The Kindness of a Stranger Sets Me on the Right Course
One thing I remember most in going to these early workshops on eliminating racism was the fear of being humiliated. That never happened to me. But to this day I remember the courage it takes for people with good intentions, like me, to enter a workshop on racism.
When I went to an RC workshop on educational change, I learned additional information that would form the basis of my later work: how to help people feel safe as they take the leap of exploring racism. That information was about how optimal learning occurs. Julian Wienglass, the workshop facilitator on Educational Change, shared research regarding how people learn best. Though that was about thirty five years ago, research on learning still confirms the theory that he taught. More importantly, I have tested this information over and over and found that it makes a huge difference in a successful learning outcome.
For optimum learning to occur, Julian shared that the learner needs three things. They need to: 1) have a safe learning environment; 2) maintain their self-esteem; 3) connect new information to what they already understand.
These three principles would go on to form the basis of my future work on healing racism. In addition to the emotional work I was doing through RC, I went to a number of different kinds of workshops that dealt with racism. I found that none of the other workshops on racism used the principles for optimum learning. Participants were called out, yelled at, etc. I experienced that a lot of people were shutting down emotionally. There was a lot of compulsive eating of sugar and caffeine and certainly not a mending of hearts and minds from the divergent cultures present.
These other program experiences were helpful in that they demonstrated what didn’t work as well as it could. They tended to produce either guilt-ridden or angry graduates. I have found that participants are more empowered and able to take more effective action and lead nobler lives when guilt and anger is not their prime motivator.
Two other workshops on racism helped me consolidate my initial approach for much of my work. One was held in North Carolina and lead by another RC leader, Mike White. I will never forget an experience that I had there. Mike was going to try a new exercise. He knew a little bit about me and thought I was a more racially aware white woman. So he asked me if I would be on the panel with three other people: a white male who was also Jewish, a black male and a black female.
Mike had each of us sit in one of four corners facing each other. We were supposed to look at each other and then one by one we would say our first thoughts about the other three. I volunteered to go first. Because I had been sexually abused as a child and because the women in my family were quite “liberated” sexually(For example, my mother posed nude as a pinup girl in the fifties.), I had learned to overvalue free sexuality and therefore bought into unhealthy sexual stereotypes. So I began by saying something “positive” about each individual’s sexuality. When I praised the African American woman for her freedom to be sexually promiscuous, the workshop came to a dead halt.
Mike broke the people of African heritage into one group and those identified as white into another. Each of those groups was then subdivided so that there were about twelve people to a group. Each person in my group took a turn processing their feelings. I was feeling proud that I had the courage to volunteer and to say what I honestly thought. Yet something was “off” in my group but I did not know what it was or why. When I walked out of the group, a lovely African heritage woman with a large Afro walked over to me and asked if I was alright. I didn’t know what she was talking about. She said, “You mean your group didn’t tell you what you said that was racist?”
I was dumbfounded. She then took me aside and gently explained that what I had said about African heritage women being promiscuous was based on a racist stereotype that is perpetuated in our country. She said that statistically it had been proven that the majority of women of African American heritage were more conservative sexually than white women–basically because of the influence of the black church. She was so gentle and respectful as she shared this information that I was able to keeping evaluating what she was saying rather than emotionally shutting down and trying to defend myself.
Had she blamed or shamed me, I might have been like the person with a cross trying to back off Dracula. Instead, I felt open, a little embarrassed yes, but my self-esteem was still intact. That woman, whom I never met again, used all three of the principles for optimum learning. She created a safe learning environment by taking me to a private location rather than allowing me to experience public humiliation. She maintained myself esteem and she connected new information to what I already understood. That experience became the model for my approach to helping people understand and recognize racism.
The second workshop that deeply influenced my approach to educating people about racism was a workshop held in Louisiana. It definitely was not an RC workshop. There was no time for emotionally processing information. Workshop participants were “hit over the head” with statistics regarding the inequities spawned by racial discrimination. People were afraid to ask questions. Those rebellious souls who lashed out were too often publically humiliated. This experience convinced me that their approach was not the most productive way to educate people about such a difficult subject. There was one piece of information, however, that I took away with me which helped me both personally and professionally—their approach with white people. They had each of us bring something to share from our cultural background. I came to learn that this was a crucial piece to overcoming racism. I will share more about that later.