While many of us recognize that racism is a big problem in the United States, we tend to be uncomfortable discussing race. This is because such discussions can easily morph into unproductive heated clashes.
To help us be able to have these difficult conversations, Kenneth Hardy, Ph.D. has developed a model which he shared in his talk “Race Inside and Outside the Therapy Room” at the 2015 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium.
In a nutshell, to engage in an effective conversation about race, Dr Hardy recommends adequate preparation plus taking on a few tasks which vary according to whether your role is that of privilege or subjugator.
Specifically, there are 4 key stages:
- Preparation refers to a set of didactics (or teachings) that precede the talk in order to be able to have the conversation about race. Without this type of preparation, race talks tend to escalate to a dominate emotion such as attack and defend.
- Encounter entails creating the space literally and figuratively to have these conversations about race.
- Engagement is the interaction between the participants (this takes place once every one has been prepped and the space has been made to have the conversation).
- Execution allows for the possibility of a deeper interaction and a possible transformation to take place.
10 Underlying Principles to Consider (Prior to Having Conversations About Race)
- Effective racial conversations have the above 4 developmental stages; we have to advance through them in order to begin to have effective racial conversations.
- Effective racial conversations require both will (willingness to do it) and skill (having something to rely on other than the raw unbridled emotion to navigate the conversation).
- Space has to be created for racial conversations to be effectively executed.
- We need to be mindful about power and privilege in racial relationships.
- Power is relational, contextual and inequitably distributed. Egalitarian relationships don’t really exist.
- What fuels racism is rigidification of uneven distribution of power with whites being in control and people of color being relegated to supportive status.
- Whiteness, the centrality of whiteness and the possession of white skin are assigned considerable power and privilege in our society.
- The degree of responsibility and accountability that one has to a relationship should be proportional to the relative degree of power and privilege one possesses.
- The group that has the greatest power or privilege ultimately has the greatest responsibility to a relationship.
- Critical reflection and self interrogation are critical.
- When we’re in the midst of racial conversation and it becomes contentious, it is helpful to consider how might I shift my position here to change the outcome of this conversation? (Rather than to ascertain what is problematic about the person with whom you’re speaking.)
- Self In Relationship to Other (SIRO) – when you are not over focused on self and not so focused on other, you are delicately balanced between self and other in the racial conversation. (When there it’s skewed with overfocus on self or on other, the conversation stifles.)
- Participants are to adhere to a series of tasks that are commensurate with their social location in their relationship.
Part of the Preparation Stage:
- Shift how we see ourselves from a singular view of self to a multi-dimensional view of the self. This is a more accurate representation of who we are.
- Each of us we have a multitude of selves that come into play: a gendered self, an ethnic self, a racial self, a religious self, a sexual orientation self, a class self, a family of origin self, an infinite number of selves etc
- Consider using language to reflect this shift (from myself and yourself to my selves and your selves).
- Some parts align us with privilege and some parts align us with subjugated self.
- Each of us goes through the world thinking of self as subjugated self, the self that is constantly under assault, the self that I guard.
- This causes a blind spot and places us in the position of perpetrator with the other selves.
- All of our selves show up in a conversation; in the United States, the problem is so enormous that we cannot even acknowledge that it exists. We engage in fake, polite conversations until the next police shooting.
- White People Need to Execute the Tasks of Privilege
- People of Color Need to Execute the Tasks of Subjugation
When white people take on the tasks of privilege and people of color take on the tasks of subjugation, we will have a different type of conversation taking place! Even if only one of the groups does its part, we will have change taking place (a different type of conversation), but not as much as would take place if both groups do their part.
The Tasks of Privilege (for White People to Take On):
- Draw distinction between intention and consequences.
- When we’re in a privileged position, we talk about intentionality but people in subjugated position talk about consequences.
- The more colored people talk about consequences, the more white people clarify their intentions > broken conversation!
- For example: Person of color says: “When you walked by me and didn’t speak to me [at work], it felt racist.” White person turns and says “that wasn’t my intention.” The conversation stops at this point.
Person of color is saying how white person impacted him/her and white person wants to reassure of purity of his/her intentions, being totally oblivious of the fact that you can have pure intentions that render impure consequences.
Therefore in conversations about race, people of color almost never get to talk about consequences in a way that is heard and responded to by whites because the conversation breaks down (this will happen in any relationship where there is a power differential).
If whites want to have a conversation, they have to adhere to consequences.
- Resist privempathy (empathy of the privilege) (a word Dr Hardy made up) – a tool of the whites (and men).
- Privempathy refers to when the person in a privileged position uses empathy in the position discussed that ultimately culminates in him/her hijacking the conversation.
Privempathy seems generous/empathic but the conversation moves away from the person of color (or woman) as a result of the privileged person sharing his/her own story.
- Avoid equalization of suffering.
- Our inclination is to shy away from talking about race. Dr Hardy gives an example of the white person who grew up poor but if he’s talking about race, and the white person’s poor self ends up in the conversation we’re ignoring hi/her white self and race.
- Develop thick skin (those with the most privilege seem to be the most fragile).
- People of color work really hard to keep white people comfortable.
The Tasks of Subjugation (for People of Color to Take On):
- Overcome obsession of taking [emotionally] care of white people.
- Allow your soul to thrive!
- Reclaim your voice.
- Marginalized voice often gets put on mute (to survive as you grow up).
- Find ways to regulate rage.
- You’ve taken care of white people and swallowed your feelings for so long, you have built up rage inside.
What Some Participants Expressed about Having Conversations about Race (or What Holds Them Back from Talking About It):
Person(s) of Color:
- Being overwhelmed with rage; it comes so intensely and strongly in reaction to white people not understanding or thinking they understand and trying to justify. (Dr Hardy noted that beneath the rage is a lot of pain.)
- White people not getting it, not being able to listen and hear our experience.
White Person (s):
- Sense of shame, very painful; how little recognized the issues as a child.
- If I took the lid off and I’m aware, I get stuck. I don’t know what to do, what would be a way of being with you?
- It’s hard for me to stay focused on race.
- Your rage gets in the way of our talking and it scares me.
- Share with us your rage; we don’t always get it.
What About the Therapy Room?
Regarding the white therapist and client who is a person of color scenario, Dr Hardy recommends simply stating: “I’m sitting here as a white person and I imagine that it might be hard to trust me as a white person,” vs. asking the colored person whether they trust you, or is it difficult because then you are asking them to take care of you.
They have been racially socialized to not be honest with you. By simply stating “what is” and acknowledging the inequitable histories that you share, you have extended an invitation to discuss race when/if they are ready.
- Consider employing a Cultural Genogram with your clients to better understand what their background is and how it impacts who they are and what their beliefs are about themselves, their family and others.
- Dr Hardy describes the use of a cultural genogram and suggests several helpful questions you may ask your clients to open the dialogue in this regard in the article he co-authored: The cultural genogram: key to training culturally competent family therapists.
- Consider applying the 8 steps Dr Hardy recommends in Healing the Hidden Wounds of Racial Trauma with troubled teens of color: affirmation and acknowledgement, create space for race, racial storytelling, validation, naming, externalize devaluation, counteract devaluation and rechanneling rage.
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What are your thoughts about Dr Hardy’s guidance? Do you feel that applying his framework will help you have more effective racial conversations with others?