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The Challenge

After disturbing post-election harassment and intimidation threatened high school students and others in our town, our local inclusion and diversity network invited the public to a community conversation to "form an understanding of views that may differ from your own."  Josh and Julie (no last name given) responded with a 3-page letter asking,

. . . In your elitist condescension that's so rooted in ignorance you expect those of us who differ from you to change. . . .  Why would anyone speak up at your meeting and be called racist for pointing out that we workers in town are sick and tired of the crimes being committed by the non-working criminals from Chicago that you people represent? . . . . the blacks get to live free, with higher living standards than we have, while producing 3+ kids apiece out of wedlock that we working stiffs have to pay for.  The black kids and their moms have free rent, free utilities, free food, free doctor, dental and medical coverage, etc.  Our one child needs dental care, but we can't afford it.  My wife and I can't afford dental care either.  The black kids all  have smart phones.  My wife and I have flip phones.  Our daughter of course has no phone at all.

Josh and Julie's impassioned letter is a gift to those of us who believe injustice is largely a result of white privilege.  This young couple is white and feel anything but privileged. They work 3 jobs and earn just enough to be disqualified for public asssistance.  They don't smoke or gamble.  "Each Saturday my wife and I 'celebrate' by having one beer each.  That's it for us. . . . It's the poor working and middle class whites like our family that are really hurting, not the subsidized gang that you're paid to stand up for."

Why is their letter a gift?  Because it gives people committed to equity and inclusioin insight into attitudes and opinions that are 180 degrees different from ours--views that can be called xenophobic--"Keep out those non-working criminals from Chicago"--racist--"The freeloaders and criminals are black"--and hurtfully uninformed.  It's a gift to see yourselves as others see you.

How to Respond?

But only if you treat it as the gift it is.

So far, every equity-supporting person I have shown this letter has responded the same way:  By refuting Josh and Julie's claims.  

One gave me statistics about Section 8 housing in our town showing that almost 60% of those who receive vouchers are white, and over 80% are families of 1-3 persons, not women with "3+ kids out of wedlock."  

Another pointed out that "black kids and their moms" definitely do not get "free rent, free utilities, free food, free doctor, dental and medical coverage, etc."  She disputed the claim that "almost all. . . have criminal records."

Another pointed out that, while it's true that "poor working and middle class whites like [Josh and Julie's] family. . .are really hurting," all the statistics still show that blacks have the lowest income, highest unemployment, worst schools, most experiences of discrimination, and much longer prison sentences than whites convicted of the same crimes.

Another wanted to ask Josh and Julie whether they had ever been refused a job because of their skin color, called a hateful name by a stranger, or followed around Walmart by the shoplifting cop.

These well-meaning people demonstrate how easy it is to respond by throwing facts back at Josh and Julie.  AND this kind of response only makes black/white relationships in our town worse.

Always Listen First

If you're committed to equity and inclusion, you've got to want real conversations to occur between people like you and the Josh and Julies of your town.  Of course, these conversations almost never happen, because people with views that some think are socially inappropriate are smart enough to keep quiet.  AND their views continue to dominate conversations with their close friends, get reinforced by their experiences, influence their voting, and keep them separated from the Others in their lives.

If you're ever fortunate enough to hear this kind of straight talk from a Josh or Julie, do your best to listen first.  Ask for a recent example of one of the experiences they mention.  Ask them to explain the earning limits that keep them from being able to get SNAP (food stamp) benefits.  Ask what led them to believe that "people like you" didn't want to talk with them.  Listen carefully.  Paraphrase the most important parts of what they're saying to show that you hear them.

Dialogue Can Help

Then ask them if they are willing to keep talking with you.  Suggest that conversation can help.  Not because it'll solve all the problems, but because it can reduce misunderstandings, identify commonalities, and focus everybody on solutions, rather than just on more division, resentment, and hate.

Not just any kind of conversation, though.  Both or all of you have to agree to be respectful.  To speak your truth. Not to interrupt.  To share air time.  To try to put yourself in the other person's place.  To remember that you can understand without agreeing.  And above all, to keep the conversation going.  Not to quit when it gets difficult. To set aside enough time.  To talk more than once.

In order to be most helpful, the first several of these difficult conversations need to be focused only on mutual understanding.  Everybody needs to resist the temptation to persuade the other(s) that they're wrong or to propose solutions prematurely.  Just listen and understand--on all sides.

Commonalities Emerge

Over time, you will discover commonalities.  Agreement about what "isn't fair."  Mutual recognition that the world is much more complicated than the parts each of you experiences.  Shared knowledge of historical events that shaped the attitudes we've all learned in our families and cultures.  Appreciation for the other person's struggles. Understanding of each other's worst fears.  And especially recognition of the systems both/all of you inhabit--the law enforcement system, school system, employment system, lending and financial system, housing system, and the other systems of power in your community.

These insights are the beginnings of real understanding.  They won't get Josh or Julie health insurance or a raise in pay.  They won't get you converts or change the poverty statistics.  And they will enhance the accuracy of everyone's understanding and the ability of each person to appreciate the other's struggles.  

This can be a local, specific, real beginning of equity progress.

I lay out nine steps to help accomplish this in Personal Communicating and Racial Equity (2016), my brief (60 page), inexpensive ($12.95 from the publisher, Kendall-Hunt) book.




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