In Conversations About Race, ‘Safe Space’ is a Cop Out

We are in a moment, as Angela Davis would say, of “radical reckoning” with respect to race. White people are waking up to the vast difference in our experience compared to our friends, neighbors and co-workers of color. Our histories are different, and our present experiences are different, even when we live in the same neighborhood, go to the same school, or work in the same building. White people are seeing how truly segregated our lives still are. Real integration — in our schools, our neighborhoods, our churches, and our work lives —  has failed. Collectively, we are finally starting to talk about this failure.  But it is not easy. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color often have vastly different experiences than White people even in the same conversation.

 

Here are few examples of these differences that I see showing up in organizations:

  • An email exchange in a large women’s empowerment network post-George Floyd blows up because years of unchecked micro-aggressions finally get called out. The White women feel shamed, embarrassed, and confused. The Black Women, and Women of Color, feel some relief, but the resistance of the White women triggers both anger and exhaustion.
  • A multi-racial social justice network adds to their norms that space be made for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) to speak first in the debrief of a presentation.  Questions and comments from White people are taken only if time allows. BIPOC feel seen and appreciated in new ways, while many of the White people feel left out and express themselves at length in online chats.
  • A company begins recognizing that systemic racism may be playing a part in the fact that their leadership is mostly White. Race starts to be a topic that comes up frequently.  The mostly White staff complain, “I can’t say anything anymore.” The staff of color on the other hand, say “acknowledging the problem is just the first step; we’ve barely begun.”   

When any of the scenarios above arise,  someone in charge is likely to say, “We need to deal with this!  Let’s facilitate a conversation to try and bring people together.” 

Navigating Tough Conversations

As a seasoned facilitator myself, I know that the first step in navigating tough conversations is  to develop a good set of ground rules that guide the way participants will engage in that conversation before launching into it.   

Unfortunately, when addressing potentially uncomfortable race issues, a common trend I see come up again and again during the ground rules conversation — the conversation before the conversation — is this: White people will request that the conversation feel “safe” and that everyone “assume best intentions.”
The result of these requests is that BIPOC feel silenced from the get go. Should they make any of the participating White people feel unsafe by sharing their actual experience, they will be pegged as ‘the angry BIPOC employee.’ In these scenarios, the stakes are especially high for those who identify as Black.  

When talking about the need for creating a ‘safe space’ such as in the scenario above, it is important to consider two key questions:

  • What does “safety” mean when talking about race?  
  • Does  “safety” mean the same thing for White people as it does for Black, Indigenous and People of Color?

When White people ask for “safety” as a prerequisite for even beginning a conversation about race, the impact on Black, Indigenous and People of Color is often: “You have to be f-ing kidding me?!”  When Black people are shot and killed by the police regularly, when their competence in the workplace is constantly questioned, when the only neighborhood where they can get a loan approved is a high crime area, the fact that White people would ask for “safety” before having a conversation is the ultimate expression of privilege – the luxury of not needing to know or care about the context of danger in which Black people live on a daily basis

It also plays directly into the myth that Black people are dangerous. Many of my Black colleagues have shared with me that this lack of awareness from White people is deeply painful for them.  

And it is.  

However, underneath the request for ‘safety’ and ‘assuming best intentions’ is an expression of a different kind of risk. Entering into a conversation about race in which many White people believe (rightly so) that they could say something triggering or harmful to People of Color — and that this will be noticed and probably commented on publicly — feels risky.  And it is risky. But we must then ask: What’s at risk? Is it a human life? No. Is it a sense of identity and belonging? Probably. If my White identity is built around me valuing diversity, appreciating human beings regardless of race, and of being thoughtful, sensitive and inclusive, and this gets called into question, it can indeed feel deeply painful. And if belonging and feeling accepted in this multi-racial group matters, having that sense of belonging threatened feels risky too.   

