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Rethinking Racism: Success and Growing Pains

20161005_182504.jpgOver the course of the past 10 months, Rethinking Racism – a partnership between the Inter-community Justice and Peace Center (IJPC) and the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission (CHRC) – has hosted seven conversations designed for deep transformation around race.  This essay provides an in-depth update on their progress and an exploration of where this work might head in the future.

When Dan Joyner, meeting facilitator for Rethinking Racism, worked as diredanctor of juvenile probation for Hamilton County, a white colleague told him about racist comments made in private by a juvenile court magistrate.  Dan was furious, now hating someone with
whom he had an effective working relationship.  Over the ensuing years Dan continued to work well with the magistrate, but the hate – and the pain other racist memories – came up every time they interacted.

Now his work with Rethinking Racism has Dan wondering why his juvenile court friend told him about the racist magistrate; how did it help end racism for Dan to know that yet another racist existed in the system he was bound to serve?  The leaders of Rethinking Racism would say that Dan’s white friend should have confronted the racist white magistrate.  In other words, whites must take responsibility to “end white silence”.

Many whites would balk at such a charge – “But we work together!” – so whites keep informing on other whites without taking the real action of white-on-white racial confrontation, leaving people like Dan to deal with the hatred and anger of another racist incident, one they didn’t even experience yet now must live through all the same.

“Whites need to confront whites about racism” is where Rethinking Racism has gotten over the past nine months and seven events.  The “design team” leading the process will attend a retreat in November, followed by a final public dialog, to bracket the first year of work and evaluate where the process goes next.

So far, each meeting but one has been facilitated by Dan using Open Space methodology, a process by which attendee questions and topics create the meeting agenda on the spot.  The agenda has two time slots that are filled with topics or questions.  Then at the beginning of each time slot, attendees choose which conversation they will participate in.  Someone in each group takes notes, and at the end of the meeting everyone reconvenes in one circle to digest what they learned over the course of the evening.

According to Dan, attendees have been surprised at the level of personal authenticity, the depth of feelings and stories shared, and the trust generated from the small group conversations.  One white male attendee said that he’d never in his life had the opportunity to have such a conversation with blacks, and that the event changed his perspective forever.  This is how conversation becomes an action step – changing hearts and minds comes before anyone changes racist behavior – and is the foundation of Rethinking Racism.  Keep inviting, keep having deep conversations with different types of people, and eventually communities will change.

At every event Dan sees the change in people, the eyes open, the body language shift, the statements of personal transformation.  Many Millennials are living this paradigm because they are exposed to diversity at a young age, before they absorb the kind of pain Dan experienced as a kid and young adult.    Rethinking Racism is founded on the belief that improbable connections lead to new conversations that change beliefs, including racism.  Indeed, isn’t racism an illness of the heart that can only truly be cured through conversation with “the other” that is the object of our scorn?

Over the course of the year, the group has focused more and more on the “ending white silence” aspect of the work; one event invitation showed a photo of someone holding a sign above their head that read “white silence costs lives”.  Provocative indeed, especially to (some) whites – Dan placed a “white silence costs lives” sign in the window at DeSales Café in Walnut Hills only to have it taken down twice by someone walking by – yet it’s black attendance at these events that has declined.  At least one design team member left the group because of this approach, blaming it for the declining black attendance at these events and suggesting that such an approach creates more of the racial isolation that leads to racism in the first place.

But there is truth to the idea that whites should be responsible for their own racism.  I imagine blacks thinking about my own self-righteous pronouncements about racists and structural racism: “If you are SO upset, and it’s all SO unjust, then DO something about it already—they’re your people!”  And they are right—progressive whites should do more to end racism.  Christina Brown, along with the IJPC nuns, are right to take Rethinking Racism in this direction because so few white people are actually having this conversation (and few blacks are holding whites accountable for this failing—it’s easier to parent us).  So despite some objections, there is no reason for Rethinking Racism to end this valid line of work.

