Leaning in

What do you do when somebody says something classic like:  “This country is so focused on racism that we’re forgetting about everybody else”?
As a diversity and justice consultant, I encounter some version of this all the time.  Sometimes it will pop up in a one on one conversation in my personal life.  I’m going to address it in this blog because I want to highlight a strategy that artist Ricardo Levins Morales suggested in the Deeper Change Forum a few weeks ago.  Ricardo urged us to seek the common ground of values even when we disagree with each others’ narratives.
Recently, I heard a European American who felt worn out by the constant scramble to earn a living get impatient with charges of racism.  It’s almost like he/she said “Hey, my life is sucking right now too, but I don’t get to point at the easy bogeyman racism.  I just have to keep working harder, and nobody cares.”
Typically, I walk away from someone who takes that position because I feel disregarded, dismissed and just plain “dissed.”  Even now I notice that my belly feels tight and my breathing got shallow just writing and imagining scenarios where this has played out.  Walking away is a legit option, especially when you are on Facebook.
When I feel vulnerable or angry, I’m not in the head space to look for the shared values.  So, I typically remove myself.  However, when this happened recently,  I leaned in, breathed a little deeper and asked questions.  Here is the flavor of the questions that I posed.  I did not do this perfectly so I comment on each question as to its effectiveness.
Can both be true?  Can there be racism and your life be really frustrating because you’re on a grind where things just aren’t getting better?
This is a great question if the person isn’t in too much pain.  I asked it out of my frustration.  May or may not be a great first question.
What’s frustrating you about your job?
This is a great question because it’s better to get right to the cause of the person’s pain.  The real issue is not whether or not African Americans have it better than European Americans.  The person’s real issue is: I’m scared, frustrated, and tired, and I feel alone in carrying all this.  Somebody please care about me.  This is where I can find the shared value:  You and I are both a child of God and worthy of a great life, as are our children.  I’m on your side too.  We’re on the same side.
Can I share what it’s like for me?
This is the part I downplayed a bit too much.  However, it’s progress for me that I risked to share any of what I was feeling and noticing.  Sometimes I go into social worker mode and make it all about you to avoid being vulnerable.  In this case I validated that racism hurts and isolates.
What’s your heart saying right now?  What’s my heart saying right now?
Let’s take care of each others’ hearts.  The quickest way to shift the mind (which is built for separation and defense) is to go straight to the heart.  Asking what the heart is saying rather than how do you feel could help to navigate around the ego.
Our conversation could have easily ended with a stalemate and separation.  Instead we traveled toward each other because the questions were not aiming to disprove the person’s narrative about racism.  Rather, I went to fundamental shared experience of frustration and inadequacy.  The conversation went the way of shared values:  I care about you and want to know what’s hard for you right now.  Your feelings are important to me.  I share my feelings with you.

Finally, as I said before, when we engage is a choice. If you’re heart needs comfort, then you may not have the space to meet someone where they are.  Don’t sacrifice yourself.  Instead nurture yourself.  Meditate.  Take a bath.  Get a hug from a trusted someone—like your dog.  You will get another chance to engage someone who makes that kind of comment—sooner or later.