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When we inhabit a body that marks us as “other”, we know what it feels like to have our bodies and our identities prodded, poked, scratched, and marred by a world that was not built for us. It can be painful, which leaves us with the choice to suffer this world or to change it. So, what can we do if we decide to change it?
Changing harmful patterns, especially around race, means doing something that can be terrifying: stepping bravely into difficult conversations around race. This can feel like a trial-and-error process (though it can be easier with expert EDI training). We need to learn to pick our battles, expand our viewpoints, and accept that sometimes we’ll get it wrong. We also need to learn to apologize, repair relationships, and move forward after embarrassment. Most importantly: we need to learn that we are not alone in struggling to have those brave conversations and wanting to make change.
What does it mean to have a brave conversation around race, and why does it feel so hard?
When we have a brave conversation around race, we step into potential discomfort and sometimes conflict to name, engage and change harmful racial patterns. This can look like intervening in a moment of bias or discrimination, openly naming an inequity that is being ignored, asking for something that requires vulnerability, or accepting that you have made a mistake (to name a few).
Talking about race and racial inequity, especially in North America, can be scary in today’s polarizing landscape. When we engage in conversations around race, our unconscious minds flag that we may be entering a zone of conflict, and we may feel or act in a variety of ways, including:
- Defensiveness or shame at being wrong or not knowing something;
- Feeling more empathy for sameness and fear towards difference;
- Trouble seeing other people’s point of view;
- Fear of breaking normative cultural rules and values;
- Difficulty advocating for ourselves.
We can use the rider and the elephant metaphor to better understand why this happens:
The rider represents our conscious mind (which houses logic, reasoning, and abstract thought), and the elephant, a much larger part, represents our unconscious mind (the part that houses emotion, reactions, and gut instinct). Researchers believe humans don’t need to have a bad experience with a snake to fear it. It is passed down in our DNA. Thousands of years ago, when our ancestors saw an unfamiliar object on the road, they did not have the time to think – is that a snake or a stick? They had to respond and had to respond quickly. Their fight/flight response would kick in.
The fight/flight response lives at the elephant level, bypassing our rider to allow for quick decision-making. Reactions to snakes and spiders happen at the elephant level, but so do reactions to conflict.
Today, the topic of race can feel fraught with potential conflict, and our elephants notice this. When we engage in conversations around race, our elephants are often activated, moving into fight or flight to prepare us for conflict. However, this limits our ability to have honest, vulnerable, and meaningful conversations and, in turn, limits our ability to break harmful racial patterns.
Why bother having a brave conversation around race?
Over the last few years, Anima Leadership has run trainings, seminars, audits, and coaching sessions to support people in developing their equity skill set. Especially after the murder of George Floyd, many white allies came to us to educate themselves and set out to make change.
However, over the last year, this group, many of whom previously approached this work with passion and vigour, has started to fade. In feedback surveys, we have seen a trend of white allies suggesting this work is too uncomfortable for them now and that they are making a choice to walk away.
Equity work is hard. This is true. Having conversation after conversation about racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia etc. and how to stop it is hard. It is tiring work, and it involves an emotional commitment. But walking away from it does not mean the systems of oppression disappear. Our white allies can step back because they have the option to do so. Many of us, myself included, can not. We must keep having brave conversations about race because racism still exists.
What do I do next?
When our elephants are constantly activated, it can be exhausting. We cannot permanently exist in a state of flight or fight, but we need to remember that our elephant has a rider, and we want to strengthen the connection between the two. We can train our rider to notice when our elephant is activated, and in turn, we help ourselves to ground, recenter, and be present during conversations around race. The three key pieces for your rider to explore are:
- Understand your “elephant” better
Learn what activates or triggers your elephant (e.g. behaviours, words, actions, scenarios), and learn how this activation feels in your body so that you can identify it more quickly (e.g. sweaty palms, racing heart, spiraling thoughts).
- Identify practices that allow you to support your elephant
Find the ways that allow you to return to the present moment. This looks different for everyone and can range from taking a walk to deep breathing to physical touch
- Practice and prepare
Deep listening, de-escalation training, knowing how to provide constructive feedback, and exploring how identity and history contribute to conflict are all things your rider can practice to offer your elephant support.
This is an invitation.
To the communities of colour who cannot leave the racial justice space because we are physically coded “other”: this is also an invitation to you to take care of your rider and your elephant. So often, we are thrown into brave conversations about race just because we exist in non-white bodies. In those conversations, many of us have learnt to sever the ties between our rider and elephant so that we are not perceived as too emotional. We do this to stay safe – at work, school, and public spaces. But the elephant still exists. If we do not foster a relationship with it, it can overpower us, leaving us burnt out and hopeless. We deserve to make choices born of both the rider and the elephant.
To our white allies who have taken a step back, take this time to build the capacity of your rider to care for your elephant. Think about how and why you needed to leave, set new goals for yourself, and consider who you need to rebuild and repair relationships and trust with. Then, come back into the racial justice space—because the door is still open if you are brave enough.
JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) Educator