Let’s acknowledge that these two risks — losing and/or shortening one’s life due to structural racism vs. a loss of identity and belonging — cannot be compared.  They are in two totally different spheres.  So, White folks, let’s not use or request the safety parachute for these conversations — It’s a cop out, and it is just too painful.  

Alternatives to Safety: Start Somewhere and Grow

So, what ground rules can create containers for productive conversations about race? What’s the alternative to safety? This poem by Micky ScottBey Jones offers an alternative. The first few lines of the poem recognize that:

“There is no such thing as a ‘safe space”’ — We exist in the real world. We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.”

This deeply human recognition that we have all hurt others, and we all have hurts, different as they may be, allows us to connect to our own and each other’s humanity, and invites us to drop the notion of “safety” altogether, because the notion itself is not even realistic.  

Later in the poem, one of my other favorite lines is:

“We have the right to start somewhere, and continue to grow.”

Rather than asking for assurance that everything we (especially us White folks) say will be seen in a positive light, this line asks us to be compassionate with ourselves and non-judgmental with each other, because we all have to start somewhere, and to simultaneously hold that we all have the capacity to grow. As a White person, I can totally live with this. I can let go of my need for safety (i.e. to be fully understood in my good intentions) if I can also recognize that I am on a journey of growing and evolving. 

“We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.” 

This is a powerful call to action for us White folks especially, not to be passive or extractive in conversations about race.  

Creating a truly integrated multi-racial space in which power is shared, requires a mutual investment in examining our beliefs and being open to those beliefs changing. This is a responsibility — it’s a requirement, I would say — especially for White people, in creating a truly integrated space.  

Really good ground rules should be oriented towards not only what does one need from the group to show up fully, but what will one give to the group so that others may show up fully. I sense in my facilitation that us White folks have been socialized to think of ground rules as an opportunity to ask for what we need from the group. When we consider the generations in which our needs as White people have come first, stepping into a multi-racial space in which we are committed to making a truly integrated space, should be seen as an opportunity to  give  to the space.

Letting go of safety and acknowledging that we are all starting somewhere, and growing, allows us to be more human – with ourselves and with each other. It doesn’t give us an “escape route” if things get hard, but it does open the door for self-compassion. Actively participating in questioning our beliefs, rather than advocating, explaining, or making really great points, also invites connection and builds trust.  This communicates that we understand that the world has tried to shape us in ways that divide, and that no one is immune to this. Trust comes not from absolving oneself from the impact of white supremacy, but from noticing it and actively questioning it. 

I hope we can all embrace the words of wisdom from Micky ScottBey Jones and create more brave (rather than safe), multi-racial, truly integrated spaces.  

Five Tips for Organizational Leaders Who Want to Respond to Systemic Racism

The public outrage over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmuad Aubrey, and the reckless behavior of Amy Cooper are catalyzing all kinds of action.  While the violence at protests is getting the most media attention, individuals and organizations are expressing solidarity in a myriad of ways.  I am finding even White leaders who haven’t necessarily been at the forefront of racial equity movements are seeking out information and guidance about how to step up for and stand by People of Color. As you move up your allyship, here are five tips for organizational leaders (particularly but not exclusively White leaders) to consider when responding to systemic racism.

#1.  Refer to the Individuals Who Were Killed by Police BY NAME. 

I have recently observed my colleagues of color have to do the work of asking well-meaning White leaders who refer to “the recent tragedies” “these difficult times” or “our current context” to honor the dead by speaking their names. Refer to those who were killed by the police by name; George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmuad Aubrey (and the list goes on).  If you want to up your game as an ally, feel free to request your White colleagues do this as well. Racism is sneaky, it thrives in vagueness and gets torn down by explicitness.

#2.  Take a Stand and Make it Known.

