Everyday Conversations to Heal Racism
I am a second-generation Mexican American leadership coach and elder living in California. I experienced so much prejudice and racism during my young adulthood that for years I avoided even being in the presence of white people. Finally, well into my 30s, I realized that the wounds and pain I carried were robbing me of my full potential. I could do better than be angry at other people; I could work to transform the ignorance beneath the racial injustice.
During the ensuing years, while I grew to accept the love within me, I also realized the necessity of extending this love to all others. I decided to make my daily conversations opportunities to learn and heal. Racism is extremely complicated, yet understanding and transforming it can begin with the conversations we choose to have.
Over the last dozen years, I’ve initiated hundreds of casual conversations with young and old, queer and straight, and people of all cultural backgrounds, with the intent of increasing respect for our diverse histories and social identities. The result for me has been an increased understanding and sensitivity for others. I have also seen people increase appreciation for themselves and for people different from them, and occasionally make a major new commitment to multicultural respect.
My invitation to you, as a reader who desires to increase fairness and respect among all people, is to be a facilitator of courageous conversations about race and culture. Here is how to begin.
1. Initiate the question. After you develop a connection or mutual comfort you might say, “I’m really trying to understand the experience of different people living in the United States. Can I ask you about your cultural background and what your experience has been like?”
2. Express your curiosity. The typical response to the first question is “What do you mean?” or “Why do you want to know?” Give a reply that conveys your authentic commitment. Mine sounds like, “I’m a Mexican-American—which has its ups and downs—and I’m curious to learn about others and how to be more respectful of their realities.”
3. Listen and show respect. A meaningful conversation of shared discovery will follow about 90 percent of the time. Remember, your intent is to learn about their experience, so avoid getting into your own cultural story unless asked.
4. Validate their experience. Listen and ask questions to validate their experience and encourage their sharing in ways important to them. This can produce miracles as the seed of a thought grows within them: that they, too, can develop a respect for others similar to that demonstrated by your curiosity.
5. Be ready to share your story. If time is available, they will likely ask about your experience, so be ready to share your truth to help them more deeply understand your reality, their own, dynamics such as institutional racism and privilege, and the changes we must make to advance justice and respect.
Roberto Vargas wrote this article for America: The Remix, the Spring 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Roberto is a senior trainer with the Rockwood Leadership Institute and author of Family Activism: Empowering Your Community Beginning with Family & Friends (Berrett-Koehler, 2008).
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