Ohio State University

Lessons from a Safe Conversation about Race by Garrett Rethman @ Ohio State University

On Thursday, March 1st, the Bexley Public Library held the final discussion in the series Safe Conversations about Race. The program had a lofty goal, with a mission “to increase levels of consciousness around race and race relations in America, by promoting individual and collective action to eradicate racism.” The idea behind the discussion was simple. By listening to the race conversation held between friends Suzanne Roberts and James A. “Jim” White, both of whom are business professionals and diversity experts, those in the audience would learn how to effectively communicate about racial issues, especially when conversing with those of a different skin color.

Throughout the evening, Roberts, a white woman, and White, a black man, talked back and forth on various racial issues, including attitudes towards gun control and institutional discrimination. Though the friends often agreed, they occasionally countered or modified one another’s points on an issue. Roberts, for example, believed the white Americans of today to be complicit in racism, while White felt historical racism to be more of the driving factor in today’s discord.

Importantly, the goal of their conversation was not to convince anyone in the audience of any one proper solution to the racial issues that plague the United States. Rather, their goal was to show us, the audience, that it was not only possible, but also beneficial for us to have an earnest, heartfelt conversation about racism with those dissimilar from ourselves.

The United States could stand to learn from the example of Suzanne Roberts and Jim White. While their discussion focused on the ability of dialogue and understanding in combating racism, their techniques for combating racism should also be applied in turning back the polarization which is increasingly threatening American society.

Polarization threatens American society because it damages democracy. By concentrating the population into opposed ends of the political spectrum, polarization removes an ideological middle-ground. Timur Kuran argues that democracy is thus weakened as people falsify their preferences to conform to their local culture. Alarmingly, polarization is becoming more prevalent, with an increasing percentage of Americans making life decisions, such as where to live or who to marry, based off political ideology.

I believe Roberts and White’s remedy for racial injustice and race relations should be applied to fight political polarization. By being respectful listeners and honest partakers in conversation, we can follow the example of Roberts and White in holding dialogues over political ideology. Much like in their discussion over race, the conversation about political ideology need not be persuasive. Rather, by simply having a heartfelt conversation across political barriers, the political antipathy manifested in polarization could be reduced.

Other authors have also argued for the use of understanding and respectful conversation in remedying polarization.  In What is Populism?, Jan-Werner Muller suggests that one, when dealing with populists, “take the problems they raise seriously without accepting the ways in which they frame these problems.” More strikingly, in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land,” Hochschild states she would tell a liberal friend:

“Why not get to know some people outside your political bubble? Set aside Ayn Rand; she’s their guru, but you won’t find people personally as selfish as her words would lead you to expect. You’ll probably meet some very fine people who will teach you volumes about strong community, grit, and resilience.”

These conversations may not persuade anyone to change his or her ideology, and that is acceptable. The issue with polarization is not radical political disagreement, but instead the loss of human connection with those on the opposite pole. If those that support the other party are no longer seen as equal humans, it becomes easier to support policies which unfairly repress the rights of either those people or their party. In this sense, I believe an openness to respectful dialogue would decrease the number of people who respond that they “would not marry a person of the other political party” or who view the other party as “a threat to the nation’s well-being.” In this situation, people could openly disagree, removing the need for preference falsification. Democracy could thus be buttressed by weakening political antipathy.

Despite the promise that may exist in dialogue, there exists a barrier to its implementation as a tool. Those willing to enter in a civil discussion may already be less polarized, meaning the dialogue could potentially miss those who need it most. This dilemma is true of both racism and political polarization.

Near the end of Roberts and White’s conversation, they created an audience participation activity. Each audience member had a cup and a container of beads. White would read aloud a question, such as “My boss is ____?” or “Most of my church is ____?”. The audience would answer these questions by placing the bead which matched the skin color of their answer into the cup. At the end, people were asked to share their cup with those around them.

My cup, like those of almost all other white people in attendance, was almost entirely white. The cups of the black Americans around me were almost entirely black. There was an embarrassment among all of us as we shared the contents of our cups with those around us.  Roberts and White, though, told us not to be embarrassed. After all, we were living in society, and our cups reflected our own socialization. We were left with a challenge: Given our new understanding, how would we change our cups going forward?

The challenge from the cups can be applied to political polarization. Almost certainly, those of us in attendance of the Safe Conversation about Race were more likely to be concerned with racism and race relations than the average American. By the same token, those of us reading this blog likely are more concerned and vigilant of the quality of democracy, both in the United States and abroad, than the average person.

It is the challenge, then, of those concerned with polarization to take action in engaging with those polarized around them. We need to be willing to engage in earnest and respectful debate about a variety of issues, instead of sticking with easy talking points. We will have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and make ourselves vulnerable to disagreement from others. By doing so, we can fight the anger and polarization threatening U.S. democracy.

Featured picture by DonkeyHotey, “Republican Elephant & Democratic Donkey – Icons”, Creative Commons License

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