By taking a stand, I mean consider; what is your position on systemic racism? Identify what you believe in and then share it publicly. Your critical race analysis may be new, you may have lots of questions, and you don’t need to have it all figured out. Your staff, colleagues and partners need to hear you say that you are taking a stand against race-based brutality.  For example; “We at (name of organization) condemn the violence against Black and Brown communities and are committed to doing our part to bring an end to this brutality.”

#3.  Contribute Financially to a People of Color Led Effort.

Money isn’t the only way to contribute, but it is an important one. The wealth of our nation is based on stolen land and racially biased lending practices.  Making a financial contribution that acknowledges and recognizes this, is part of a personal and collective healing practice.  Consider giving to an organization led by People of Color that interrupts the systems of racism, not just now but as part of an overall practice annually.  Giving your staff a short list of choices that allows everyone to unite around taking action for a cause is a great mobilizer.  Here is a great place to start and stay tuned for a more on this topic from me.

#4.  Act Today, but Commit to the Long Road.

Yes, it is important to take action today and know that this work is life-long. There is no arrival or expertise.  If you missed a chance to act today, you can act tomorrow.  Signing a petition, making a call to an elected official, or contributing financially all matter, especially when we all participate.  AND consider; what kind of daily or weekly practice can you commit to? Can you commit to initiating a conversation with your White friends about race?  Can you commit to shorten the time you need to process your observation of a micro-aggression and speak out more quickly?  Can you choose at least one book a month written by a Person of Color to read and share what you learn? Here’s a great article that outlines 75 things White people can do to combat racism.

#5.  Make Space to Process, but Don’t Center Whiteness or White Guilt.

The work of anti-racism is emotional as well as strategic. As a leader, you may intuitively want to make space for people to share their feelings at work.  This is a great instinct, and it is tricky.  If your team is diverse, consider having a brief check-in as an entire team (like 1 minute each timed) and then breaking up into racial caucuses for further processing and support.  What will only exasperate the harm for your staff of color is is asking them to listen to White staff process their guilt, confusion and paralysis. Support your White staff to do this work on their own time.  Here is a helpful article on breaking up into race specific caucuses.

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The work of becoming explicitly anti-racist can be a joyful one.  Mistakes will happen and when they do, you have the opportunity to acknowledge you made a mistake, take in the feedback non-defensively, and shift. This builds the foundation for long term relationships across power and difference.  Its going to take a collective of deep and caring relationships to tear down and rebuild the systems that divide and harm us.

Transforming Guilt

Guilt.  I hear about it all the time.  Guilt is like an obnoxious neighbor that you wish would just move away, but is there spying on you from the window next door, catching you at an uncomfortably vulnerable moment.

I’ve spent a lot of time with guilt. And a lot of time turning away from guilt.  Having grown up white, middle class with a stable family, there are countless ways my life has been substantially easier than many of my friends, neighbors, classmates, or the vast majority of people in the world, for that matter.  Early in my life, I felt guilty about my privilege.  But I was taught by more mature activist allies that guilt was to be avoided and overcome at all costs. Guilt makes you lazy and causes you to focus on alleviating the guilt rather than on taking responsible action.  That was how I was schooled. So whenever I felt guilt…that feeling was not allowed!!

So who takes guilt’s place?  I believe guilt has a cousin.  This cousin is much more clean cut and desirable looking than guilt, but no less toxic.  Guilt’s cousin is the voice that says, “You can handle this!”

Here’s what I see happen; whenever we turn towards ourselves and consider meeting our own needs, Guilt starts in with her tirade, “what do you mean you want more adventure, or to come home an hour later to go to the gym, or more recognition, or to go on a trip by yourself?! That’s so lame and self-centered! Your struggling sibling, the countless people living in poverty, your own vulnerable children, clearly have needs so much more important!”   

So then we feel awful.  We feel guilty for feeling guilty!  So we shove guilt away.

Then comes guilt’s distinguished cousin, the “I Can Handle it!” self.  Here’s what she says, “You know – you are a powerful person, you can take care of yourself without asking for support.  You can make that sacrifice for your kids, because you are going to rock it as a mom, and you know what, you can power through ANYTHING because you are STRONG!”

