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Through Discomfort to Connection

Fay Johnson

Fay M. Johnson, Editor-in-Chief | Yesterday I headed to the airport and hopped on a plane to Burbank. Our first event in Los Angeles, a dinner discussion (part of our Deliberate Discourse series) was to be held that night in Los Feliz. Upon arrival to Southern California, I headed to the store, picked up last minute items for our evening and began preparations with our host, Davey, and the chef for the evening, Scott. We set up tables and chairs, cleaned and placed flowers on the tables.

An hour later we kicked off our 5th dinner on the topic of race in America. Just as we have started each dinner, I welcomed our guests and asked them to reflect on their intentions for the evening. Participants expressed the following: they were there to learn, to be present, to increase in understanding and to connect with others. I then asked them to express in one word how they were currently feeling about the issue. They expressed feeling: Frustrated. Hopeless. Stuck. Angry. Isolated. Overwhelmed. As they shared how they were currently feeling, the conversation naturally shifted into talk about recent events from the last six months. I noted how similar their feels were to those expressed by other Deliberate Discourse attendees in Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose. Many of us are unsure about how to deal with racism, institutional injustice, and other harmful divisions.

One thing that has surfaced over the last five dinners is how much discomfort keeps us from connecting and potentially learning from one another. There is a high level of fear associated with talking about race. Euro-Americans expressed high levels of 'white guilt' and a consequential fear of speaking up because they don't really know where they fit into the conversation. Some expressed fear of stepping on toes, saying the wrong thing, or having their intentions misunderstood. Our African-American attendees have spoken frequently about not wanting to be perceived as the 'angry black' woman or man in the room. Sometimes they hesitate to speak out against racist comments in a desire to 'keep the peace'. A few black, Caribbean and African-born guests shared how they have had to navigate their relationships with black Americans that they do not share a common history (but do share a common reality) with. At every dinner someone has admitted that they almost didn't come because they were fearful of how the night would go.

I have admitted at each dinner how I too have to push through my fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, or asking the wrong question, to fully engage. Having had the privilege of being at most of our dinners, it is getting easier to sit with this discomfort. Every time I have asked a question, despite my fear of coming across as potentially offensive, I have been met with a kind and thoughtful reply. This has encouraged me to sojourn on into deeper conversation and understanding. At each dinner we divide attendees into groups of 5 or 6 to maximize everyone's participation. At this dinner, my group discussed terminology that wasn't common to everyone in our circle. This topic, in a different setting, might have been glossed over. I am grateful for those who asked honest questions and for those who shared their perspective within the group.

The structure of our LA dinner was just like the rest – provide good food, a safe space, a few questions and time. By 10:45 pm (we were scheduled to end at 9:30 pm) we had all gathered around the fire to share how our separate group conversations had gone, what we had learned and how we felt. Every person present had a different experience with race, racial identity and the diversity of social interaction. Sisters who attended shared how one had no black friends and the other had no white friends despite having grown up in the same home and both being black. Books were suggested. Movies were analyzed (leave it up to LA to be the only dinner that brought in a film critique to make a point). And encouragement was given.

A big take away? Everyone needs to participate. Black Americans only make up 12.6% of the US population, as one black guest pointed out. Creating changes at a national level will require white participation. Those unsure of what role to play were asked to actively participate in taking off their own blinders and to work towards countering white dominance in their environments. Though it is not always an easy task, naming and talking about racism also removes a portion of the power it has in a given situation. The best next step for conversations like these, and for this issue in general, is to continually push through the discomfort created by the unknown, to talk and to engage. 

Our next conversations will take place in Portland on the 15th and Chicago on the 25th.