But as with most things that are true, the exact opposite is also true.  So while whites surely need to find among themselves a whites-only role for ending racism, there is also a benefit to blacks and whites finding a collective purpose in addressing racism.  Sebastian Junger’s recent book, Tribe, is about the power of collective purpose to not only transcend limitations like race, but to heal trauma.  His main area of analysis is soldiers coming home from Iraq:  those vets who returned to highly connected communities experienced PTSD at much lower rates than those who returned to lives of isolation.  But he explores a similar power in how communities respond to crisis like hurricanes or earthquakes (race and class disappear when everyone loses their home), and sports teams have long known the power of team to transcend differences (Dan himself found deep support from his Southern college basketball teammates, even in the Deep South of the late 1960s:  the team collectively walked out of a pool hall that wouldn’t allow Dan in).

By focusing exclusively on white responsibility, Rethinking Racism risks losing some of the power of collective purpose: how can they provide attendees with opportunities for surprising trans-race conversations if only whites attend (which hasn’t happened yet—it’s generally a 75/25 white/black split, whereas the first events were about 50/50).

So the question becomes, how does Rethinking Racism work on BOTH an intra-white effort like ending white silence AND inter-race work that everyone has a role in?  In other words, how can whites learn to figure out their side of this equation while whites and blacks figure out how to work together to end racism?  Hopefully the design team will find an answer at their retreat, because in the end, we are in this together.

The other challenge facing Rethinking Racism is the paradox between conversation and action.  Despite the foundational belief that conversation IS an action step, some on the design team are looking for “real” action.  This happens with just about every conversation-driven change process because it’s hard to measure the subjective impact of conversation, so people lose faith that their effort is “worth it”.  Dan sees people animatedly connecting for the first time, hugging, exchanging emails—but he doesn’t know where it all goes, even for those who profess “I’ve seen the light” (did they really change their behavior, or challenge a fellow white’s racist comment?).

In the end, even for people who truly believe in the power of conversation to change the world, leaders like Dan, Christina Brown and the Rethinking Racism design team need to somehow feed people’s need for action.  The bottom line is that in order to build a social movement, people need to see the difference they are making.  But that difference doesn’t need to impact the bottom line (“Look honey, I transformed my 10th racist into a card-carrying member of Black Lives Matter!”); ANY difference that people can feel for themselves will suffice.

Find action that grows from the root of your work.

With Rethinking Racism this could mean planning for and executing a more extensive invitation/marketing process that gets more people to show up at these events—constantly tweaking the invitation language, using social media, sending champions to engage other groups, etc.  It could mean creating more dialog opportunities across town (and training people to host and facilitate those events), or different kinds of events that appeal to different target audiences.

Speaking of different audiences, I found that Rethinking Racism events are generally helping people preach to their own choir.  Almost everyone there already “gets it” about race, and though I’m sure almost everyone there is learning and growing and finding the conversations valuable, there need to be more “racists” or at least implicit racists (see the Harvard implicit bias test online) in attendance to move the needle on racist beliefs.  In other words, Rethinking Racism needs to really stretch its audience base to make a real difference.  How that happens will be tough, but maybe groups like the Tea Party or COAST would be willing to co-host a conversation (at least they are on the other end of the political spectrum).

Action could also mean going beyond building connections to building community.  Several people in the Rethinking Racism network are going to Washington D.C. to visit the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. What a great opportunity to deepen relationships while bringing a social aspect to the movement.  Someone might build on this idea and organize a Rethinking Racism series of “field trips” that go beyond connection toward collective experiences and co-learning.

Another opportunity for action is relationship tracking and network building:  who brought a friend to the event, who made a new friend, who exchanged information, who met with someone after the meeting, who became Facebook friends, who posts or tweets about their experience, etc.  That data could be used for relationship mapping that identifies previously-unknown relational clusters that could provide new networks to invite to special gatherings designed for them.  Of course this data could be used to build a social networking process that increases information exchange and support for each other’s causes.

All of these avenues of action will give volunteers a job to do—and a deep sense of satisfaction from making a difference—despite the fact that they aren’t directly moving the racist needle.

