisor, whom I highly admired, once said, “Jocelyn, this may be as good as it gets for some folks, and you’re doing the best you can with what you have in front of you today. You’re showing up, giving them a safe space to express themselves and talk about their feelings, and if for one minute out of their day they know someone cared for them in this way, it will make a difference.” I will never forget those strong words and I remind myself of the message often when I feel disheartened or hopeless among all of this world’s injustice.
Recognize Your PrivilegeWhen I returned to the field of higher education as a professor, I saw a unique opportunity to bridge difficult conversations in a classroom setting. I teach courses in psychology and human development and it can be challenging to teach psychological theories, created predominantly by White men, to an audience that is 60 percent people of color. One approach I’ve taken to address these conversations is to acknowledge firstly that privilege exists. Being a White woman, I use it as an opener to the discussion. When we talk about White privilege with students, colleagues, and communities, our own fragility can emerge, leading to defensiveness. Having an awareness of one’s self and an understanding of your own level of privilege in these varying situations affords an opportunity to humanize your own experience. It allows for a more authentic way of connecting with others but it requires a willingness to recognize your own level of privilege, whatever that may be. For example, by acknowledging my position of privilege, being a White, straight, able-bodied woman, I’m able to open a dialogue for further discussion. I stress that I don’t have all of the answers, which surprises many students, who have been taught that White authority figures are the creators of solutions. I invite the students to consider how their knowledge is often suppressed, even by those who are well-meaning. Over the years I’ve found that this verbalization of our own levels of privilege allows others to step into their own recognition of self, lifting the veil of obscurity blocking their ability to recognize their own positions of privilege and ability to make powerful contributions to community well-being.
Practice and Facilitate EmpathyGrowing an empathetic muscle is an important step, but does not need to take years of training. It requires an open ear with a non-judgmental stance. For example, an exercise I often use with my students is an open invitation to write about their history and personal narrative, and share with their classmates (within their comfort level). One of the most powerful moments to date was when one of my Native American students shared her family history with the class about her experience growing up on a Dakota Indian reservation. She discussed the rituals, dances, food, clothing, and spoke highly of her elders and other members of the tribe. Her sharing ignited a fellow classmate to express his sentiments about his home country of Somalia, admitting that he hadn’t known of the existence of different Native American tribes in the United States which he likened to his experiences in Africa. After his realization, he reflected on the commonality and expressed feeling a bond with her because of the similarities in their experiences. Although different, he remarked feeling a common bond to their ancestors and perhaps being woven from the same cloth, in a way he had not previously understood. Having a conversation about our differences and similarities allowed these students a chance to find common ground and mutual understanding of one another. In that beautiful moment, the tolerance and acceptance were tangible as the rest of the class thanked each student for sharing their story.
When we put words to our experiences, it humanizes all of us. It can offer a feeling of interconnectedness and community that is fundamentally undeniable. Being truthful with ourselves, recognizing our own blind spots within can be an incredibly healing and transformative process. My experience has been such that verbalization will allow you to find deeper forms of acceptance and connection with one another, finding a unity and peace. As Pema Chodron states in The Places That Scare You, “We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice” (p.3). When we give a voice to our circumstances and experiences, in an open and honest way, it allows our humanity to shine through.
After living in Southern California for 15 years, I am often reminded of early formative conversations and experiences at the University of Minnesota that helped shape my identity and career path. Amongst all the recent unrest and tragedies surrounding the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, my hope is that we start these conversations to address systemic racism and all the social injustice as we move forward to recover and heal nationwide and globally. I invite you to have these conversations with an open mind and heart to foster understanding and acceptance. Leave your judgments at the door, and pull up a chair to a whole new world that is different from your own. Lean into the unknown – don’t let fear hinder you. It may lead to some of the most powerful moments as a direct result of your inner voice. By showing up in this genuine and vulnerable way, it allows others to follow suit with mutual respect and support. Instead of avoiding potentially contentious conversations, we can use them as an opportunity for growth and change. Open the door, take a deep breath, expand your awareness, and start the conversation.
July 11, 2020
Return to the Wonderful/Wretched Series introduction.