And that feels pretty ok.  Yeah, we say to ourselves, I am strong, and generous, and willing to sacrifice, and able to handle all kinds of crap because I am really capable and flexible and adaptable.

But the truth is, we all experience pain. And we all have needs. It is part of being human.  Our pain is sacred.  Our pain comes from whenever our true gifts aren’t recognized or valued.  And our needs are trying to point us to our untapped potential.    It seems impossible to live in this world without feeling pain or having  needs, even when we live with privilege.

And the truth is feeling pain allows us to see our precious gifts and recover them.  Meeting our needs allows us to tap into our creativity.  In order to take responsible action, we need then to feel our feelings and get our needs met.

Here’s how we get hooked. The “I Can Handle It” self is right, at least in the short term.  We do “handle it” and we keep going, and often no one can even tell we are deep  down struggling. Sometimes WE can’t even tell we are struggling. At least for a while. Until one more cousin comes to town. She’s from a faraway place, and speaks another language, but she’s probably the most powerful one of all.  She’s our body.  And she will rebel against the “I Can Handle It” self, sometimes with devastating consequences; a cold that doesn’t go away for a year, back pain, insomnia, short temper, and worse.

Here’s the typical guilt/action process broken down:

  • I feel some sort of pain or unmet need
  • I recognize my privilege
  • I feel guilty for feeling pain or having a need
  • I stop the guilt and I stop the pain with “I CAN HANDLE IT!”
  • I become a less authentic version of myself
  • My body rebels

Here’s what we could do instead:

  • I feel some sort of pain
  • I recognize my privilege
  • I might feel some guilt
  • Rather than be revolted by the guilt, I compassionately ask the guilt to step aside in order to honor my feelings
  • I feel my pain, I experience my needs
  • I become more authentic, and am able to act more compassionately and responsibily towards myself and others.

Would you like to have an alternative to “I CAN HANDLE IT!” Are you curious what might be possible for you if you allowed yourself to feel and have needs? Would you like to be able to compassionately ask guilt to step aside?  Come to a FREE EVENT on Friday May 20th, in which we will examine how to tap into a more authentic relationship with and expression of yourself.

Dear Fellow Seeker

Dear Fellow Seeker,

I suspect we are on similar paths.

I am guessing that since you were young, you had a sense of your special gifts, but for a variety of reasons, you’ve held back.  Maybe you were scared of outshining others; maybe your brilliance made some people resentful; maybe it seemed the world didn’t appreciate, need or want what you uniquely had to offer.  Maybe it has been so long that you’ve shared these special gifts, you wonder if they are even still there.

You probably have found ways to use your gifts to certain success over the years, but still feel like there’s a part of you that’s been locked away and hasn’t had a chance yet to truly shine.

From a very young age, I had a deep instinctual sense of human beings’ untapped magnificence.  I knew for myself and I knew that for most people, there was a capacity for great creativity, connection, and compassion that somehow wasn’t being expressed hardly at all in our everyday lives.

A lot of the precious insight, wisdom, and awareness I had as a child was re-defined, re-packaged, or simply denied, as I adapted to the adult world.  Until one day, I reached a point where it was time to stop lying to myself.

Have you reached that moment?  Are you tired of waiting for the world to let you in?  Are you tired of living a life that isn’t fully you?  Are you ready to reclaim your life?

I sure was.  It was scary and awesome and I am so thankful for the incredible teachers, coaches, and mentors that supported me along the way.  Reclaiming my life started while training to be a professional coach, and now 5 years later, after supporting hundreds of others in my coaching practice, I recognize three essential phases of personal transformation.