Of course it would be nice to actually impact the bottom line, but to stretch Rethinking Racism to include public policy advocacy or changing “the system” would likely lead to its demise. Why?  First, movements gain strength from their core expertise, and changing the system is not the core expertise of Rethinking Racism.  Non-profits call this “mission creep”.  Second, changing the system is hard and most attempts at this kind of change fail.  If the mission isn’t founded, focused and built upon system/policy change, the organization won’t have the passion or talent to make it work.  Third, others are already working on system/policy change, and so people interested in that type of work will drift toward organizations and movements truly focused on it.

But therein lies a potential solution to finding a way to make a bottom-line difference:  partner with other groups and organizations focused on system change while maintaining the integrity of Rethinking Racism.  Content-focused change efforts need the hearts-and-minds help Rethinking Racism can provide; those policy efforts usually have content knowledge (e.g. expertise in criminal justice), but they don’t know how to change hearts and minds.  In fact, most social justice advocates are so intent on being right, and their methodology so designed “to win”, that they create more resistance than change (as a recovering lawyer, I’ve lived in that glass house for years).  Rethinking Racism knows how to engage people in order to change hearts and minds, which is the essential first step in getting anyone in power to listen to others and ultimately change the system or policy.

A final line of potential action comes from the Rethinking conversations themselves:  how to heal the pain blacks experience as a result of racism.  The pain Dan felt when his colleague told him about the racist magistrate, or when he was embarrassed by the racist cop in front of his grandkids.  The pain that gets rekindled with every Facebook post about excessive use of police force against blacks.  At one design team meeting Dan asked the group of twelve people, “What do we do with the pain of racism?”  Only the two blacks in the room had an answer of sorts:  their experiences of pain, but not what to do with them.  Dan still struggles with his own pain, sees the hatred it generates and knows that despite his professionalism and likeability, his pain sometimes gets in the way (by ending old relationships or preventing new ones, or by missing new information and opportunities).

(Racist pain cuts both ways.  Dan told me two stories of whites who were subject to blatant black racism.  One said he’s ended his relationships with all blacks because of a racist incident, but didn’t say exactly why.  Another white man was crossing the street with his small dog when they got in the way of a passing car driven by a black man—who promptly stopped the car and stomped the white man’s dog to death. On a similar note, cops I work with on race issues in Colerain have felt a huge surge in hostility from blacks since Ferguson et al.  Blacks rightly feel pain, but it can lead to another side of racism that also needs to be healed.)

To heal black pain, one might suggest a parallel process similar to whites dealing with their own racism: that Rethinking Racism works with blacks-alone to heal their own pain.  To me, a white middle aged man, that suggestion doesn’t feel right, and I don’t mean to say that blacks alone should deal with their pain.  But intellectually the parallel structure makes sense, and any psychologist would tell us that individuals have a choice to hold onto or let go of their pain.  Despite this suggestion, please note that blacks letting go of their pain is 1) only an option because holding onto pain can be useful; and 2) doesn’t mean blacks should stop calling-out white racism.

Whites working to end their own racism and blacks working to let go of their pain—both are necessary but insufficient to heal our country because the world, our reality, is collectively created.  Consequently, no matter what action Rethinking Racism tackles, something will be missing without collective action by blacks and whites.

Based on Dan’s question to the design team about how we might deal with black pain, I suggested that an applicable collective effort would be to host events where whites listen to stories of black people’s pain, empathize with them, and reflect on what those stories mean to them as white people, and what they can do as whites with that information.  This is a basic psychological process that can be easily facilitated, and might help heal black pain as it lessens white racism; certainly greater understanding would emerge.  Such conversations might also lead to another opportunity for collective action:  defining what we want our relationships to look like now, and how we get there.

While Dan acknowledged that such a collective course of action might work, he correctly pointed out how my suggestion betrayed a common fallacy of both races:  we all have a story about the role the other race should play in solving racism, and it’s not always the role they want to play.  In the case of my suggestion, blacks might not want to risk that kind of vulnerability with a stranger, and they might feel like whites are using them to deal with their own guilt.  The bottom line is that neither whites nor blacks should determine the role of the other in any collective effort.  Some, however, might appreciate the opportunity for such story-telling and facilitated empathy and reflection (which brings us back to a fundamental opportunity for action:  creating different types of gatherings that appeal to different people and needs).

