Hard lessons: How to talk about racism in a stress management training

Uncategorized Oct 09, 2020

This month I ran a new training for a repeat client. Break the Stress Cycle: Name and Manage Your Emotions looks at stress management from the standpoint of emotional intelligence. Being able to recognize stress, name the underlying emotion, and shift our emotion to a more positive or productive one is a learnable skill that will help you manage stress for yourself and your team.

During the training, something came up that I did not handle so well, and frankly, it has stressed me out:

When I asked people to name a stressor, someone wrote about how it's stressful to become aware of all the inequalities that have existed for a long time in the U.S. She felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of issues, and also felt stuck, not sure what she could possibly do about them. 

Let me first say: The idea of being aware of inequalities as a stressor is, itself, a privilege - clearly, she is not dealing with the life-or-death realities of inequalities. Neither am I. 

And, yes, I’m using the word inequalities because that’s what came up in the session. However, I’m going to focus on how to talk about one specific inequality - racism. 

This particular participant’s experience is like many other’s during this pandemic: The inequalities that have existed for a long time along race lines have become very real to her.

I did not want to skip over this important point. 

Talking about inequities is the first step toward social change. We have to confront racism, whenever and wherever it comes up, in order to end it. 

So I tried to open up the conversation. I asked permission: Would people like to take some time to talk about these issues? 

I got a few nods and several people whose videos were off turned their cameras on. I took this as a sign of permission, although, with so many people stuck at home and various bandwidth issues, video on/off might not always be a reliable sign of engagement. 

So, I offered a few thoughts and asked what people were thinking.  

The question fell flat - flatter than day-old seltzer. 

So, I moved forward with my prepared training points. 

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.

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What's the problem here? I missed an important opportunity to help people with a HUGE stressor - the goal of the training - and also move people to act for a more just society - which, frankly, should always be a goal.

It is tempting to come up with excuses as to why the question fell flat and to justify my move back to the prepared training points: It's an online training, people are reluctant to talk about social issues at work, it was an afternoon training so people were tired, maybe no one really wanted to talk about racism...  

But.

I'm the facilitator. I asked a question that had three attributes that make it hard to answer: it was very generalized, highly personal, and about a significant, multifaceted, sensitive issue that most people find difficult to talk about. (Well, most white people.)

On one level, as a facilitator, I know there are some simple ways to “fix” the question I asked - and with reflection and discussion with trusted advisors, I know I can do better next time. On another level? The history associated with race in the U.S. - and the apathy of too many white people who may not even realize how much they benefit from racist structures - make it difficult to have candid conversations about racism. 

Here are some of the things I will try in the future. I offer them so other facilitators - or anyone leading a group conversation where racism comes up, even if you don’t consider yourself a facilitator or discussion leader - can use them. As a white person, these are written from my point of view, so they may or may not be useful for you, reader, depending on your own race and experiences.

  • Ask for clarity.
    • In this case, I should have asked, what inequalities are you specifically dwelling on?
  • Don't assume.
    • I tried to guess at what inequalities she was referring to, and wound up caught up in my own assumptions.
    • Worse still, in the course of the conversation, I equated racism with hunger - there may be connections between these issues, but they are definitely not one and the same. 
    • Had I asked for clarity up front (see bullet 1!), I could have spoken specifically to the subject on her mind. 
  • Ask simpler questions:
    • Have you observed anything in your personal life that relates to this?
    • Is there something you could have done to help that situation?
    • How does it feel to see some of the unrest happening when you're not part of it? How might it feel for someone who looks different than you?
  • Stick with what's uncomfortable.
    • As a mediator, I know this, but it's a lesson that sometimes needs to be relearned.
    • In the moment, met with silence, and unprepared to come up with a different question, I simply moved forward instead of waiting it out. 
  • Don't speak about all inequalities like they're the same.
    • For example, racism is suffered by Black people in America because of our history of slavery. In the moment during this conversation, I equated hunger and racism - two inequalities, right? - but they are most definitely not the same thing.
  • Acknowledge that a stress training might just be the perfect place to talk about inequalities.
    • Example: Racism is so much more than just “stressful” for Black people - it may be life-or-death.
    • For white people like myself, sometimes being made aware of racism makes us feel stressed because it points to how we have unfair advantages over others.
    • This is true for any group that benefits from discrimination - none of us want to admit that we benefit because other people are suffering.
      • Dealing with that stress, rather than trying to ignore it, might help us move past it so we can learn about systemic racism and then end it

Finally, leading this kind of conversation requires me to acknowledge my privilege in a relevant way and offer ideas and questions about actions.

On acknowledging privilege:

  • I have all kinds of privilege!
    • As a white person, I’ve never been followed around a store by security or other staff.
    • I grew up being taught that police officers help people.
    • I can see my family life reflected in popular culture. 
  • Inequality is a nuanced issue, and being open to acknowledging it publicly - in a way that is relevant to the conversation at hand - is important so we as a society can become less racist.

Ideas for action:

  • Talk with others about the issue who might not understand it the way you do. As a white person this can be hard. Do I really want to talk about race at work or a family gathering, with people who have a range of social and political views and may not be aware of their privilege? No. But should I? Yes. 
  • Especially for my fellow white people: educate yourself by seeking out more information about racism. There is no shortage of information available. The more we learn, the more we understand, the more we can change. 
  • Donate to organizations led by the people most affected by the issue - Black-led organizations. 

Ideas for questions to lead the conversation:

  • When have you observed racial discrimination at work? What could you have done about it?  
  • Does learning about racism now make you re-think things you've observed in the past at work? How?
  • What are some books people have read on this topic? Blog posts? Videos? Podcasts? 
  • What changes can you participate in, no matter how small?
  • How can you find a community of like-minded people to support each other in actions for social justice? How do you navigate discussions of issues you don’t agree on? 

And to bring it back to one of the stress management techniques I train on, naming an emotion helps us shift it - and then take action.

  • What is the emotion you feel when you realize racism is real and life-threatening? 
  • What is the emotion you might feel (or have felt) when you experience discrimination or exclusion?

 

For me now, I feel more confident that I've learned a lesson - one worth relearning as many times as I need to. When I next run a Break the Stress Cycle session, I hope the same big, uncomfortable issue comes up so we can talk about it with better questions and better facilitation. 

 

Special thanks and much love and appreciation to Akua Gyasi-Koduah for her guidance after the training, and to Kelly Snyder for connecting Akua and I! 

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