I grew up in a small town in Central Texas. My family, on the other hand, was not so small. My maternal grandmother, a Cherokee/African-American woman birthed 14 children, more than half of which were born in the home, including my own mother. This large offspring led to a host of aunts and uncles, nieces, and nephews. Sundays were reserved for family get-togethers that were filled with front yard BBQs and uncles attempting to out-dance each other. In the midst of our togetherness was an array of drunken tempers that (if out of control) could put someone in the hospital.
I have no doubt that my personal struggle with anxiety and sensitivity to conflict began in my grandmother’s front yard. I can say that the converse is also true: my resilience and my unyielding desire to create change within my community were born in that front yard as well.
I have since been fascinated with the conflict dynamic in Black families, particularly my role as an LGBT member of my Black family. This fascination is what drew me to conflict work and the legal profession in the first place; not only was my resilience and unyielding desire bubbling but my innate longing to heal and solve my community’s conflict. Witnessing my own family’s resistance to mental health, medical assistance and legal help due to racism and oppression led me to realize that my grandmother’s front yard inspired me to not only break the cycle of abuse but to become part of the solution.
So how do you communicate differently with your partner who makes you feel like you are the one to blame? How do you create safety in sharing your own feelings? How do you walk away from a conversation with your child or spouse, feeling like you’re more connected to them and not pushing them away? How can we approach all of these questions with respect to Black culture? Though I could write for days, I’ll start with two healthy suggestions.
GET COMFORTABLE WITH VULNERABILITY
We all have to not only realize the role that vulnerability plays in conflict but also admit that its role is essential. (Many people raised in Black families have not experienced this nor have they seen it modeled.) Looking through a lens of healing conflict: when you are hurt, sad or scared you need to be willing to explain this in a way your partner or child can understand you without feeling blamed or accountable. This description of negative emotion is not weakness; in fact, it is the complete opposite.
I grew up surrounded by women who very rarely cried or had conversations with me when I was sad. I grew up surrounded by men whom either ignored the existence of conflict or solved it with loud, hurtful words or a punch in the face. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “Girl, stop your cryin’…you’ll be aight” or “boy please, wipe your eyes.. ain’t nobody got time for that”. I quickly inherited the notion that sharing negative emotions was a sign of weakness and rarely did I see these emotions communicated effectively. Thus, I never quite understood the notion of “vulnerability”. To be vulnerable is to be open, honest and raw. To be vulnerable is to know yourself and to be willing to communicate your feelings even when you feel unsure, alone or out numbered. To be vulnerable is to be willing to solve conflict. Without this vulnerability, I can’t imagine conflict resolution getting too far – in any environment.
The blame game is old. The loudest person does not truly “win” the argument. Without the ability to empathize with your family members, walls are built. In Black communities, this inability to empathize during conflict creates what I am calling Black walls. In my Black family, each brick is laid with passive aggressive communication, the learned coping skill of shutting down, dismissal of others’ feelings, blame, and a healthy dose of shame. Each time a brick is laid, an opportunity to resolve conflict is lost and the wall gets tougher and tougher to break down.
With the aforementioned resistance toward communicating negative feelings and the lack of modeled empathy, one could already imagine the issues of conflict that arise. I must admit, throughout my entire life I did not views these as conflicts that were worth addressing. I viewed them as ways of life. Even when I began my own journey of self-growth and began my marriage which vows described vulnerability to the max: I never saw these conflicts in my Black family as ones that could be solved. I accepted them as they were and I code-switched (in a way) when dealing with conflict with them. These Black walls can be high and the bricks can be plentiful but each brick laid can be wiggled loose when practicing empathy.
Breaking down the walls that keep us from being willing to face our feelings and deal with conflict is a daunting task for any – not only those raised in Black families. I could honestly write on this topic for days. My role in my family and my culture has been a source of great strength as well as a great challenge. As a daughter, a sister, a niece, a wife, a mediator and a law student, I am learning more about myself every single day in regards to how I frame and handle conflict. Realizing how our own upbringing, culture and race shapes our ability to solve conflict is a huge part of breaking down these walls. My own intersectionality as a Black lesbian female has proven to be one of my strongest tools as a mediator. This might be a surprise to some; to others, it may be completely understood. I look forward to more discussions around conflict and culture!
Lacey, a Central Texas native, is a community mediator and legal apprentice, currently living in the Bay Area in California with her wife. She is studying law through the California Law Office Study Program. She encourages individuals to engage in a dialogue that cultivates understanding while seeking to mitigate the cultural, socio-economic, racial and gender biases that may keep us in conflict.