Having Uncomfortable Conversations
By Kristin Beck and Cristien Storm
Power matters. Whether or not we have it, can access it, how we use (or choose not to use) it, the impacts and collateral effects of power are of tremendous importance. Unfortunately, when someone has power, it is often invisible to them. Having power or agent membership as Leticia Nieto identifies in her book, Beyond Empowerment, Beyond Inclusion, means you don’t have to acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to wonder how your power and privilege manifest in the world-at-large. It also means you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to—you have the privilege of opting out of uncomfortable or challenging conversations. Cisgender folks don’t have to talk about gender (outside of normative, binary-gender socialization); upper and middle class people don’t have to deal directly with class privilege, or even recognize the existence of class hierarchies; able-bodied folks don’t have to concern themselves with the navigation of obstructive and at times inhospitable physical and emotional environments; men can choose to ignore the day-to-day reality of sexism; and white people don’t have to talk about race and racism.
Challenging conversations require curiosity and vulnerability, and involve being able to tolerate uncomfortable emotions. So much is lost when we are closed to different perspectives, when we turn away from the fierce and vulnerable dialogues of friends, family, coworkers, comrades, community members, elected officials, bosses, therapists, faith leaders, and others in our lives. The inability, for example, of most white people to talk about racism and anti-blackness means that white people are less able to work in solidarity and resist violence and oppression of all kinds. It also means people of color must continue to shoulder the burden of identifying and interrupting racism.
I (Cristien) remember being at a domestic violence conference the first year that people of color decided to create a POC caucus. A couple of white women felt excluded and refused to leave the conference room where POC folks were meeting. Fortunately there were other white women who intervened, directing concerns and conversations about discomfort and feeling left out to other white people who understood and supported the need for a POC caucus at the conference (and the need for POC-only spaces more generally as a coping strategy for surviving white supremacy). Had the few white women not stepped in, the caucus and the important work the women of color were doing would have been disrupted in order to deal with the feelings of two (out of more than a hundred) conference participants.
The reality is that in order to effectively identify oppression, heal the damage being done in the name of white supremacy, and work towards collective liberation, people need the skills and capacities to engage in uncomfortable conversations. Those who have the privilege and choice to be able to opt out need to develop the tools to choose to opt in. Being called out (or in) is never a fabulous experience, but it can be empowering. Being able to have hard conversations means deeply acknowledging that power, privilege, oppression, colonialism, and white supremacy all exist and impact all of us in every way imaginable. To be sure, we are impacted differently depending on our positions related to power and privilege. But no one is unaffected.
As a parent of a son and a daughter, I (Kristin) have had to walk a tightrope between affirming my children’s personhood, all that is beautiful about being them in this world, and the reality and responsibility of how they are situated as privileged people. For example, when my white teenage son got in trouble for shoplifting from the market near our house, he was deeply shaken, humiliated, and contrite. He had been cuffed by the security guard on duty, taken to the office, and written up. It was a long 20 minutes for him as he waited for me to pick him up. He burst into tears the moment he stepped outside of the store. It was upsetting for him, a great lesson, but more than that, it was an opportunity to wonder aloud how the situation would have gone down if he hadn’t been white and privileged. “How do you think this would have turned out if you weren’t white?” He looked down, his eyes widened and he shook his head, “It would’ve been much worse for me.” Understanding privilege and speaking to it, especially in moments when there is an obvious corollary at play, is how we practice engaging in difficult conversations.
Developing conversational competencies across differences means interrupting the status quo, agitating for equity and justice, challenging microaggressions, “jokes” or “off-color” comments, and most importantly, it means listening and believing those who are brave enough to share their experiences and stories.
Most people with privilege could become more skillful at having challenging conversations. This involves stepping into these kinds of discussions from an open, curious, and vulnerable place. It means not getting defensive, not taking on the role of an expert or privilegesplaining, and not getting mired in guilt and shame. Chances are good that those of us with privilege haven’t had much experience in knowing how to be vulnerable and listen in this way, not only because it can be uncomfortable (so we avoid it), but because there is always the privilege of opting out. It is always possible, however, to develop the skills to opt into challenging conversations, remain curious in the face of conflict and distress, and relax into vulnerability. This kind of commitment is not always easy—in fact, at times it can be overwhelming—but it is deeply enriching, empowering, and ultimately a critical part of a life worth living for each and every one of us.
Kristin Beck is an anti-racist psychotherapist specializing in teenagers and their families in Seattle. Learn more about her work here.Tags: Cristien Storm