1.    The first thing I learned to do was RELEASE.  Through some empowering coaching, I noticed all the stories I was telling myself about how I was “supposed” to be that were holding me back.  Some of my “supposed to be’s” included; “You aren’t supposed to be in an unequal relationship with a man – you are a feminist!” “You aren’t supposed to want material possessions, you are supposed to be “above” that!”  “You don’t have any reason to feel pain – look how good you have it!”  It took me a while to even admit that these “supposed to be’s” were there – but once I did…letting them go felt like a MAJOR weight lifted.
2.    Secondly, (and this was hard for me), I had to learn to take myself WAY less seriously.  I had to learn to PLAY.  I had to learn to accept that I couldn’t think myself out of my pain or confusion.  I couldn’t “figure it out”.  I had to turn off my logical problem solving brain and just BE.  Feel my feelings.   Mourn the losses.  Give myself a f___ing break! And admit – YES, I wanted to be happy, I wanted to be free, I wanted ease, I wanted joy!  And that actually – suffering isn’t all it is cracked up to be. This playful stance is a spiritual stance.  Once I embraced a lighter attitude, I was able to receive messages the universe had for me.  I was able to feel inspired and creative again.

 

3.    Finally, I had to learn a new way to LOVE.  A coach asked me at a critical moment of my journey – how can you be in a loving relationship with all parts of yourself?  Alarms went off!  First – at the time it sounded super cheezy!  Second, I went on a rampage of self-defense; “But I want to learn and grow and IMPROVE!  I don’t want to be lazy about this – I have THICK SKIN – I can take it!”  (The “it” being all the self-bashing my inner critic did to me, that I was absolutely 100% convinced was what was needed to improve).  I had to completely switch my mindset and accept that being in a loving relationship with myself (including all my flaws and shortcomings) was actually much more productive than beating myself up.  AND – being in a loving relationship with my brilliance was actually ok too.

Rebecca Aced-Molina is a certified professional coach who supports her clients to release, play and love through intensive journeys within and abroad.  http://rebecca-acedmolina.com/

Stand Up for Yourself Without Resentment

They say you teach what you most want to learn. Holding boundaries, having voice, saying no, or standing up for myself – is something I’ve had to work at. The weird thing (or maybe not so weird), is that I am a strong woman. I have a voice. Some even say I am intimidating. I know what I want and I go after it. I am an advocate for my beliefs. I don’t shy away from conflict. I often find myself in the position of conflict mediator.

And yet, when I am really honest with myself, I have trouble telling the truth when it might disappoint someone I like and respect. I have trouble saying to an esteemed colleague, “that project sounds great but my plate is too full to take it on right now.” I have had trouble saying to a boss, “It’s important for me to have a regular time I can count on to leave the office” when they habitually work late. Or to a new high stakes client, “in order for me to be successful at this, here is the budget and support I need.” And it has been hard for me in the past to say to my partner, “I want something different than you do.”

That being said, when I feel I’ve been wronged, let me tell you – I do not let you off the hook! I can wage a war of righteousness. I can gather the facts, analyze the emotional content, and ensure the legitimacy of my position. It is almost as though, “standing up for myself” is equated in my mind with “fighting for my worth.” And that is a battle I am determined to win!

As of late, however, I’ve come to realize there is another way. Brene Brown, a licensed clinical social worker and researcher of human well-being, says of her own journey, “Before…I was sweeter – judgmental, resentful, and angry on the inside – but sweeter on the outside. Today, I think I’m genuinely more compassionate, less judgmental and resentful, and way more serious about boundaries.”

When I read that quote, I realized that’s how I want to be as well. I want to be genuinely compassionate (not just when it is easy, but when I really don’t agree with someone or can’t actually empathize with their perspective). I want to be less judgmental and resentful of people. I want to take more responsibility for the way I am treated, even if it means being uncomfortable in the process.

