How courageous conversations left the courage behind: Reflections on a room of Black and Brown voices

If you look up courage in the dictionary, one definition stands out: “strength in the face of pain or grief.” In this moment in our society where systemic racism infects all institutions of our society and embeds all structures within it, our communities are in need of healing. This healing though, must take place in unison with action. With transformation. With revolution. And this is where courage comes in.  In this moment, around dinner tables, in classrooms, around conference tables, and in community forums, more and more folks are dialoguing how to revolutionize the future for our Black and Brown children. One of our staff members, Chemay Morales-James, recently attended one such conversation and here writes her perspective on the experience.  As a woman of color attending a race forum in her town, she describes the experience hearing from local community members including- the chief of police, a local pastor, community organizers, business owners, and concerned citizens- who came together to discuss issues and solutions around racial profiling and the school-to-prison pipeline affecting Black and Brown bodies in the neighborhood.   

“The room began to slowly fill up with Black and Brown faces eager to engage with each other openly about a topic not often discussed in such a public manner, especially not in our small, urban, New England community. I felt myself become almost childlike, giddy and excited to be a part of a courageous conversation that I anticipated would echo the sentiment of the unapologetically, bold, honest, and critically conscious #Blacklivesmatter movement.  Much to my chagrin, I left the forum feeling frustrated, disappointed, but mostly deeply saddened. I thought heavily about how I wanted to respond to what I witnessed.  To be fair, I commend my community for stepping up and acknowledging the need to have an open public forum for us to discuss concerns around racialized, social outcomes deteriorating our neighborhoods—our people.  However, as a concerned citizen and social advocate, I would not be doing my job if I did not speak up and push my people to think more critically and consciously about how we choose to engage in conversations that are authentically courageous.  My intention in writing this response is not to be condescending or dismissive of the forum attendees or the process, but, rather, to provide constructive insight on what I perceived to be some of the common traps I have witnessed some Black and Brown folks fall into when attempting to create public spaces to have race conversations. I left that room knowing I needed to document my feelings and my reflections, so they could serve as a guide for folks planning to organize or facilitate future conversations. You see, I believe these conversations have the potential to heal, educate and empower Black and Brown communities in an effort to mobilize in a transformational way. Because, the universe knows, we need a lot of healing and that healing lies in the mind of the oppressed—it lies within us.”

The interesting thing about these courageous conversations– at least the one that Chemay had hoped to be a part of- is that there are some existing frameworks for how to facilitate and navigate them. Namely, the work of Glenn Singleton’s Courageous Conversations, which he defines as a “type of dialogue” that functions “utilizing the agreements, conditions, and compass to engage, sustain, and deepen interracial dialogue about race in order to examine schooling and improve student achievement” and which he suggests: “(1) engages those who won’t talk; (2) sustains the conversation when it gets uncomfortable or diverted; and (3) deepens the conversation to the point where authentic understandings and meaningful actions occur.” (2015). When we heard Chemay’s reflections on her hometown race forum, we could not help but think about whether Singelton’s agreements and conditions were truly in place. And if they weren’t, why not? What were the roadblocks to developing authentic understandings? Chemay developed some ideas around a series of traps that the folks of color who attended this forum had fallen prey to as they engaged in these conversations around race. Traps that seemed to overtake their courage. She describes these traps below and offers a critically conscious alternative for each one.

