Bush and West: Let's Talk Turkeyby Patty Bates-Ballard on 11/22/10
Former President Bush has been in the news lately because he remembers being thought of as a racist the lowest point in his eight year presidency. His reaction to the Kanye West statement during the aftermath Hurricane Katrina that Bush does not care about black people opens a window into just how seriously many people take that issue.
As children we used to say, Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me. There are some people with extremely strong character and high self esteem for whom that adage may work. But for most of us, hateful comments do hurt. Moreover, such comments usually are accompanied by or lead to actions that, at the very least, exclude and often directly discriminate. Yes, he was president and all, but did Mr. Bush ever think of picking up the phone to let Mr. West know how much it hurt him? Kanye West has acknowledged that he would express himself differently if he had it to do over again, now that he knows how the former president reacted.
When confronted with the touchy issues of race, gender, sexual orientation or religion, many usually well-spoken people have no idea what to say. We typically respond in one of three ways: Ignore it, become judgmental, or talk about it to other people. What is the result of each of these approaches? They all keep us stuck in our current behavior patterns.
Many people of good will struggle with how to respond for fear of being accused of being politically correct. But the term political correctness has done a lot of damage to this nation. It creates an image of people being forced to use sensitive and respectful language. Why should we have to be forced to be respectful? Yes, the constitution guarantees our right to say almost anything, but most of us choose to balance that right with a desire to be respectful.
So then, what can we do when someone says something insensitive, offensive, or awkward about hot buttons issues of race, gender, sexual identity, age, language, national origin, or other similar attributes?
Ask a Question
When we hear an insensitive comment, our first inclination might be to come back hard with an opinion. But a much more effective response for encouraging change is to suspend our opinions for a moment, and to develop a spirit of curiosity about the perspective of the speaker. Asking a question with a spirit of curiosity can be very disarming.
Why ask a question? Questions engage the other person by conveying interest. Questions create space for thinking. On the other hand, statements of opinions usually create defensive responses. Eventually, when you say how you feel, the other person is much more likely to listen to you if you have listened to her first.
Another important and usually overlooked response is clarification. Have you ever misunderstood what someone else said? Have you yourself ever been misunderstood? Most people answer yes to both questions. That is why clarifying is such an important element of communication.
Often, repeating an offensive comment in the form of a question is all that is needed. When the person who made the statement hears it back with his own ears, s/he may take it back or rephrase it without any additional prompting.
Expressing Feelings, Beliefs, Desires
If we have asked a curious question or two and clarified the answers, now we have created a space in which we can sincerely express our feelings, beliefs and desires about the comment. Expressing feelings in words means we do not have to resort to the silent treatment, slamming doors or worse.
I have found that one of the most powerful ways to express my position on racism is to tell a personal story about how it has affected me. People have a hard time arguing with me if I just share my own experience.
The new patriotism
While I take the responsibility of responding to insensitivity seriously, I still want to be smart. If I ever get the feeling that I am in danger, I do not respond, and I advise the same to all. But that is the exception.
I also recognize that not everyone is willing to work this hard. Many people of color have told me they are tired of the conversation. So I am issuing this call most specifically to my American brothers and sisters of European heritage (in other words, white folks). Only by having these conversations, and processing our still unresolved pain and regret, will we finally come together as a nation.
Speaking up for oneself is empowering. Speaking up for the dignity and respect that everyone deserves may just be our patriotic duty.
For more on the ingredients of a satisfying diversity related conversation, pick up the book Navigating Diversity: An Advocate/s Guide to the Maze of Race, Gender, Religion and More