Fresh Out of College
Throughout my teens and early twenties, I had learned to let microaggressions roll off my back as a means of avoiding confrontation. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem standing up for myself when it’s necessary. However, time had taught me that challenging these moments would likely cause a great deal of pain with little to show for it. Whether it’s the doctor’s office, the grocery store, or at work, I had learned to not expect anything from White people as it relates to understanding my plight as a Black woman, which was especially true in predominantly White spaces.
For instance, I can recall my first experience working a full-time job right out of college and being smacked with systemic racism right in the face. At the time, I was working at an insurance company as a claims adjuster. For those of you who may not know, a claims adjuster is the person who helps you get your life back on track after you’ve been in a car accident or your house has been burglarized. They tell you what you need to do in order for the insurance company to make you whole again. Although it may not sound like a tough job, it’s one of the most challenging I’ve ever had.
On a daily basis, the phone at my cubicle was constantly ringing with someone who was in tears, angry, or scared to death about what they’d just experienced. When you do this for eight hours a day, five days out of the week, it becomes almost impossible not to become emotionally drained and resentful of your job. About a year or so in, I had begun to feel that resentment and wanted to be anywhere but at work. It was a time in my life where I would not only discover the mental fatigue that is caused by working somewhere you hate, but for the first time I would discover what it meant to deal with issues of race and ethnicity in the ‘real world’ after college.
One afternoon during a standard call, I was talking to a customer about the status of his vehicle that was being repaired after an accident. This customer happened to be Black and as we talked about the status of his claim, he said that he felt as though the person from our company who did the estimate on his car was racist and wanted someone to do something about it. As with any other customer call, I documented the conversation as it happened, including the customer’s concerns about racism.
A little later that afternoon, my supervisor came up to me and asked me about the post in the file. I told her what happened, and she promptly told me to delete the notes from the file because it may potentially make the company look bad. Although this response was predictable, I couldn’t understand it at the time. Why would my boss want me to alter a record of a concern posed by a customer? Wasn’t this ethically the wrong thing to do? Shouldn’t someone follow up on his concern? Feeling like I had no choice, I made the changes my boss asked me to, and felt really uncomfortable about it. As a young twenty-something figuring things out, I had no idea how to handle the situation without somehow getting into trouble.
When I told friends and family outside of work what happened, I got two responses. Some people felt as though I was indeed stupid to put notes like that in the file. Similar to my boss, they were of the mindset that information like that can only lead to trouble and should be omitted as to not cause unnecessary problems. Other people told me, and very sternly I might add, that I shouldn’t have changed the notes in the file and put myself in jeopardy on ethical grounds. They made it very clear that if that customer made a formal complaint, it would look as though I was trying to cover something up to protect the company, and my boss would likely claim she never told me to make any such changes to the notes to protect herself.
Hearing this made me really scared. I was perplexed as to how I let myself get in this situation at all? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is what interpersonal, and in turn institutional racism, looks like up close and personal. When I documented that conversation with the customer, I was only trying to be accurate in my notes. I was even naive enough to think that someone would see it, and take action to make sure the claims made by the customer were reviewed. I never dreamed I would find myself caught between a rock and a hard place. Several years and many tough experiences later, I realize that our system is designed to cause dilemmas such as this. Unless the individual in the situation is experienced enough to navigate the nuances of the scenario they are likely to find themselves on the losing end, just as I did. It was at that moment that I told myself I would never put myself in the situation again.
Unfortunately for me, as I’ve worked my way from job to job, I found that issues such as this are not an anomaly, but rather the norm. When you are a Black person working in White spaces, racism shows up almost everywhere you turn. Before I moved to Dubuque, I had dealt with these microaggressions by doing my best to avoid those situations all together. Like I said earlier, they usually ended up with me exerting a great deal of effort with little results to show for it. It wasn’t until I began doing racial justice work in Dubuque that I found a way to stop avoid these issues and deal with them in way that is effective.