Trap #4: Providing a Narrow Perspective on Race

Critically Conscious Alternative: Include Multiple Viewpoints

“Those of us who are Black and Brown are aware that it is not an uncommon occurrence in our homes to have regular conversations about race at the dinner table. In fact, it might be unusual for race not to come up. However, it is not safe to assume that all of us who are engaging in this dialogue are doing so in a conscious and critical way. Critical consciousness, as my team defines it, is a mindset that prompts individuals: (1) to disrupt existing narratives; 2) to confront the role of race, power, and privilege in society; and 3) demands they become agents of change.  The use of this mindset can become a tool used by critically conscious advocates to empower community members to become agents of change themselves.  When there is a heavy presence of Black and Brown panelists, key speakers, and/or facilitators that have been socially conditioned to speak in ways that reflect the mainstream perspective, or the dominant White narrative, only a safe conversation can happen.  During the forum and even in many of the schools I work in, a comment like, ‘A lot of our kids don’t know what respect looks like,’ reflects the dominant narrative portrayed by the media and society about how Black and Brown youth behave, suggesting this is why they experience poor outcomes in and outside of school.  An authentic and courageous conversation requires us to consciously challenge this dominant voice and empower each other to work together and push for different solutions.  Paulo Freire said, “To simply think about the people, as the dominators do, without any self-giving in that thought, to fail to think with the people, is a sure way to cease being revolutionary leaders” (1970). We need to remember to think with each other, not against one another. Courageous conversation organizers and facilitators must be open to including a broad array of voices that can help contribute to a richer, more constructive dialogue.  Of course, it makes sense to have community representation on panels, but those perspectives must reflect both traditional and non-traditional viewpoints.  Also, including a perspective from outside our community pushes our thinking beyond the walls of traditional thought, especially if this is a perspective shared by most within the neighborhood.

Trap #3: Expressing the Belief that Black and Brown Bodies Respond Positively to Harsh Treatment

Critically Conscious Alternative: Know Our History

When attempting to come up with solutions to address racial inequities at the forum, a trap I found Black and Brown participants fall into was claiming our kids respond to ‘tough love’ and ‘harsh punishment,’ or we need to go back to ‘punishing them more aggressively’ like we did ‘back in the day’ because they are ‘out of control.’ I often hear these comments from folks of color at trainings I conduct in schools across the country as well. When I hear comments like this, I hear how entrenched the mentality of the plantation discipline system remains. I hear the insidiously vivid endurance of the mentality of slavery in our communities. Whether the slavery of our ancestors occurred in the Americas, the Caribbean, or other countries where oppressive practices are a part of our history, the history lives with us today. Dr. Joy DeGruy terms Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome as “the effects of chattel slavery” and that African Americans hold “negative perceptions, images and behaviors” of themselves which are “in large part related to trans-generational adaptations associated with the past traumas of slavery and on-going oppression” (2005). Courageous conversations must serve as a forum where we educate each other—especially on our own history.  We know we cannot rely on our educational systems—public or private—to provide that knowledge and understanding for us or for our children.  This fact- this very need for us to educate ourselves- should be enough to propel us to find ways to learn and share this history with each other in order to dispel many of the ugly myths that perpetuate the mistreatment of our people. To avoid falling into this trap, courageous conversation leaders and organizers can bring a historian into the conversation, integrate brief video clips that address the root of our practices, become versed with the literature themselves, and/or refer community members to articles, books, or videos that can serve to help them dissect and understand the roots of their strong beliefs and practices.  When it comes to pushing our own communities to think more critically about the roots of our disciplinary practices, some Black and Brown folks may interpret this pushback as culturally “White-washing” (Brown, 2003) ourselves.  There is nothing cultural about emotionally or physically hurting developing youth.  These behaviors are, however, a response to oppressive conditions (Delpit, 2006)—the need to survive and protect one’s body or the body of one’s offspring (Coates, 2015). We wouldn’t be in this trap if groups of people were not historically forced to live under extremely oppressive circumstances.

Trap #2: Leading with Anecdotes

Critically Conscious Alternative: Lead with Facts

Stories are important. When told fully, they can help provide the narrative to contextualize the tragic events or outcomes we are often addressing in a courageous conversation forum.  However, I find the anecdotes often shared during forums such as, ‘My students’ parents don’t show up at school conferences or events, because they don’t value education,’ leave out so much pertinent context that the full depth of the narrative is never told, therefore, never understood, or that the personal story, alone, stands as an anomaly that does not accurately reflect most people’s experiences.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it the ‘danger of a single story-’ this reliance on a singular narrative applied to a group of people, reducing them to a stereotype, to a label, to an anecdote. Yes, it is true some parents may not attend school events or meetings.  It is also a fact that many have multiple jobs, are struggling to care for extended relatives, or fear or resent being around educators given their own negative experiences in school.  When these contextual factors are missing, it is difficult to have “just mercy” (Stevenson, 2015) on others’ life circumstances and it is easy to rely on negative assumptions and judgments that strip them of their humanity–all the while, ironically, revealing our own inhumanity by not engaging in what should be automatic…what we are, after all, hard-wired to do…empathize. It is the role of the facilitator of courageous conversations to ask the right questions that will push participants to reflect on the missing pieces of the anecdotes shared.  Courageous conversation forums can serve as an educational platform where community members can obtain information on statistical facts and research surrounding their people.  This is important for facilitators to know themselves and carefully select panelists who can speak to the most recent research before organizing this type of community dialogue.

