Talking about Race: Setting the Stage for Complex Stories

by Sara Cobb, Ph.D.

This November, a leading land management agency offered a training on using historic sites to facilitate dialogue and healing 147 days after the fatal shooting of 9 congregants from the Mother Emmanuel Church. Black churches have long been the site of such hate crimes in South, perhaps because they are also places where black voices join together, where hope is fostered. The Mother Emmanuel Church was one of many historic sites under the “protection” of the agency. For this reason, they took on the challenge to create a space for “deeper conversations about race and heritage.” Indeed, recent events — -police shootings, the emergence of Black Lives Matter, the resignation of U of Missouri’s leadership, not to mention the crushing conditions of poverty and incarceration in which so many black people live, there is ever more need for a substantive, ongoing conversation about the history of racism in the US, which is of course anchored by the fact of slavery and its legacy.

Last night, members of the agency’s African American employee resource group described, for my class on Narrative Practice in Conflict Resolution, their experience of the design and delivery of this training program. The training was itself divided into two days — -one day for internal members of the agency, and the second day the participant pool broadened to include community partners and members of the Mother Emmanuel Church.

Like most conversations about race, this training was risky. For the agency, it was clear that they risked opening more wounds and contributing to polarization in the community at the very moment where they were working to do the opposite. And given that they are responsible for many historical sites around the country that are penetrated by the history of slavery and racism, the stakes were high. For the Charleston community, they too were at risk, “siding” with those that favored opening these deep wounds, which, within a polarized and fearful space of public opinion, could have been experienced by whites as de facto accusation of racism, touching off additional rounds of violence and hate, giving the community another “black eye.” (Pun intended).

Indeed, these seem to be the two narrative strands in what all too often passes as our “conversation” about race. A narrative strand is a storyline that contains a plot line, a set of characters, and the moral frameworks used to evaluate the action and outcomes. In the context of race, we have the story of slavery in our country (white people bought black people and held them against their will, forcing them to work, and subjugating them to inhumane conditions, until the civil war banned slavery). However, the war did not end the subjugation which, institutionalized under Jim Crow laws, lasted another 100 years. The subjugation continues to be informally enforced, visible in hate crimes like the violence in Charleston, Ferguson, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere. So the narrative strand that decries this history is one that relies on the history, that creates the connection between current violence against blacks, (structural, cultural and physical) and the historical legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, contextualizing the lived experience of racism today. I will refer to this narrative as “the racism exists” narrative.

I detour for a tirade: the social psychological research that is harnessed to the task of accounting for racism does much more harm that good, for it depoliticizes the pain of blacks by accounting for racism as a form of in-group/out-group dynamics. Of course the blacks are all too often the (down and) out group, relative to the whites. But this construction of race relations fails utterly to include the history, the fact of slavery. One group of people brutalized another group of people, under the nose of the “rule of law.” Given this history, this line of research effectively constructs racism as an antipathy on the part of whites, for blacks as a set of differences between these groups. It is not “difference” which is that the heart of the problem — -the problem is violence done to blacks that positions whites as perpetrators.

The other narrative strand is the story told by defensive whites, or conservatives. This is a story that may briefly acknowledge the violent history of the oppression of blacks, under the “color of law” (pun intended), but argues that the past is the past, arguing for a focus on the present and the future. In this narrative persons of all colors are held to the same moral standards, and if they fall short (commit crimes, drop out of school, work at minimum wage jobs) it is their own fault. In this narrative, the discussion of racism itself is framed as yet another effort on the part of blacks or liberals to defocus attention on the real social problems all too often rooted in poor choices that individuals make. History is de-accented. This is a narrative about “personal responsibility,” which simultaneously absolves white people of having to change themselves or the systems which reproduce the bias. The conversation about the history itself becomes evidence of the absence of personal responsibility and good character.