The convening question, then, must not dictate roles, but identifying a possibility inside of which people define a role that works for them.  The convening question might be focused (how can we collectively address black pain?), or much broader (what can we do together to end racism?).  Regardless, the key is that both blacks and whites let go of what they think the other should be doing, while still inviting each other to work together on a common goal.

Before the October 5th Rethinking Racism conversation (I also attended one in the spring at Damon Lynch III’s Roselawn church), I asked several of the design team members what they learned about their process, and racism, over the course of six events.  One said that achieving conversational and relational depth has been a challenge throughout the process; that it’s hard to get people to really challenge themselves, and to be vulnerable enough to question long-held beliefs.  I found this to be true in the conversation I experienced that night.

The Open Space topic I attended was about “systemic racism”.  Our group was roughly 50/50 black/white.  The conversation was extremely valuable to me because I learned a lot more than I already knew about systemic racism by hearing the stories of a black UC professor and Cincinnati police officer, among others.  Aside from learning, I was able to understand in real time the pain systemic racism has inflicted on blacks, which is always important even for a progressive experienced in “diversity conversations” because most whites are only “recovering” racists who, like alcoholics, need these conversations to stay emotionally aligned with their thoughts and intentions.

But the small group conversation was largely an intellectual exercise, with both whites and blacks agreeably lecturing the group about the failings of the system and, sometimes, what needs to be done to fix it.  At the end I did feel a little more connected to those in the group (but not much—the group was too big for that at 10 people) and heard stories I don’t usually hear, but neither the stories nor the conversation were personal enough for me to empathize with anyone’s pain, or controversial enough to challenge my beliefs.

The one potentially controversial topic that would have challenged us all – former judge Tracy Hunter – was quickly passed over with a chorus of “the system screwed her” despite at least one of us (me) who had a very different outlook on the issue as a recovering lawyer with black friends who are judges downtown.  Maybe I should have spoken louder, but when the whites sitting next to me didn’t ask about my contrary opinion, I didn’t feel safe continuing in the face of such strong opposition.  Too bad—I could l have learned from a real conversation rather than more knee-jerk conclusions about the system.

Which brings us back to the lack of depth in the Open Space process; it’s simply not meant for deep, emotional, challenging conversations.  They are possible but unlikely, and even when they get emotional, the lack of a formal facilitator significantly limits any possibility of transformation.  That doesn’t mean Rethinking Racism should abandon their Open Space series—it’s a great introduction to the group, builds connections between strangers with similar passions, and deepens understanding of issues that matter to people.

However, if Rethinking Racism is about transforming hearts and minds through conversation, a more structured methodology is needed.  Narrative therapy comes to mind (done in pairs or groups of three), which would require both blacks and whites to literally “rethink” their limiting stories around race.  The process works (basically) like this:

  1. What story are you telling yourself about race that gets in the way of personal or community change on this issue?
  2. What do you get out of that story—the payoff for you?
  3. What is the price you pay for maintaining that story?
  4. How could you retell that story in a way that empowers a better future?

Narrative therapy is just one way to deepen conversations.  Peter Block’s Six Conversations is another way.  IJPC itself uses great processes to handle emotional topics.  So Rethinking Racism could use the Open Space events to discern the right topics and methods to deepen the conversation and increase personal transformation.  In other words, a more facilitated structure would provide emotional depth and transformational power.

Making such a shift would require greater depth of conversation within the design team, according to some members.  The group functions well, but has had difficulty “going deep” in their own conversations about race.  Nothing unusual in that—such challenges afflict most teams charged with leading a group process because they have decisions to make and plans to execute, so it’s easy to forget that they too must undertake the work they are asking of the larger community.  The design team must also address some unspoken tensions caused by differing meeting norms and potentially imbalanced race/sex/age power dynamics.  The Rethinking Design team is full of solid relationships, and they are passionately united of purpose, so their upcoming retreat should be able to address the strategic and emotional questions they are facing.

1 Comment »

  1. Black people cannot be racists. While stopping the dog to death was very wrong and inhumane on so many levels. To me, that was racial and personal rage. Racism is…Get the definition for racism: at

    The decline in attendance is just despair and weariness and also a redirection of energy. We are realizing our energy would be better served improving ourselves, families, and communities.


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