Trap #1: The Blame Game of Individuals or Generations

Critically Conscious Alternative: Acknowledge the Impact of Institutional Racism

It is clear to me that the people who come together for these conversations, do so with good intentions.  However, the number one most common trap folks allow themselves to fall into is pathologizing and blaming communities of color for being primarily responsible for their disparate social outcomes.  I have seen this blame game come in two forms- one suggests something is inherently wrong with youth of color and the second draws intergenerational comparisons, casting blame on today’s youth for their own negative outcomes. Both ignore the impact of institutional racism.  The first type of blame can be heard in comments like these that were shared in one format or another at the forum, ‘If they would stop sagging their pants and acting like thugs, then they wouldn’t get in trouble so much’ or ‘Our people need to know how to speak respectfully to police officers if they want to be treated fairly.’  This type of blaming suggests there is something inherently and culturally wrong with Black and Brown individuals.  The second type takes the shape of drawing comparisons between generations and blaming one generation for today’s ailments, such as ‘When I was a kid, we addressed adults as Ms. and Mr.- Kids today don’t know how to talk to adults.’   However, folks either forgot, don’t know, or think it is too crazy or radical to believe that “in each generation, new tactics have been used for achieving the same goals—goals shared by the Founding Fathers” (Alexander, 2010).  In other words, there is a failure or inability to see that the current racialized outcomes we see playing out in society, such as the astonishing percentage of Black men that are subject to legalized discrimination in housing, employment, education, public benefits, and jury service mimic the historical disparate treatment of Black males since the moment they stepped foot onto American soil (Alexander, 2010).  Whatever form the blaming takes during so-called courageous conversations, both insidiously relieve the role institutional, racist policies and practices play in perpetuating disparate outcomes.  The blame game is an extremely dangerous trap that keeps us from making progress. My executive director, Dr. David Kirkland, says this is a reflection of our people becoming “complicit in the process of oppressing bodies that look like us; [we’ve become] a ward of [those in power]; a ward of [their] charity; we’ve become dependent” on them to shape how we view the root to disparate outcomes in our American culture.   I get it, because this is how oppression works, right? There is a quote by George Orwell that says, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed.  Everything else is just public relations.” Real courage is talking about that which no one wants us to talk about.  No one wants us to talk about race. No one wants us to talk about everyday racism. Let alone the impact of institutionalized racism that permeates all, that is touched by everyone. Folks leading courageous conversations must be intentional in bringing the focus back to asking panelists or audience members to identify the oppressive, institutional systems that contribute to the outcomes being discussed.  The oppressed blaming themselves for their oppressive conditions is a prideful scene for anyone in power, because this is how oppression is intended to function—to keep us ignorant of the truth, so that we remain in our rightful place in society. The place that nourishes the powerful and keeps the powerless malnourished.  Acknowledging the history and role institutional racism plays in our communities is the antidote to the oppressive poison that has been injected into the blood of our Black and Brown bodies for so long.  This is not the cure, but it is the first step in the healing process.”

3 thoughts on “How courageous conversations left the courage behind: Reflections on a room of Black and Brown voices

  1. So explain to me why only black lives matter? Im very confused with this “movement” everyone keeps talking about. When Carsen said “all lives matter” he got booo’d. And the this black lives matter “movement” started. How does saying “all lives matter” is something to be booo’d and why “black lives matter” is more significant.

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