I read about a man who was learning how to find his voice, a successful CEO in his day job, but who had trouble taking a stand for his values with his partner on raising their child. He said that during the first year of standing up for himself in this personal arena, his stomach turned on a regular basis. When I first starting standing up for myself with high stakes consulting clients, I felt the same way. However, my experience has been that while it can be extremely uncomfortable at first; it does get easier, and while not immediate, the ultimate relief I experience is well worth the initial queasiness.

Brene Brown validates the discomfort that comes with holding boundaries when she says, “It’s also important that we lean into the discomfort that comes with straddling compassion and boundaries. When we talk ourselves into disliking someone so we’re more comfortable holding them accountable, that’s where we get into trouble.” The fact is, holding people accountable is uncomfortable. There is no getting around it. Asking for something that makes someone else’s life more complicated is uncomfortable. Sometimes, there just is not a win/win (something for a long time I was convinced was always possible if I just looked hard enough). And even if there is a win/win – it isn’t always my job to find it. It is my job to be honest and transparent about what I want and need, and it is my job to be open to listening to other people’s interests, circumstances and points of view. And I can do this without writing people off, pissing people off, or devastating them. And if they are disappointed, inconvenienced, or even troubled by what I say, they can handle it and so can I.

Being able to handle the consequences has been the hardest part, and the most important.

Before “standing up for myself” in a high stakes situation (which could be personal or professional), I need to evaluate – what are the consequences? What are the consequences of not saying anything and what are the consequences of speaking my truth? I am actually not advocating that we go around “speaking our truth” all the time, to everyone, in every context. I believe we need to be selective about what we say about our needs and desires, and with who we share them. Being selective is not the same as being fearful.

A lot of what I just said I learned from Harriet Lerner, in her book; The Dance of Connection; How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed, or Desperate. She encourages us to clarify our “bottom line” in relationships. This can be related to asking for a raise as much as it can be asking for help around the house. Here’s some of what she says;

“Clarifying a bottom line is perhaps the most difficult challenge of finding voice and being heard. A true bottom line position is not an ultimatum. It is not a threat or a reactive position….It is not an expression of desperation or a last ditch effort to get the [other] to shape up. It is not a mixed message, where our words say one thing (I can’t continue to take this) and then our actions say another (we continue to take it). Instead, a bottom line position evolves from a focus on the self, from a deeply felt awareness – which one cannot fake, pretend, or borrow – of what we need and feel entitled to, and the limits of our tolerance.”

Here’s a real example of my process holding a boundary with a high stakes consulting client, in which I had to first clarify my sense of self. First, I had to ask myself; could I still be successful if this client and I don’t work together? My gut said yes, but really believing it, and acting on that instinct is often hard for me. Because, in addition to my gut instincts, there is a whole host of other internal voices that speak to other truths such as;

This would be great money!

This would lead to other work that you really want!

This person may not call you again!

Are you really in a position to let work go by?

I listen, and then I return to the first simple truth. Can I still see myself as “successful” if this doesn’t work out?

Yes.

From that place of self knowledge that my success isn’t in the hands of this client to determine, I am capable of walking away. I have the hard conversation. From the self assurance, that I don’t NEED this client in order to be successful or legitimate. And I remember that they are also a professional, and a good person, and have their own needs. If things match up, great! If not, it really is going to be OK for both of us.

Then the conversation happens.

I say what I need. The client pushes back. I get the queasiness in my stomach. The discomfort is there. I breath and calmly state what I need again, fully aware that this could end things, and that we are both going to be ok. The client stops and reconsiders. We reach an agreement that we genuinely both feel good about.

The discomfort doesn’t disappear. But a wave of relief washes over me. It is done. I did it.

It wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was pretty awesome. Over time, that first breath in the moment turns into a shift in my overall energy, freeing me, and allowing more of my best self and best work to come out – something that wouldn’t have been possible had I not been willing to step into the discomfort in the first place.

What boundaries do you have trouble holding?

In what ways does it seem like people take advantage of you, no matter what you do?

How have you leaned into discomfort and made it out the other end?