Discussions about race are rarely comfortable, but the wrangling over the term "white privilege" used at a Hamilton County Schools' teacher training definitely increased our discomfort level. Not surprisingly, Chattanooga's Camp House was packed for the recent "Transformative Race Talk." The multi-generational crowd of black and white men and women gathered to hear Dr. Decoteau Irby via the internet from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
When I got the call from Ardena Garth Hicks to consider writing about the discussion, I immediately said yes. Ardena is president of the event's host, Chattanooga Endeavors. As Tennessee's first African-American woman public defender, she allowed me to interview her years ago. As a friend, she is a true force of nature.
I suspect that the panelists said yes as quickly as I did. They sat on stage ready to be introduced by the group's founder, Tim Dempsey, and to respond with the perspective of: the corporate world, Ron Harris of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee; law enforcement, master patrol Officer Phillip McClain of Chattanooga's Police Department; public education, LaFrederick Thirkill, Orchard Knob Elementary principal; and community activist, Franklin McCallie, Chattanooga Connected co-founder.
Irby, an expert on the struggle for racial equity in education, is working with a predominantly white, but rapidly diversifying community. The audience of Chattanoogans and regional visitors nodded their heads as Irby described the community's challenges and its efforts to improve education for all. More heads nodded as Irby said that success requires ongoing dedication.
"Transformative Race Talk" focuses on practice and involves developing a common language together. Some of you may be surprised that this language uses race-specific language including that term, "white privilege."
"You can't address what you can't name," Irby explained. Practice also includes critical reflectivity, which means asking questions: "How can we solve our problems? How can we create a more equitable community?"
But reflection also involves questioning our own assumptions. Irby's example was the phrase, "If you work hard, it will pay off." Irby suggested asking "Does anyone have evidence that counteracts this narrative?" "Do you know anyone who has worked hard and it didn't pay off?" And how about, "Not working hard, but it still pays off."
Are we uncomfortable yet? With practice, that discomfort becomes tolerable. The panelists helped with sage advice. Ron Harris suggested that business success requires going beyond diversity to being intentionally inclusive. He advised getting over our heightened sensitivities to do so.
Thirkill emphasized being respectful. Reject stereotypes. Not all white peeople are racists and not all poor students are less capable. Thirkill builds awareness by showing pictures to staff, asking for responses and demonstrating assumptions that can then be left behind.
McClain acknowledged the unconscious racism embedded in a small percentage of officers. He addressed the growing concern over excessive force used against black males and urged officers to speak up when they observe such behavior. McClain underscored how change requires the individual's conscious intent.
McCallie offered practical communication advice based on his vast community-building expertise: Talk to each other. Learn about each other. Too often, white folks ask "What do you say to black people?" Loud clapping and several "amens" greeted his simple answer, "Hi, I'm Franklin McCallie."
The evening had one last gem. When race talk gets scary, like it has recently, share a personal story. Authentic human interaction is a great intervention. So get together and let the storytelling begin!
Contact Deborah Levine, an author, trainer/coach and editor of the American Diversity Report, at firstname.lastname@example.org.