Dealing with Difficult Difference
After spending several years trying to figure out what I wanted my career path to be, I decided I wanted to work with college students. First, I realized that the pervasive implicit bias I would face in corporate America was not for me in the long term. Second, I had spent the last two years of college as a Resident Assistant in the residence halls (a.k.a. dorms). Although it was a challenging job, I felt as though it was one I could do successfully and be around people who valued equity the same way I did. In the summer of 2014, I got my first full time job as a Hall Director at The University of Dubuque.
When I arrived in Dubuque, John Stewart was a breath of fresh air in a town that was stale in its traditions of racial animus. At the time, he was working in the President’s office at The University of Dubuque. In addition to his role at the school, John served as board member of Dubuque’s Multicultural Family Center (MFC). The Multicultural Family Center was (and still is) known as a place for diverse voices to gather and be their authentic selves. Although the current activities at the MFC were well received, John was looking to create a program where community members could learn to engage in difficult conversations about race and ethnicity.
As I talked with John about what a community dialogue program would look like, I shared with him that I had an extensive background in intergroup dialogue facilitation. While studying as an undergraduate at The University of Michigan, I took a semester course on social justice theory and pedagogy. The subsequent semester, I taught my first intergroup dialogue course about gender in our society. By the time I’d met John, I had several years of experience with social justice education, specifically facilitation related to intercultural issues. John felt as though he and I would make a good team in building a program from scratch that could meet this need in the community. With that, we began working on what eventually became known as our Dealing with Difficult Difference workshop. This two-day workshop used social justice theory and dialogue pedagogy to engage participants in learning to effectively communicate across cultural difference. John and I spent a great deal of time teaching about the communication triad of curiosity, humility, and platinum empathy to have honest, even difficult, conversations around race.
Curiosity usually comes first because we have to engage in asking meaningful questions about something we don’t understand or agree with to establish a baseline of what is really being communicated. Humility is usually next because we have to engage in active listening and consider other points of view. This may sound simple, but when someone is saying something you deeply disagree with, humility can be hard to come by. Finally, we end with platinum empathy which is kicking up the golden rule to treat others as they require us to treat them, without assuming they’d want to be treated in the same way we would. It is important to note that although conversations commonly happen in this pattern, the communication pillars can be interchangeable depending on the situation at hand. To help demonstrate what using the pillars in action looks like, I’d like to share with you the story of BBQ in DBQ.
Where there’s smoke…
While I was living in Dubuque, I had the honor to be a member of the local Dubuque NAACP Branch in town. Being involved in the community was a way for me to meet people, as well as make a difference on a subject that means a lot to me. The Dubuque Branch NAACP has several events they host throughout the calendar year, and one of their most popular is called BBQ in DBQ, short for Barbeque in Dubuque. During this event, barbeque and other local foods from vendors in the community are brought in so people from all around the community can gather together to have fun and promote unity and fellowship. The event is usually well received, and people end up having a lot of fun.
During this particular summer, the Black Lives Matter movement was really gaining traction at the national stage and in support of that message, the Dubuque Branch created Black Lives Matter t-shirts and decided to sell them to do some fundraising. I was minding my own business walking about when I looked down the hallway and saw what appeared to be a heated argument in process at the table where the shirts were being sold. As they say, where there’s smoke there’s usually a fire, and so I decided to walk down there and see what was going on. As I anticipated, the women who were selling the shirts (who happened to be White) were in the middle of this tense argument with another White woman, we’ll call her Carol, who was upset that the Branch was selling the shirts to raise funds. The two ladies who were selling the shirts appeared to be quite distressed and wanted an escape route that would end this conversation and the awkwardness that went along with it. At this point, I decided to turn to the skills I had developed with John to diffuse what could become a disastrous situation.
First and foremost, I had to rely on my sense of humility to be willing to engage with Carol in a conversation I knew would likely frustrate me. How many times had Black people heard the argument that ‘all lives matter’ simply to be spiteful to the Black Lives Matter movement? It was a narrative I was tired of hearing and frankly still gets on my nerves. Nonetheless, I knew that I couldn’t engage in a dialogue with this woman if I didn’t give myself the mental space to give Carol the benefit of the doubt.
