Blogs, news outlets, Facebook, Twitter all offer responses to the recent deaths of un-armed African-American men. Some of these responses are gut-wrenching, others are just gut-reactions intended to provoke. But all start the “conversation” somewhere. Some start the conversation at personal experience (e.g., the pain of being stopped DWB, violent protest are destructive) while others try to start it with statistics (e.g., black-on-black crime, diversity or lack thereof in police forces, etc.). But no matter where you or I start such conversations, we always summarize or contextualize problems to make them fit into meaningful categories. The problem with this is that our categories usually fail to take into consideration another person’s meaningful categories.
Where You Start Changes the Outcomes
Consider the tale of two narratives (neither are intended to describe the Ferguson story).
Story 1: Black men are frequently stopped by police who inappropriately profile (fact) PLUS Black man is killed by police in ambiguous situation (fact and question) EQUALS another situation where Black men are being wronged in America.
Story 2: Most police are law-abiding and do their dangerous jobs well (fact) PLUS police kill Black man who may have been acting inappropriately (fact and question) EQUALS believe the police account unless there is absolute proof of wrong-doing.
Now, I have surely over-simplified these two narratives. But I believe each story illustrates how starting assumptions exert control over interpretation when confronted with ambiguous data. We go back to what we know but this fails to consider the other’s point of view. As a result, race conversations in the US fail much of the time because we fail to sit with each other’s starting point.
Problems with Listening?
Those who know me as a counselor educator probably think I am saying we have to start with listening. That is what I usually teach. You might think I believe that if we just listen to each other in equal measure, we will come to understand each other and believe each other. There is a problem with this idea however. You and I are biased. Listening, while good and necessary, usually leads to critique. I listen to your story and I assent to the parts I agree with and critique the parts you have wrong.
Imagine this happening. You tell me a story of being chased by thugs through a dark alley. You narrowly escape when a Yellow cab drives by, picks you up, and delivers you safely to another part of town. I nod a bit but then tell you it couldn’t be a Yellow cab since that company doesn’t do business in this city.
How are you going to feel? You are going to feel like your story was entirely invalidated.
Let’s turn to a real situation. Someone sees violent, destructive protests in Ferguson and immediately (and correctly) identifies the violence as wrong and foolish. Point it out to those who feel the police were wrong to shoot an un-armed Black man, and they will feel invalidated.
What is the problem with listening? We have trouble stepping into the shoes of others and we look for evidence that supports our own opinions.
A Better Solution?
- Try on their experience. So maybe you haven’t had an experience of being stopped due to your ethnicity. Can you imagine always wondering if there was a personal reason why you were always receiving negative treatment from others? What would that be like? How would it feel to never know how others saw you…or worse to find out repeatedly that they saw you as a danger? Look for small evidences of that experience in others. This keeps us from thinking the person is alone in their experiences. Validate the experiences when you see them.
- Ask how you could make the situation better? What could you do to start to change the injustice, to calm the fear? It may not be fair, it may not be enough, but if you could do one thing, what would it be? In other words, be part of the change rather than pointing out the problems and doing nothing to solve it.
- Avoid pointing the finger to blame the other for the injustice they experience. Avoid pointing out other problems which will only send the message that the injustice they experience is equal to whatever they do wrong. Sure, there will be time to discuss each other’s faults. But it rarely goes well when one person points out a fault to another and that other defends by blameshifting. Be willing to tackle one problem without tackling them all at once.
No, this won’t solve the race problem in America. But, it will improve understanding and compassion, something that seems to be lacking these days. Let the Lord speak to you about how you can step into the shoes of the other, join to solve problems and be willing to let the Spirit work in correcting other’s faults.
So, where do YOU start the conversation when Ferguson, Garner, or related race topics are raised in your presence?