Race and Technology

A blog about the intersection of race and technology.

Let's Talk About Race - Part I.

Reparations for slavery are in the news, thanks, in large part, to Democrats running for President and the Democratic majority in Congress. Even conservatives have joined in the discourse. Long-time conservative commentator, and New York Times columnist, David Brooks, has come out in favor of reparations. Conservative leader of the Republican Party, Mitch McConnell, has come out against them. But to have a discussion about reparations, one must first have a discussion about race in America. And that's a discussion few Americans are prepared to have. I have just spent the last six months traveling around Washington State, presenting a program entitled, "Let's Talk About Race." Humanities Washington, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, invited me to join their speaker's bureau to present the program for their 2019-2020 season. It's been a fascinating opportunity to visit every part of a state I've lived in for the past 30 years, and to help facilitate a difficult conversation about an important topic.

I've presented the program from places like the Coyote Ridge Correctional Center and Washington State Penitentiary in eastern Washington, to the Orcas Island Library in far Western Washington; from a middle school in Ferndale, just south of the Canadian border, to a college in Longview, just north of Oregon; and in many locales in-between. Attendees have numbered in the handful, at Woodinville, to the several hundred in Bellingham.

From a young man behind bars in eastern Washington, I heard, "you know, it's not safe to have such a heartfelt conversation inside prison?" Then he added, "but, boy, is it a breath of fresh air."

Another young man in prison, said little during the entire time I was there. At the end he spoke.

        "Didn't say anything because I know it all. I've read about Black history, about racism. I get it. It makes me angry."

        "What are you going to do with that anger?" I asked.

        He shook his head, looked at me quizzically. "No one's ever asked me that before."

        "I can't tell you what you should do with your anger. I can tell you what I did with my anger. I can also tell you if don't do something that anger will either eat away at you from inside, or you'll turn it outward and end-up hurting someone else."

        His eyes turned downward and within. He nodded slowly. "Man, like no one's ever put it that way to me. You gave me something to think about. Yeah, something I need to think about."

A resident of Orcas Island, stood to say, "you know what our problem is here on Orcas?" She paused before adding, "we're all White." To which I dead-panned, "You're kidding? I never would have noticed."

In each place, I usually begin my presentation by talking about my experience nearly 25 years ago in Germany. I taught somatic psychology (body-centered psychotherapy) at the Institute for Applied Kinesiology in Kirchzarten, just outside of Freiburg, at the base of the Black Forest. What surprised me most was the attitude of attendees at my workshops.

I'd taught this workshop many times, in many places, but in Germany I found when I asked attendees to engage in a self-reflexive exercise, then discuss it with someone else, those conversations were much longer, and far more intense than usual. They were, to use the German word schwer (severe), as though participants made a conscious attempt to wring every possible drop of meaning out of even the most casual suggestion.

This threw me off at first. A normal 10-minute exercise could easily extend to one-half hour or more. It also threw off my workshop schedule. I asked the class. I hadn't intended the discussions to go so long, or so deep. Why did this happen?

What I heard from many is that this was part of the German character for their generation; a generation that sought never to repeat the evils of the Nazi era. The only way they knew to accomplish this was to discuss in-depth everything, leaving no thought, feeling, or emotion left unsaid, until there was nothing left to discuss. Such conversation did not happen during Hitler's rise, I heard, and they would not make the mistakes of that previous generation.

Some years later, I was in Johannesburg, visiting my sister who taught at the University of Witwatersrand. Nelson Mandela had not long been released from the Victor Verster prison on Robben Island; red stop signs throughout the city had the word "HATE" stenciled under the word "STOP."

There, too, an intensive conversation was taking place in some quarters. At Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) meetings, perpetrators of violence during apartheid, mostly White, were being invited to meet with, listen to, and discuss their violent actions against mostly Black South Africans. Openness, honesty, and transparency of the perpetrators, said the TRC council, would potentially give them amnesty.

Now, to be sure, South Africa is by no means a perfect society. Post-apartheid, many problems exist in land redistribution, income inequality, and corruption. Nor is Germany perfect, by any means. White supremacy and Nazism are on the rise. There is a push by some Germans to keep immigrants out. But the willingness of so many in these two countries to engage in conversation about painful and difficult moments in their past, provided a beacon of hope I did not see as readily in America.

To paraphrase the economist John Kenneth Galbraith: faced with the need to have a difficult conversation about race, and proving that there is no need to do so, almost all Americans get busy on the proof. To illustrate this, I ask my audience, predominantly White, two questions.

"Why have a conversation about race?" A number of hands raise to answer this first question. "It's the only way to bridge differences." "The issue won't go away by itself." "If we don't talk about it, we'll fight about it." But when I ask the second question, "Why avoid a conversation about race?" Many more hands shoot up. "I don't know how to start such a conversation." "I'm tired of answering White people's questions about race." "I'm afraid of saying what I really feel." "Someone might call me a racist, or a bigot." By the end of 10 or 15 minutes, it's pretty obvious how much easier it is for people to come-up with reasons not to have this conversation than to have it.

The tools for having a difficult conversation, like a conversation about race, are easily stated. Using the tools is really hard. Most of us do not grow-up learning to have difficult conversations. We grow-up learning to debate each other; to make and win points in our discussions. We learn to become "talking heads," who talk past each other rather than engage in deep, meaningful, and often difficult discussions.

In my next blog post, as in the next part of my presentation, I'll present the tools I believe are need to have this difficult conversation about race.

See a video of my full presentation, "Let's Talk About Race," at the Bellingham City Club, April 24, 2019.

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Sunday, 16 June 2024