Why the Race Dialogue in America is Going Nowhere Fast

and What to Do About It

dialogue -- two men arguing

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Foreword: This piece speaks of “black America” and “white America.” Someone has recently read the piece and observed that though these two groups are far from monolithic, I write here as though each group has a single point of view. Though I recognize this, and obviously I cannot even speak for all white people, let alone all black people, I can surely elucidate what I think is a big part of the problem among white people. I certainly cannot, and have no right, to claim to capture “black experience,” but as a therapist and pastor, I am trying to latch onto some human universals that transcend race and I hope I will be allowed to do that, despite the inability of language to capture the experience of all people.

America’s Race “Dialogue” Like an Argument Between Spouses

Think of our racial back-and-forth in this country like a discussion between spouses. I realize it’s more complicated because it’s a national dialogue and there are so many competing interests involved, but still, at the core of it, here’s the dialogue.

Wife: I need to talk to you about a serious problem. [mention of said problem]

Husband: But I only do that because [reason for doing what she sees as a problem, filled with all kinds of excuses, and a few valid points that she should probably listen to]

Wife: You’re not hearing me.

Husband: I heard you fine. You’re not hearing me! You said you’re upset about this thing, and I’m telling you why I do that thing that upsets you.

Wife: I heard you, and I feel like you’re saying it’s MY fault.

Husband: Then you didn’t hear me. I’m not saying it’s your fault, I’m just telling you why I do that thing I do. If you’d stop doing that thing that makes me do the other thing, I’d stop doing that thing and there would be no problem.

The Problem with this “Dialogue”

You can see where this is going, which is nowhere fast. Even if you’ve never taken a single psychology class, you should be able to see that this conversation will never be productive. When couples come to see me for counseling, it’s often because this is the way they have argued (“communicated,” “talked,” “dialogued”) for decades. It never works, and it never will. It cannot, because the DNA of this conversation is rotten. It PREVENTS understanding.

Here’s how: People are primarily self-interested. When people say something, they want to be heard, not ignored. This is true of all people everywhere. If they feel (this is not a rational thing, it’s a deeply emotional thing, and all human beings are wired this way) ignored, not heard, not listened to, not regarded, that their experience of the world is not taken as an accurate appraisal of the reality they live in day to day, they will feel invalidated and get angry.

When they get angry, they will speak louder, because they do not feel heard. When neither party is really listening to the other, both are hurt, and cover that hurt with anger (because it’s less vulnerable). If they are still not heard, their anger will begin to escalate very quickly. In this state, science has shown again and again that truly listening to and hearing the other person is actually not even possible. You’re too mad, you’re too busy protecting and defending your own point of view. You cannot listen, and neither can the person that you’re demanding listen to you.

That’s what I mean when I say the DNA of the above conversation is wrong. If real dialogue, real understanding, real progress is the goal, you cannot get there from here.

Because the problem with this dialogue is that there’s not the slightest bit of dialogue. Both are blaming, and neither is listening.

The Solution

Until he sees his behavior that’s upsetting her and cops to it — even if he thinks it’s only a response to such and such from her — she will continue to feel unheard and devalued, and as long as she feels unheard and devalued, the problem in that marriage goes far beyond whatever the issue is she’s trying to talk to him about.

The problem here isn’t whatever she’s trying to discuss with him. The problem is that he can’t see there’s a problem, and thinks 100% of what needs to be done to resolve it is on her. He truly believes that. But he is wrong.

He needs to accept responsibility for his own behavior, stop blaming his actions on her, and make all the change he can make on his own end.

She is responsible for doing the same thing, taking what he has said into account.

As long as each simply insists that when the other person changes the problem will disappear, they’re both clueless and there can be no progress.

The Limits of the Metaphor

Obviously the marriage metaphor can’t work completely. In a marriage, a couple always has the choice to call it quits, deciding either the marriage cannot be saved, or that one or both do not want to put in the effort, based on what they see as the likelihood of it producing a positive outcome. That is not an option with race relations. We have to stick it out, we have to learn to listen and get along, and I believe we can. Many countries contain vast numbers of people from varying ethnic backgrounds and live together just fine. Indeed there are pockets in America where this happens as well, but overall, we’re arguing past one another.

The Problem with the Solution

The dysfunctional arguing I demonstrated above is exactly what so many white people in America do to so many black people, and it’s a conversation that is going nowhere fast for the same reason. (Sure, the black community struggles to hear white America as well, but I can’t speak to that community and neither can any other white person.) 

For hundreds of years, black people have been saying, in various ways, “We have a problem here.” White people have responded in various ways, but not usually by listening.

“The reason you’re not respected is because you’re only 3/5 of a person.”

“The reason you’re not respected is because you are genetically inferior to us.”

“The reason you’re not respected is because you do not respect yourselves.”

“The reason you’re not respected is because you are lawbreakers.”

“The reason you’re not respected is because your brains are smaller.”

Until white people stop making excuses and cop to our own unacceptable behavior, without blaming blacks, or defending ourselves, many, many black people will continue to feel unheard. And that will continue to be frustrating, which is not a black thing, it’s a human thing. The anger various black communities sometimes break into, rather than revealing that they are less than human, reveals the depth of their humanity. (If you just read into that sentence, “Therefore, it’s perfectly fine that some are looting and committing violence,” you’re not reading what I’m actually saying. Read my words.)

