Having difficult conversations with people, whether they are strangers in a public place, or loved ones over a family dinner, can be incredibly difficult. This is one of the reasons I began working with a coach, Randi Buckley, and why I am now so excited to be a certified Coach/Facilitator of her work on Healthy Boundaries. It doesn't give me a formula or an answer to how to have these difficult conversations, but it helps me to more clearly define when I need to have them, and how to have them in ways that are grounded in my values.
Some of those I engage with online have been discussing recently this issue of how to recognise our own privilege and when and how to speak up against it, and talking about how important it is to have these conversations, no matter how difficult. We address this issue of how to have difficult conversations in one of the modules in my course, How to Stand Up for Human Rights, (this module is not yet online for those who are wondering, but it's nearly there!), and there is lots of material available online for guiding people on how to have these difficult discussions, for example this great NPR recording. And, if you're interested and want to talk more about it, please get in touch -- you know how much I enjoy these kinds of chats!
So, while it sometimes feels as simple as it says below, it's not always that easy:
This difficulty is never far from my mind, particularly when thinking lately about my friends and patrons in the USA, who are living in a time when these conversations are happening on a much more frequent basis than most of you have ever experienced.
This was really clearly highlighted to me recently by a colleague, who posted a story about a recent encounter with a couple of Trump supporters in her local pub, explaining her problem with speaking out and asking us what we would do. I'm going to post the whole story, as she recounts it, below, and then my response also. The story (and the responses) are public, and if you're interested, I've included a link.
I hope that it prompts you to think a bit about what you would do in this situation. There is definitely no prize for anyone who does speak out, but I hope that it helps everyone to see how it can often be the last thing we want to do, and you'd not be alone in being reluctant or afraid to do so, yet the need to speak out cannot be underestimated.
Tara Gentile, who posted the story, recounts:
"So, last night I overheard a woman who said something heinous: she justified slavery by quoting the bible, she compared humans to dogs, and worse.
I had a decision to make. And that's when I made a grave mistake.
I'd like to tell you the story so that, first, I can learn to do better and, second, maybe you can make a different choice when it happens to you.
We got to the pub last night for taco Tuesday as we do just about every week. The bar was fairly full but we were able to sit in our usual seats next to another couple.
They were white, probably upper middle class, and likely in their 60s. The woman and I had a quick, smiley exchange about her purse when she went to move it.
I got my beer in my new mug: IPA plus a little grapefruit juice, because summer.
A few minutes later, I hear this woman getting fairly loud and defending Trump's remarks about the violence on "all sides" in Charlottesville. She "commended" him for calling out everyone who got violent and not just the (much quieter now) white supremacists.
The man she was talking to said something in response in regards to "liberal idiocy."
Not surprisingly, her remarks turned to the removal of Confederate statues. She said it's not fair to judge people from 100 years ago by today's standards.
Then she said:
"It's not the best comparison, but 20 years ago people tied their dogs out all day and no one thought anything of it. Now, you can't do that anymore."
Yes, she made a direct comparison to how people treat their dogs and African-American slaves.
It didn't stop there:
"Slavery is in the bible. It doesn't say there's anything wrong with slavery. The only thing the bible says is that you have to respect your master."
Yes, she used the bible as justification for slavery. Going so far as to suggest that slaves should have accepted their lot in life out of respect for their master.
It went on:
"How do we know that those slaveholders didn't treat their slaves well?"
I was physically shaking. The rage has abated some but I find it still coursing through my veins now more than 12 hours later.
Don't compare dogs to people. Also, there were plenty of people in the 1850s that new slavery was wrong. It was called the Union and it's where we live. Not only that but the British ended all trade of slaves in 1807 and abolished slavery throughout their empire in 1833. There is plenty of historical precedent for condemning slaveholders by the time of the Civil War.
To use the bible as a justification of slavery is some serious Dark Ages-level crap. I pretty much have nothing more to say than that, other than "get yourself to the dedicated menstruation area."