Together these two narrative strands (“personal responsibility” and “racism exists”) reflect and create the polarization in the public sphere where we could, if the conversation COULD happen, discuss the set of issues that arise from current conditions (mass incarceration, violent shootings by police, drop out rates, economic inequality) where race is made visible. However, the dynamics of these two narrative strands maintain the polarization, the fear of accusation, and the general mistrust between people that speak these two narratives. (Note that the speakers may not be divided by color — -white folks can join, as allies, in the narrative that racism exists, and black folks can join in the narrative of personal responsibility, aka, “respectability politics”).

Each of these narratives is all too often performed as an accusation to the other strand: the “racism exists” narrative can be experienced by whites as an accusation –not only did they commit a moral crime in the past (slavery) but they continue to deny their role in ongoing suffering, subjugation and violence. The “personal responsibility” narrative can be experienced by blacks as a denial of their pain in a kind of “blame the victim” game.

Both of these narratives are “radicalized” narratives — -they externalize blame, they have thin plot lines that cherry pick events, they gain life from the polarizing energy of victim/perpetrator roles. Radicalized narratives flatten the discursive landscape, restricting how people interact, foreclosing conversations, discussion or dialogue. Radicalized narratives stall out learning. These narratives, ricocheting around communities, in media, shrivel the public space where we could talk about issues, share experiences, and build excellent policy. Arendt argued that totalitarianism itself arises in direct relation to the destruction or demise of the public sphere — -if we cannot talk without accusation, if we cannot learn from one another, if we cannot reflect on our own values, our own actions and their alignment/misalignment, then we are doomed. The narrative space of race in the US is radicalized, and as a result, we all are damaged. And it was this condition, the narrative condition surrounding the events in Charleston that the agency worked to address.

From a narrative lens, they were able, in this training, to enact the first two moves in the evolution from a radicalized narrative to a “better-formed” story (Cobb, 2013). In this evolution there are five turning points that occur in a sequence, each one enabling the subsequent one:

1. From “I am perfect (and a victim)” to “I am less that perfect, and perhaps have some role in the ongoing conflict;”

2. From “they are evil (and perpetrators)” to “they are less than perfect but have also suffered;”

3. From “they are to blame” (linear causality) to “we both have contributed to maintain the conflict” (circular causality);

4. From “I need a given outcome,” to “we need to talk about possible scenarios”

5. From satisfaction with the negotiated outcome, to reflection on the moral learning associated to the negotiated outcome.

Listening to the presenters, they seem to have designed a training that enabled participants to make the first two turns:

1. Participants were able to begin to own their own assumptions about their Others, and see how their stories about their Others had restricted their ability to learn, to listen. The training enabled people to take responsibility for being mature enough to be present to their Other, recognizing that they had not always done so;

2. They described themselves, personally as able to really listen to people from where they were coming from, able to attend to the suffering, no matter the narrative strand. So the Others, while not perfect, where human beings with their own kind of personal suffering. And participants apparently felt that their stories of suffering were acknowledged by their Others.

These kinds of changes to the narrative strands provide the foundation for groups to begin to think together toward a new, more complicated historical account of the conflict, what happened to whom and why, including accounts of themselves as reacting to the actions of others in a manner that contributed to more of the same. This does not require parties to take equal blame, nor does it suggest symmetry in terms of causality — -it only enables people to critically examine their reactions to their Others, and take some responsibility for how they have contributed to maintain problematic interaction, and/or silence in the space where learning and engagement are needed.

Even though this analysis would suggest that the agency did not engender the turn from a linear to a circular causality, they modeled the design of a process by which the stage is set to support the evolution of the narrative field surrounding race, within the agency, as well as in communities that house these sites of historical violence, sites where all to often the violence of the past is repeated in the present.

I was motivated to write this blog to celebrate their work but also to try and ensure that we understand it from a narrative lens, as opposed to seeing it as a “dialogue” success. Dialogue is a process that may or may not lead to significant changes in radicalized narratives, and all too often the design of the space of dialogue equates speaking with transformation. But talk only matters, in the context of conflict, if and when it alters the architecture of meaning, the narrative strands that are the basis of both identity and interaction. This is a case where the design actually led to changes in the narrative strands that the participants were using. As a US citizen, yearning for a less radicalized public sphere, I commend them for their work, and hope their experience might encourage them to play an increasingly important role in helping us talk about race in America.

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