After taking a deep breath, I proceeded to ask Carol why she was upset about the shirts being sold. As expected, she launched right into the narrative of ‘all lives matter’ and the subsequent arguments that follow. You might be wondering why I bothered to ask Carol why she was upset if I could reasonably predict what her answer would be. In this instance, it was important for me to engage in authentic curiosity with Carol for two reasons. One, it wouldn’t have been wise of me to assume what Carol’s response would’ve been, even if I did have an educated guess. Assuming Carol’s narrative wouldn’t have done anything but undercut her before she had a chance to be heard, and this in turn would’ve likely caused her to become even more defensive as a result. Two, it’s important when using the communication pillars to come from a place of shared meaning to avoid confusion later on in the conversation. I find that often times, neglecting this step causes us to talk past one another, as opposed to talking with one another. Again, this usually results in defensiveness which leads to a counterproductive conversation.
After she finished sharing her thoughts, I calmly told her that I can empathize with where her feelings were coming from (again, this required relying on humility when I really didn’t want to). However, I wanted to explain my understanding of Black Lives Matter which I believed many people shared. I explained that when we say Black Lives Matter, it is not saying that other lives don’t matter. Of course, we know that all people matter. Despite this as a moral principle, our history in the United States has shown where people who look like me have been discounted and marginalized for a long time on the basis of our race. I explained that this oppression has led to a disparate quality of life for many people who look like me and that what Black Lives Matter is really asking is for our predominantly White culture to acknowledge us fully and completely. Regardless of whether it’s economic equity, social equity, or equity in the criminal justice system, Black people are asking to be recognized and valued in the same why our White counterparts have always been acknowledged. This was me asking Carol to consider viewing this issue through the lens of platinum empathy. I was asking her to think about racial justice not through a lens of equality, but rather a lens of equity. As the saying goes, with equality everyone gets a t-shirt. Equity requires that everyone gets a t-shirt that fits. I was simply challenging Carol to consider the idea that as Black people, we are asking for societal remedies that match our unique history and circumstances.
Carol stood and looked as us for a few moments and after a long pause, she simply nodded her head and walked away from the table. Although I don’t think I changed her mind in that brief conversation, I do believe I was successful at two very important things. First, the contentious situation had been defused. Second, she seemed to walk away with something to really think about related to what I was saying. I like to think that at the very least, our conversation gave her pause to realize her sentiments about Black Lives Matter may have been judgmental when put into a broader context. It’s important to remember that the goal of using curiosity, humility, and platinum empathy is not about being ‘right’ or ‘winning an argument’. It’s about being able to communicate with someone who is different from yourself in a way that opens up a path to learning and dialogue, which in turn can help you find freedom in your authentic narrative.
A for Authenticity
I know that for Black people, especially Black women, using our voices is taking a serious risk. As I’ve mentioned several times throughout this article, I first hand know the risks that are involved. Honestly, it can still be a struggle for me to use my voice in spaces where Whiteness reigns supreme.
However, I have found that when I rely on genuine curiosity to challenge racist ideas, humility to compliment my personal growth, and platinum empathy to model how I expect to be treated, I have a chance at reclaiming my story. That’s what I was able to do with Carol at BBQ in DBQ. I could’ve given her what Whiteness expects of someone like me. I could’ve become ‘the angry Black woman’ and in all fairness, we as Black women have a right to be angry. Even if that’s true, I knew engaging with Carol in a more confrontational way wouldn’t have helped me, or the women selling the shirts, in that moment. I was able to tell her what platinum empathy looks like for me, and why I wouldn’t be dissuaded by her opinion.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that for me, reclaiming my story is the only way I can have a real shot at inner peace. We deserve to live in the full glory of our Blackness, no matter how our White counterparts may react. These communication pillars have created a safer path for me to do that. I am able to be as authentic and unapologetically Black as I choose while minimizing the risk of alienation via stereotypes. I can only hope that my story empowers you to reclaim your stories as well. Although we can’t control how others will respond, we have the chance to reclaim our narratives. We can break free of society writing our stories for us. In the end, that’s what matters the most.