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  • Writer's pictureIlsa Govan

Activities That Work: Help Start the Hard Conversations About Race and Oppression


Dan Magill attended our workshop on Activities for Trainers in 2014 and we’re happy to share the following reflections on his experience.

By Dan Magill, ProActive Content

Have you witnessed or been the recipient of hurtful comments based on race or ethnicity?

Did you feel unable to respond in a healthy way?

Does your workplace have a culture of fear and avoidance when it comes to talking about race?

Do you serve marginalized populations and feel like you lack the ability to relate to your students and clients?

One of the reasons we continue to struggle with racial conflict and marginalization is because people are afraid to talk about it. And, many of the people who aren’t afraid still feel unsure of how to talk about it in a way that helps, rather than alienates.

Why are conversations about race so hard to have?

Is it the assumptions? The mistrust? The fear?

Perhaps you’re like me, who for the early part of my life as a white man, found it easier to just avoid the issue altogether. I have since learned that it’s much easier to avoid and ignore things that make us uncomfortable than to engage with them.

But then, that’s why we’re still struggling against stereotypes and marginalization decades after the Civil Rights movement.

If you’re like me, you know this is a problem, and you want to do something to help. But it’s hard to know where to begin. And whenever you have a chance to speak to a situation, you find yourself tongue-tied, afraid of offending someone, and ill-equipped to know what to say.

That’s why I attended the workshop by Cultures Connecting called Activities for Facilitating Courageous Conversations on Race.

Led by clinical psychologist Dr. Caprice Hollins and classroom teacher Ilsa Govan, this workshop challenged my privileged assumptions about how I fit into the multitude of experiences and backgrounds all around me.

Early in the workshop, we received tons of materials you can use when you conduct your own training sessions. This is the primary goal of this workshop: To equip attendees to lead their own workshops in whatever context they work in – a school, a workplace, a church, a volunteer organization – any place where lots of people come together from different backgrounds.

Can you talk about race in your workplace?

Where there are varying backgrounds, there is a lack of understanding. A lack of being known.

The materials provided gave me practical tools that I can use to bridge those gaps through honest and respectful conversation.

Here’s what you’ll experience if you attend this eye-opening workshop the next time they offer it:

First up, you’ll receive 7 norms that set the tone for any formal conversation about race. At the heart of these is a profound goal:

We don’t want a safe space. We want a brave space.

Safe means comfortable. And conversations on race are anything but. What I found out, and what the people in your life need to know as well, is that being uncomfortable is okay – as long as there’s a good reason to go there.

Within that brave space, Dr. Hollins and Ilsa took us through a series of activities. We spent less time on the actual activities than they would normally take, because the goal of this workshop is to enable the participants to run this same workshop themselves. After doing the activity, we spent a long time debriefing not just the content, but the kinds of challenges that come up during the administration of it. Questions such as:

  • How do you handle a participant who doesn’t want to be there?

  • How do you establish that “brave” space, so people feel comfortable going to the hard places?

  • What are some effective questions to ask? What should we avoid?

  • How do we keep on topic and allow people to air their feelings without the session becoming angry?

  • What do we do if it does become angry?

Going through the tunnel of discomfort

This was expertly demonstrated by the facilitators. In one situation, a fairly uncomfortable misunderstanding arose based on the language one participant used toward another – in front of the entire room with over 60 attendees.

Most of us (especially dominant whites like me) would have just stepped back and said, “It’s okay, I’m sure she didn’t mean it. Let’s try to stay on topic.” We’d probably pull them aside, maybe separate them, and try to reassure them that’s everything is fine. I know this because everything in my being assumed this is what they would do, and hoped they would do it really fast. This is that ‘avoidance’ instinct I still have to wrestle against.

But Dr. Hollins did the exact opposite of this. She kept completely calm, and guided the two people through the misunderstanding in front of everyone. Watching this was incredible, and the benefits were priceless:

All 60 of us got to witness what it looks like to go through what I call “the tunnel” – that scary place of conflict and uncertainty, where we can’t see what’s on the other side.

But if we don’t go through the tunnel, the same racial stereotypes, assumptions, biases, and misunderstandings will continue to plague us and perpetuate the lack of opportunity for people of color.

In that situation, what started out as discomfort, awkwardness, and fear of offense, turned into a moment of real breakthrough and a new understanding for both perspectives. Even better, we saw in person what it means and how it looks to have a courageous conversation on race. In public. And it was done in a respectful, healthy, and yet slightly uncomfortable space. Brave.

Does this offend you? Let’s talk about it!

We participated in several activities, and while we learned a lot about ourselves, we also left feeling able to facilitate them as well. Here are three we spent the most time on:

Agent/Target: How does it feel to be out of the loop? What’s it like to grow up and live in a place where you don’t know the rules, but still be held accountable to them? Everyone else knows what’s “normal,” but they won’t tell you. And then they get frustrated when you don’t join the crowd and respond the way everyone else does.

Stereotype Exercise: What are all the things you think about other races but would never say? This activity blows political correctness out of the water. You’ll see how all these attempts to “protect” us from offensive language has really just shoved the stereotypes we already had under the rug. They’re still there, affecting how we perceive people, how we treat them, how we interact with them. We just don’t acknowledge it, and hope no one notices. Here’s where I also learned what it means to “self-stereotype,” and why whites are the only ones who don’t do this. This activity can get pretty raw, but that’s because this stuff has gone unspoken for too long. Want to defeat your fear? This activity will do it.

Color Line: Do you want to know how people of other ethnicities experience life? For this activity, every attendee filled out a questionnaire asking about various beliefs and experiences, and then got scored based on our answers. Then, we lined up based on our scores. The resulting disparity spoke for itself, as a multiethnic room was suddenly split almost entirely in half. This is a stark picture of the reality of white privilege, and the kinds of bridges we still need to build.

In addition to these, the workshop briefly presents a few other activities, and gives materials explaining several more. I left feeling empowered and equipped to engage my peers in conversations about race in ways I never would have before.

And at the same time, I also grew in my awareness of myself and others.

One of the greatest fears (and lies) is that we shouldn’t talk about race because it will only lead to anger and division. But as the presenters astutely pointed out, we are already divided. The only way to come together is to go through the tunnel – to talk about this, openly, honestly, and fearlessly.

I came away with two great feelings.

  1. I experienced the purpose of these activities and grew in my understanding.

  2. I felt ready to engage with others and conduct trainings in my workplace and in my other circles of influence.

If this sounds like the sort of thing the people in your circles of influence would benefit from, I encourage you to attend this workshop the next time it comes around. Or, have Dr. Hollins and Ilsa come to you in person and lead it themselves.

Either way, you’ll be taking the small but vital step that far too many people have yet to take.

You’ll be talking.

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