As long as they don’t feel heard, we’ll continue to have a major problem with race relations. Because the result of being chronically not heard, respected, validated, and listened to, over long periods of time, is deep, and increasing frustration. The problem is not solved simply by listening, but it isn’t solved at all without it. 

Have you ever been in a marriage where you argued like I demonstrated above? I already know that if so, you got increasingly angry, because that is simply the result of being not listened to. It’s not a black thing, or a white thing.

If in your frustration, you hit your partner, you are 100% responsible for that action. You and you alone did the hitting. Was it provoked by the other person not listening? Sure. But they’re the only one who can change that, they are responsible for themself, and you’re the only one who is responsible for you. You are both responsible, not just your partner who did the hitting.

So the problem with the solution is that it requires every person to accept personal responsibility. Black (and white) Americans who participate in rioting and violence are responsible for that. But white Americans who use that violence as an excuse to continue ignoring the real problems with race in America, problems blacks have been subject to, and pointing out, for hundreds of years, are responsible for their own wrongdoing.

Rioting and looting and violence are wrong.

Disregarding the deeply felt convictions and experiences of a whole people group, over many generations, using their flaws and failures as an excuse to deem their issues and complaints invalid, is also wrong. It is dehumanizing, it is disrespectful, it is dirty, and it is downright immoral. Can we get clear on that?

The problem with the solution is that it requires every person to accept personal responsibility for wrongdoing. Not only black Americans who commit crimes out of their frustration, but white Americans whose refusal to listen has led so many in the black community to this dark place again and again.

Ironically, most white people who make the “personal responsibility” argument do not apply it to themselves, and do not even see where white America bears any responsibility to begin with. With the amount of research that has been done on this topic, the amount we know — factually — to be true about white America’s treatment of black America — it’s stunning that some still don’t understand that there’s a problem. Or can see only the outcome of the problem, which is the mounting anger in many black people in America.

It’s proof that the evidence is there for all who are willing to see it, and those who don’t see it simply do not want to. If you got angry just now when I said that, that’s your defensiveness that keeps you from seeing and from being truly willing to look. The problem with the solution is that until you move through and beyond that, you will just keep being reactive, keep denying there’s a problem.

And your denial of the problem, my friend, is the problem. It’s not the whole problem, but it’s the part you can do something about.

The Solution to the Problem with the Solution

So stop denying there’s a problem. Listen. Find out what those in the black community who are angry are saying. If you can’t see the problem, read up on it. If you really desire to see this problem, to understand what so many seem to be saying, you can come to see it. That’s a promise. If you currently do not see it, it’s because you don’t want to. Because in order to see it, you have to accept responsibility for your own way of seeing the world and that, in your very denial of the problem, you have been part of the problem.

That sucks to admit. It’s hard. I get it, I’ve been there. But you’re probably a “personal responsibility” person. Take responsibility for getting truly educated on this issue, get out of denial, and learn to listen. The best part about that, of course, is that since you’ll simply be opening yourself to the truth, your life will actually be better and richer for having taken that step. All you have to lose is a bit of pride.

Denial, by the way, is devious. It usually starts with a very emotional, “I’m so sick of…” and whatever follows is about other people, and not yourself. Be sick of your own behaviors, your own shortcomings, your own inability to see and understand.

Scroll back up and read the Solution to the Problem section. These partners need to learn to listen to each other. If one thinks there’s a problem with the relationship, there’s a problem.

Many black people in the United States are saying there’s a problem, and have been saying that for generations. Much of white America doesn’t think that’s worth taking seriously and accepting any responsibility for at all. Like a man blowing off his wife, saying, “What? That’s all in your head. Is it your time of the month, baby?” Disrespect. Devalue. Dismiss.

That’s why this is going nowhere fast. Unfortunately, right now we’re using the Israel/Palestine technique, which has managed to keep them in a deadlock for thousands of years, so it doesn’t look good for us.

Clearly, what we’re doing isn’t working, and there’s only one thing that will.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

 

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  • Aaron Clum

    I think one of the struggles many white people have (I am
    white, so I can attest to this as I have had to face this in my own life at
    some point) is that they think admitting they are a part, and many times the
    catalyst, of the problem means admitting they are somehow bad people and no one
    wants to believe they are a bad person. I think the white community has to be
    able to get to a point where we can separate the idea that being ignorant
    automatically makes you a bad person. Denying that ignorance and being
    defensive about it (which you have explained well throughout your post among
    other things) is part of what exacerbates the problem. It becomes worse when we
    learn and get past the ignorance but choose to remain defensive because we are
    too prideful to admit we were a part of the problem in the first place. If we
    can get past the pride as a collective group (as you have also nicely pointed
    out) we can then start to become part of the solution instead of adding fuel to
    the fire.

    • Well said, Aaron, this really adds to and clarifies my post. Thanks for your comment!

    • I think you nailed it with this comment, Aaron. Richard Rohr talks about developing beginner’s mind, learning to see ourselves always as learners. This is essential with race relations, lest we begin to assume that we’ve arrived and we’re right where we need to be.