By definition, you cannot treat a slave well. It doesn't matter if you clothe them, feed them, never beat them, and attend to their every need. If they are a person who is owned by another person, they are not being treated well.
Did I say these things last night?
Did I speak up when someone was loudly, forcefully saying hateful, ignorant things in a public place?
I did not.
I was shaking with rage not only because of what I was hearing but in my inability to do anything about it.
My purpose in writing here is to work out what I would have liked to say so that--when I hear it again--I have a much better chance of actually speaking up.
I'm also seeking some penance because I am so ashamed of my silence.
Finally, I want you to know that people who do not look like or sound like racists on a daily basis are--in fact--racists.
If someone who thinks those thoughts is willing to speak them in public in my town which is highly educated, predominantly middle class, and evenly balanced left to right, they are willing to speak them anywhere, including wherever you live.
If people who think like this are feeling no shame right now, we have a serious problem as a society. I know this isn't news but I want you to know that, for as well-informed as I am, it took me by surprise.
That's my privilege. Next time, I'll use it to shut that shit down."
As you can imagine, Tara's story received a lot of responses. Many of them were saying how they also would have said nothing, and questioning whether saying anything would have even helped at all, given how set in her ways the offending person seemed to be.
Here's my response:
I want to be compassionate to you Tara for having the courage to share this and invite this conversation. At the same time, hearing this story and all the placating that has followed makes me mad. Really mad. I work with people on a daily basis who lose their lives and the lives of their loved ones because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation or gender identity, or their political beliefs, or their religion. Right now, I personally am at risk of being arrested in multiple countries because I have spoken up in defence of human rights. And the vast majority of people in this conversation think it's ok not to open their mouths?
SAY ANYTHING. I beg you. Do not be part of the problem. Politely reach over and say "excuse me, would you mind terribly changing the topic of conversation, you're making it hard for me to enjoy my beer". Bark like a dog. Ask the bar staff to have them removed for creating an unsafe environment. Tell the person next to you that you abhor when people who think other humans are equivalent to dogs get to sit at the same bar as you without having to pay the racist tax. WHATEVER. Just, please, say something.
This is not as hard and messy as I think a lot of people fear. If someone was sitting next to you saying your mother is a whore or your child is a bastard or you are invisible, you would react. Don't fail to react when it is not your mother or child or you.
Save this overwhelming outpouring of generous compassion for those who don't get the choice on whether to speak or not. Who don't get to stay safe if they stay quiet. Who don't get to hide their views behind silence.
I do not believe shame is an effective tool in changing opinions or actions, and I do not intend to cause shame or embarrassment here, but rather to remind us that the majority of people commenting here have *absolutely nothing to lose* by speaking up, except possibly their composure and maybe a little of their pride. If you can't speak up when so little is at stake, how are you going to speak up when so much more is at stake?
Please, practice having these conversations. Practice them until they hurt and until they stop hurting. Practice them until it is second nature. Because it is second nature to those who bear the brunt of them.
Sometimes it's not about changing the mind of the person who says the inappropriate statement. It's about reminding yourself and others what you stand for, and what kind of a society you want to live in -- one that is violent in words and actionsagainst its fellow members for no reason other than the circumstances of their birth, or one which strives to do better, think better, be better.
Your speaking up (and I'm meaning y'all here!) even when it's not going to change the mind of the original speaker, just may make that person in the back corner feel more welcome and accepted. It just may show someone else how to do it better next time. It may give someone permission to go out again when they feel they should hide at home to escape this kind of behavior. Be brave, be courageous, think of what it costs you versus what it could cost others if you don't speak up.
Let's all be compassionate for each other, sure, but more importantly, let's strive to do better. Please, your voice is needed, every single one of you. Find *your* authentic way of standing up for human rights and speak it every chance you get. Don't wait to be invited or provoked or shamed into saying something, say it before it gets to that point.
What about you, what do you think? How do you react when people are saying discriminatory things around you (whether that be about race, or same-sex marriage, or any number of issues)?