The Real Talk team, who facilitates training on conversing about race at the Center for Understanding in Conflict, recently convened to reflect upon how this moment in history has catalyzed powerful conversations and why it is important for conflict resolution professionals to engage in conversations about race.

Demonstrators gather in opposition to systemic racism
Photo by Julian Wan on Unsplash

Real Talk Team

As Black Lives Matter and anti-racism movements demand action and change, the realities of racial disparities are finally coming to the forefront of conversation at an unprecedented level in the United States of America. Racism and White supremacy are deeply ingrained in institutions and society, but an open discussion of racism has been tiptoed around, and the pervasiveness of racism has long been one of American society’s tabooed truths. This moment offers conflict resolution professionals an opportunity to reflect upon their own experiences, biases, and discover their blindspots as part of a collective and sustained movement to dismantle the mechanisms of inequity that impact conflict resolution and the spaces we hold for it. 

The seed for the Real Talk program was planted back in 2016, when Natalia Lopez-Whitaker and Lacey Wilson exchanged their experiences when they were the only people of color in mediation trainings offered by the Center for Understanding in Conflict (CUC). They approached Gary Friedman, the organization’s founder, and shared their insights. This challenging moment became a much-needed catalyst for the CUC to examine organizational practices and overall work. Eric Butler, Catherine Conner, and Becca Vershbow joined the conversations surrounding power and privilege, bias, and blindspots, laying the framework to build bridges to help link gaps in understanding. 

As the Real Talk team exchanged their recent experiences in the wake of the protests, they agreed that people want to do this challenging work and for different reasons. For marginalized voices, these conversations can provide opportunities to be heard, to share their feelings, and to engage with others in a space that does not center whiteness in the conversation. By building relationships through this conversational process, allies can learn how they are complicit, recognize their white fragility, what they can do to effect change, and take sustained actions to dismantle the systems they privilege from. 

In order to heal, we need to be in a space of growing and learning, where we can be conscious of our biases and privilege. One key role of participating in the group is the ability to help each other identify blind spots coming out of their own biases, particularly when engaging with others whose life and experiences vary from our own. Then clarity can come from self reflection and knowing ourselves, including our faults. Self reflection can help us deal with our strong emotions, diving deeper into our experiences that shape our perception of ourselves and others. This process can become a vehicle for understanding and empathy.

A lot of conflict resolution training works focuses on impartiality, championing ideals such as mediator neutrality, yet experiences and studies have demonstrated that bias is a pervasive reality whose subconscious manifestations undermine the impartiality of human beings. According to a 2006 article, Implicit Bias: Scientific Foundations by Anthony Greenwald and Linda Krieger, implicit and explicit bias varies and individuals demonstrate strong preference towards their own social groups, or those with similar perceived values. Yet Greenwald and Krieger’s research also highlights that it is possible to change implicit cognitions. 

During an April interview, one of our team members, Lacey Wilson, shared how a demonstration of implicit bias ultimately became a pathway to trust for our team:

Gary [Friedman] had a hole in his shoe. He sat down and didn’t think about it, and Eric [Butler] said something during the meeting. “You walked in here with holes in your shoes and didn’t think anything of it. You can walk around with a hole in your shirt.” And Gary laughed about it. 

Do you have any idea what that means? Something that felt so small—the amount of privilege that you have, you can walk around and look like that. If we walked around with a hole in our shoes, what are people going to think? They’ll have judgements about who he is or who I am, and the whole reason is because we’re Black. 

People are going to have very different ideas about who we are. We had to have that conversation—it’s a reference point for all of us. It’s shifted the way he’s shown up in trainings, just his perspective of what it means to be a White man with so much power and so much privilege in so many ways and to be able to recognize and how not being able to recognize that impacted his work for over 40 years.

Conflict resolution practitioners are disproportionately White and their experiences and voices overwhelmingly occupy the field, shaping conflict resolution theories and practices partial to a static White context. Carol Izumi, a Clinical Professor of Law at UC Hastings Law notes in Implicit Bias and Prejudice in Mediation that while “the use of mediation has proliferated…little has changed in terms of mediator training, the practice of mediation, and the lack of diversity within mediator ranks.” Although the Real Talk team has been together for several years, we are constantly going back to the table and reexamining topics of race and race relationships in the USA.

In our Real Talk programs, participants take the time to do anti-racism work in a deeper way through examining their own biases, explicitly and implicit, while having open conversations about race. It is an opportunity to slow down and be in whatever discomfort one is feeling. 

In these conversations, we dive into White supremacy, anti-racism, and anti-Blackness while providing a space of clarity where people can learn skills for listening, hear stories, and live their lives more aware. It is our hope that these conversations help curtail implicit biases and provide a pathway for participants to incorporate these conversations into their communities and networks. It is not our goal that participants feel something specific at the end of our Real Talk trainings. What each participant takes away and carries forward with them is dependent on their own experiences, contexts, motivations and desires. 

Unless those working within this system are dedicated to sustained anti-bias and anti-racism work, inequities will continue to plague the profession and society. Systemic change does not happen overnight, but if as individuals we commit to continually working on understanding and minimizing our bias and make an effort to engage in difficult conversations with our circles, collectively we can move the needle towards equity and justice for all.

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