Enlarging the Vision of Human Possibility

Maureen Walker provides a roadmap for race conversations in the 21st century.

Posted Feb 04, 2020

 Lisa Langhammer, used with permission
Source: Lisa Langhammer, used with permission

Anyone who has read my blog posts is aware of my belief that a culture that promotes rugged individualism and the development of a “separate self” also undermines an individual’s ability to form healthy relationships.

In an effort to develop “unique individuals,” even small differences between people are often stratified with the resultant categories holding enormous social value. The stratification forms categories of “us” and “them,” who is “in” and who is “out.” And I am not talking about party invitations here (though those might be impacted). I am talking about who has access to our country’s enormous resources—including quality health care, housing, and education, to name a few.  

What happens when the stratified differences are vast, embedded in our cultural histories, and socially sanctioned? My colleague, Dr. Maureen Walker, in her new book When Getting Along is Not Enough: Reconstructing Race in Our Lives and Relationships provides readers a roadmap of the inherent risks and opportunities of building authentic connections across race. This is a book (manageable at 135 pages) that I needed to read start to finish and that I will read over and over again, as each paragraph, each chapter, and each concept builds on the last.

Dr. Walker first names and describes the “it” that is often not identified—race. On each page, she calls on each of us to action—to find the courage and humility to begin a new way of talking about and across race. Fortunately, Dr. Walker does not leave the reader alone in this call to action, and while she encourages individuals to move into the anxiety of race conversations, she also makes it clear that the anxiety is not unique to each individual, but is rather an inevitable part of a racist culture.

Dr. Walker describes three ideological force fields that help keep racism in place in America and derail any attempts at cross-race conversation and understanding. The first is the hyperindividualism. As Dr. Walker states, “…hyperindividualism renders the collective privilege nearly invisible and undiscussable. For minoritized group members to call it out is to risk their being accused of ‘playing the race card.’ For dominant group members to name it and discuss it is to risk ostracism from same group peers.”

The second is racial innocence. Dr. Walker believes that saying, “My family never owned slaves,” or “I don’t see color; I just see human beings,” is likely tinged by unacknowledged racial anxiety, which then makes racism unacknowledgeable. The third ideological force field is an omniscient entitlement or the right to define what’s rational, what’s real, and what’s human. Entering into conversations about race from an entitled position is a relational dead-end regardless of whether you are in a dominant or submissive position.

The pitfalls of race conversations are easily recognizable when accentuated with clear, real-life examples of stalled or hurtful interactions, which Dr. Walker uses to illustrate the text throughout. Once I could see myself in these strategies of disconnection, I could also see more clearly the wisdom and challenge of Dr. Walker’s recommendations for starting new and improved race conversations. Make no mistake about it: She is inviting us all to upgrade our relational skills dramatically. She takes three of the core tenets of Relational-Cultural Theory—empathy, authenticity, and mutuality—and expands them to more fully match the strategies and strength needed to weather the vulnerabilities that may arise in cross-race conversations.

The first skill is disruptive empathy—a far cry from the usual “I feel your pain.” Disruptive empathy challenges the empathizer to identify the parts of herself (the Not-Me parts) that may be holding on to learned racist imagery and beliefs. Of course, for those of us who want to be in growth fostering connections, the Not-Me thoughts make us anxious and unsure of what to say. Building awareness and acceptance of these feelings is essential to not having them unconsciously undermine the deepening of the relationship.

Disruptive empathy also calls for respect for the difference between two people. Again, Dr. Walker states that “we don’t have to identify with, agree with, or be attracted to another person in order to develop an empathic relationship. Respect signals curiosity.” Finally, disruptive empathy calls for compassion—the intentional acknowledgment of shared humanity.

The second skill Dr. Walker identifies is mindful authenticity. Simple stated, mindful authenticity is “the capacity for truth-telling without losing sight of the other person’s humanity.” It is not simply saying whatever comes into your mind in order to be “honest.” Race conversations and the tensions inherent within them make reactive honesty a real threat to growth.

Dr. Walker’s three “C” mindset instructs us to build mindful authenticity by holding onto complexity—the belief that we all live multistoried lives and are always only sharing part of our story; by moving into conversations with courage (the courage to be wrong, disrespected, misunderstood—all of these are likely to happen in difficult conversations); and by being considerate about the purpose, context, and timing of any conversation. Though a cross-race conversation might arise at any moment, it does not have to be completed at that very moment. Dr. Walker reminds us that “false harmony serves the interest of the dominant group.” And suggests that mindful authenticity is at the heart of waging good conflict.

The final skill Dr. Walker discusses is dynamic mutuality—which is the ability to build relationships where power is intentionally shared. It is the ability to recognize that growth-fostering relationships are always win-win, but that when relationships get hijacked by power for power's sake, the relationship often becomes a win-lose or even lose-lose situation. As Dr. Walker astutely points out, sharing power does not have to mean equal power or equal roles, and it is not synonymous with compromise. She states, “dynamic mutuality as relational practice holds conflict and collaboration as intersecting pathways toward enhanced trust and expanded relational opportunity.”

When Getting Along is Not Enough is an invitation, a challenge, and an instruction manual all in one. Its power lies in Dr. Walker’s ability to perpetually bring the reader back to the complexity and hard work of cross-race relationships and to offer real-life, mind-body suggestions on how each of us can step up, grow up, and show up for conversations about race.

References

Walker, Maureen. (2019) When Getting Along is Not Enough: Reconstructing Race in Our Lives and Relationships. Teacher's College Press. Columbia University. New York, NY.