Today I am reflecting on 2 podcast episodes that I have listened to recently. I loved these two conversations as they give language to many of the thoughts I have had swirling in my head regarding thriving in a diverse community - something which I have the good fortune and privilege of doing. I hope that these conversations spark a desire to learn more about those around you who may be different to you, or to do your own reading and reflection of how you can fill in your own knowledge about these important issues of diversity and inclusion. There are links contained within the post, as well as some more at the end.
This morning I listened to this podcast episode - a conversation between Krista Tippett and Claudia Rankine: a poet, essayist and playwright - entitled “How can I say this so we can stay in this car together”. Claudia makes the statement that all conversations about race do not have to be about racism. The conversation caught my attention as I have recently been thinking about two topics close to my heart - home being one of them, and the other - about life in diverse communities. At first glance, I would not have brought these two concepts together, but as I have had conversations about home, a few concepts have come up that have made me believe there is much common ground in the topics. One of my favourite definitions of home from one of the people I interviewed spoke about home being a safe place - somewhere that she could feel safe not only in her physical space, but safe to be herself. And as I have thought about communities, I have also been thinking about the importance of it being a safe place - physically, mentally and spiritually - where a person can feel free to be him/herself. In truth - we all live in communities - both the larger community which may be the country that live in, or to bring it smaller - state, county, city, town or village. To bring it even smaller, we have communities that may be at work, church or organizations that we belong to. And in any community, we want to feel safe to be ourselves.
When I speak about diversity, this includes gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, age and culture (to name a few). So by this definition, at some point in time we will all find ourselves in diverse communities. And while the podcast is about race, the question that Claudia asked is one that got me thinking. How can we feel safe in our communities - feel seen and heard and respected as equals - without some level of open discussion?
When I lived in England, I was often in the minority in the communities I was in - both in terms of race and culture. It was a strange feeling - I didn’t necessarily feel as though I fit in with the “Afro-Caribbean” people that were born/raised in the UK (and I didn’t encounter that many in the areas where I lived and worked), but I sometimes longed to see faces similar to mine when I looked around. Growing up in the Caribbean and being in the majority, this was the first time in life that I felt black.
Fortunately, my university was a melting pot where I met a number of people - some from the Caribbean like myself, some from other countries/cultures, and quite a few white British people who had lived in the UK as well as spending time in other countries. I found it easy to make friends, and I eventually felt safe and comfortable in that environment. And, I had quite a few conversations about race that were not about racism. I had these conversations with people of various races and cultures. I met students from various African countries who had little knowledge of the Caribbean and could not wrap their head around someone who looked like them but was culturally so different. I had friends who were Caucasian, Indian, Arabic, Asian - but who were culturally different to me and one another, due to religion, country of birth, and family practices. I learned never to make assumptions and to be curious and open to people I met, and I made some rich and deep connections during that time. One thing I learned was that we always had some common ground we could meet on. Within that safe environment, my friends would ask me questions - about my race and culture, hair, dialect and so on. I will admit - I have been asked/told a wide range of things when it comes to my race - from the mildly curious to the wildly inappropriate.(Someone I worked with once said to me that she hated black people, and when I suggested to her that I probably wouldn’t be a very sympathetic ally in this conversation - she said “but you aren’t like - proper black are you?” I don’t know… I think I am! And she didn’t see anything wrong with what she said!) And within that space, I could answer people truthfully, and we could have conversations that led to both of us understanding one another better, and having more understanding for people outside our race. And I could also ask questions. I am sure I said or asked things that were inappropriate too due to lack of knowledge. And I was often answered with a patience and understanding that increased my understanding of other cultures. And while I sometimes encountered people like the lady I mentioned earlier from my work, I don’t know if I would have felt any more comfortable if I thought she was saying those things behind my back. At least I could have a conversation with her and try to get closer to her. I don’t know if it worked, but in some strange way, I felt as if I could speak my truth in that place.
Now - almost 20 years later, I know that the topic of race is very heated for so many reasons, and I realize that a combination of increased racial tensions and political correctness, means that there is a risk of people feeling less safe in racially diverse communities. Those within the populations who are in the minority are on the alert for discrimination - due to experience and not helped by widely publicised racist or discriminatory statements/policies, and acts of aggression towards the minorities. When someone says something inappropriate, it is difficult to know how to discuss it in a way that could be constructive rather than destructive. And white people may not feel comfortable enough to ask questions - so as not to offend - even those who want to “do the work” and open their understanding of other people and cultures. And this applies to other situations where discrimination occurs.
This concerns me. I am willing to admit that everyone may not be interested in having open dialogue, but I am sad to think that those who do are not sure where to turn, and in fear of offending people that they have to live and work around aren’t able to reach out and form genuine relationships. And having formed quite a few close relationships over the years, I can genuinely say that they changed me, gave me more of an ability to understand those who aren’t like me, and did the same for the people that I have been able to draw nearer to.
One view on this which I love, and which I try to keep front of mind (although I will admit that I don’t always do it - and I don’t think any of us do) comes from Dr. Tee Williams who spoke on the other podcast episode I mentioned, from Truth Telling with Elizabeth Dialto. Dr Tee is a speaker, consultant and educator in the complexities of Diversity & Inclusion, Organizational Leadership and Personal Development. When asked about the work he does he had this to say:
“I do liberation work - I don’t do anti-anything work… part of the work of liberation is understanding that humans are inherently good… and if humans are inherently good, a lot of time people are acting and behaving in the ways that they are because they are lacking information, or they have not been exposed to something…” - Dr Tee Williams
I love the idea of assuming that humans are inherently good, and that questions, comments and behaviours that could be classed as microaggressions right up to discrimination are born from a place of lacking information rather than from a place of malice. In my experience, I have found this to almost always be the case, and as a result I have been able to build a personal community of close friends and acquaintances that is diverse, and where I feel that sense of safety. This opinion does not free any of us from the responsibility we have for treating other people with respect, but I think it is a good place to start a conversation, and I will put my hand up and say - I have said things from a place of lack of information myself, and am glad that t hose I was speaking to had the grace to treat me with this assumption.
One of my favourite quotes that I have been thinking on recently (and I mentioned it in this post about bridging the gaps) is by Dr Brené Brown - “people are hard to hate close up - move in…”. If we are going to move closer to one another, we need to feel safe in those spaces where we work, and play. In the places we call home. We need to seek to understand one another, see one another as equals in that space, and have compassion for one another. From this place, we can have open discussions, and draw closer to one another. And I think listening to these podcast episodes are a great place to start to understand the point of view of someone else, as well as to listen to a conversation where questions are asked and answered in the a safe space. And I am going to list some other resources below, if you want to learn more. (I will continue to update this list as I continue to listen and learn, so please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you can think of anything that can be added to the list.
Because like it or not (to extend the metaphor from Claudia Rankine) we are all in this car together. It is worth being able to have conversations that allow us all to feel safe in that space.
Thanks for reading.
I send you big love from a small island.
Here are a few links - both for the podcast episodes I mentioned and for some other resources that I have found speaking to these issues (I will be updating these as I continue to listen and learn)
On Being Podcast with Krista Tippett - How Can I Say This So We Can Stay in This Car Together? (Guest - Claudia Rankine.)
Truth Telling with Elizabeth Dialto - EP279: Foundations Of Social Justice With Dr. Tee Williams