After the killing of George Floyd, my small theater company began hosting conversation meet-ups to get people talking about race and how to be anti-racist. We call the sessions “Let’s Get Uncomfortable.”
After hosting more than 30 of these sessions with more than 500 participants in total, we have found there are many, mostly white people who have never talked about these issues. That’s not to say they haven’t thought about them. Many have read a graduate course’s worth of books and articles on race. But talking aloud about these things and how we relate to them personally is a different muscle. Many participants have shared that they are often silent on racial issues because they are worried about “saying the wrong thing.” They also recognize that silence is perpetuating the problem.
Our sessions are designed to get people, particularly white people, more comfortable having these conversations.
After a warm-up and going through a list of conversation agreements together, the majority of an LGU session is a small-group conversation. A facilitator in each group poses questions for the breakout groups to discuss.
“Why is being anti-racist important to you? Can you explain how it aligns with other values you hold?”
“When did you first remember being aware of your own race or racial identity? Can you talk about times you benefited from your race or identity?”
“Is there something that you used to believe about a racial group or race generally that you no longer do?”
“What commitment will you make to continue this anti-racism work?”
We have a lot of participants admit, many for the first time in their lives, to biases or prejudices they know are wrong, but have never fully uprooted. People confess they will lock their car doors if they see a group of young Black men down the street but not if the young men are white. These kinds of admissions typically only come if the discussion group is all white, because the participants feel so much shame about them. In post-event surveys, 63% of respondents said they felt some level of growth in their comfortability talking about race and racism.
It’s tough for many attendees to keep the focus introspective. Very often participants want to talk about their racist neighbor or their brother-in-law who says awful things. As a facilitator, I remind folks that while their brother-in-law might be the absolute worst, he isn’t here. Talking about all the ways other people are doing it worse is often a defense mechanism so we can avoid taking accountability for our own shortcomings.
Women more likely to engage
We have learned that women are far more likely than men to engage in this work. And a good number of the men who do attend are dragged there by their wives. There is probably something to be said about women being more empathetic to issues of discrimination because of their own experiences with sexism. Instead I’d like to just say, “Men, we need to do better.”
An unsurprising but frustrating realization is how quickly people move on from these issues. When we started in the summer, every session was filled to capacity. Sign-ups have steadily fallen off since then. We are lucky these days to have 15 of 25 spots filled in a session.
My greatest fear is that our attention will once again drift away from the work for racial justice. Until something terrible happens again and we are shocked back into facing the realities of systemic racism and injustice.
These sessions are not going to fix racism or end white supremacy. But as we like to say, they are a good place to start. We all have agency to talk with people in our lives about race and the reality of racism. We can work from the bottom up toward a more just and equitable society. My dream is that we can make anti-racism just as systemic as racism has ever been.
Tane Danger is the co-founder of Danger Boat Productions and The Theater of Public Policy.
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