Sustain the Dialogue: Why We Need to Have More Awkward Conversations About Race

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When I was in college at the University of Alabama, I participated in a chapter of an organization called Sustained Dialogue. What's Sustained Dialogue? I'll let them tell you, with my emphasis added:

Sustained Dialogue (SD) is a tool that helps students make time to understand the different perspectives of individuals they otherwise would not meet.   Engaging in such important conversations not only enables them to interact comfortably with all kinds of people, but also helps build relationships across community divides.  SD equips students with communication skills necessary for increasingly diverse academic, social, and work environments.   

SD is a natural 5-stage process that works.  It is one based on developing a relationship first before solving a misunderstanding or conflict.   Dr. Harold Saunders, former US diplomat and Assistant Secretary of State, observed this natural process and put it into writing. In 1993, he was one of 7 citizens that gathered to talk about how to bring peace from the civil war in the former Soviet republic Tajikistan. He said, “They could barely look at each other. Their comrades had been killing each other.” But they met over 35 times and were able to work out a plan for peace.

On college campuses, students meet regularly in small groups over the course of an academic year.  This makes SD unique from one-day forums that give only enough time for individuals to express their problems and concerns, when what they really need is to continue the dialogue, get to the root of the issue and come to an understanding before taking action to solve it. 

Groups are given the freedom to concentrate on the issues most pertinent to their campus communities, whether the divisions tackled are related to patterns of racism or ethnic intolerance, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, ideological division or less recognizable forces that make the campus less cohesive.  Participants and moderators don't follow a curriculum; the yearlong conversation is structured by participants' concerns and experiences.

As a member of Sustained Dialogue, I was placed in a small group of students that was deliberately chosen to reflect as many cultural differences through race, gender, sexual identity, religion, socioeconomic class, and more. Each week our group met, got to know each other, and had awkward, eye-opening discussions about race, sexuality, politics, and other hairy issues that were important to us.

Our discussions were moderated by another student who was trained in conflict resolution. We could disagree with each other -- in fact, disagreement was practically encouraged because it was by working through those disagreements that we learned the most -- but if any of us started to say anything that was unproductive or harmful, our moderator guided us back to helpful, respectful conversation. 

Sustained Dialogue contributed so much to my growth as a human being. I learned deep, meaningful lessons about different cultures that made me a better person and still influence me today. Sustained Dialogue offered a "safe place" to question one's assumptions about all kinds of issues that no one ever talks about because they make us uncomfortable. But we need to talk about them if we are going to understand and empathize with our fellow human beings. 

But we can't talk about them if things like this keep happening.

Yesterday Gawker posted the article "Black Person in Yoga Class Causes Profound Moral Crisis." It criticizes an essay posted at XOJane in which the author awkwardly and honestly describes the experience of encountering an overweight black woman in her yoga class . Today Gawker's followed-up that article with this update: "Writer of Unfortunate Yoga Story Hides Her Identity."

Here's what happened, from my personal perspective and experience with having lots of awkward and fruitful conversations about race, religion, and sex with my peers in Sustained Dialogue:

  • Some woman was encouraged to write honestly about her honest experiences and share her honest opinions about race.
  • Everyone hated her honest opinions and told her so, to the point that she practically had to go into hiding -- something that has become increasingly common for women who write about controversial topics online.
  • Instead of embracing her honest opinions as an opportunity to engage in more open conversation about race and identity in America, everyone shut her down. 

You don't have to like what someone has to say about race or how they say it (in fact, I really, REALLY hate a lot of people's opinions about race, but that's just going to have to be a topic for another post). But with few exceptions, the only way to move forward as an inclusive, cooperative society is to have uncomfortable discussions about complex topics that you disagree upon. But you have them politely. And you leave hatred out of it. And that's not what happened here. The conversation was immediately, violently destroyed.

I agreed with one Gawker commenter, beekayjay, who had this to say about Gawker's "outing" of the yoga writer: 

So the point of the article and its belittling is:

No one talk about your thoughts on race. Ever.

I admit, I can see the point of how this woman's observations seem....naive? But I appreciate that at least she is being thoughtful of it. That said, I'm more than a little perplexed why Gawker would want to discourage any sort of thought. The article is a bit mean-spirited and reinforces silence over any sort of introspection on the subject of race, regardless of whether we agree on the direction of that train of thought. At least it opens a dialogue.

I wish, in this case, we could have kept the dialogue open -- sustained -- instead of closed. 

photo credit: anw.fr via photopin cc