Are you racist and don’t know it?

Photo credit: Matteo Paganelli on Unsplash

Photo credit: Matteo Paganelli on Unsplash

I’ve led a number of really brave, honest conversations lately, where the space between people was laden with emotion, judgment, assumption and power imbalances. Being able to stay with the conversation, take people into it together and bring them back out again has taken all my skill, experience and leadership. And yet, in one situation I have no idea if I did things “right” or if I contributed to a status quo that is unsustainable and unjust. This particular conversation keeps running through my head. You tell me what you would have done, and what you see when you read this.

I was leading a session with an internal team committed to meaningful consultation and engagement with indigenous peoples on a highly controversial topic. My role was to help them with skills, knowledge, and approaches to create the space for brave, honest conversations and to also help them think through how they wanted to lead themselves in these important discussions.

The group was made of people from across the country and included people of European descent, First Nation and Metis.

There were a lot of tough conversations in the room between the group, symbolic of the tough conversations they will have with indigenous communities and nations when they begin consulting.

In one of the conversations a comment was made about a situation where three team members at a higher level in the organizational heirarchy had attended a separate meeting to work out some process details about communication: “Three white Directors decide what we will communicate to indigenous people without an indigenous person in the room.” The comment was accompanied by an eye roll and a sarcastic tone. It is important to note that the comment was made by a participant who is Metis. (Since this is a blog about underlying racism, race matters.)

Here is what I did: Not much. I checked for reaction in the room and by the Directors. In my reading of the space I read that the comment was received as fact. It was true that this had happened and was an important note about how the system operates. I made a statement to connect that comment to a previous conversation we’d already had about how we need to ASK indigenous communities rather than TELL and then I moved on.

The next morning I was leading the opening session inviting a conversation about what people witnessed, experienced and learned on the previous day. Here is what happened:

  • One of the Directors (of European descent — I point this out because this is a blog where race matters) shared that he had been really offended by the statement (he had to refresh our memory on what and when it had been said) because he had dedicated many years in his career to meaningful consultation with indigenous peoples, he was really committed to doing things right, and he was offended at being labelled and judged.

  • I asked him if he would be willing to help us understand his experience and had him talk through what had come up for him, what he had felt and experienced, what it had done to his ability to participate and to be in relationship with other team members.

  • The team member (who is of Metis descent) who made the statement had not known that his statement was received as hurtfuland was genuinely surprised it had this impact. I offered that I had noted the statement but had registered only that it was factual.

  • The team member who made the statement offered an apology and also shared something that made him vulnerable. I interpreted that offering as a door open to more conversation and sharing between the two. The Director took it as dismissive.

  • We talked about how to talk about these issues as a team, and discussed what other challenges might arise and I shared some tips for being able to continue talking, noting that it is the things they don’t talk about that will cause them harm.

  • We talked specifically about judgments and assumptions about each other and how to surface and clear them. We discussed how important it will be to keep checking and clearing assumptions as they move forward.

Recounting the exchange I continue to be uncertain. In the room in the moment I stayed, I invited, I held space and worked with what was there. I surfaced judgments and assumptions and emotions. But here are the questions that keeps rattling around my brain:

  • By focusing the conversation on the hurt felt by a participant who is part of the power structure and of European decsent was I not just perpetuating the status quo that leaves indigenous voices unheard and unseen, (in this case in government systems and organizations)?

  • Is the calling out of hurt feelings based on a factual comment simply hidden racism?

  • Does it not reinforce power and status quo and marginalize those who question the existing approach as problematic? Does that make it racism when those who are marginalized in the conversation and questioning the approach are also indigenous people?

  • Was I not subtly supporting systemic racism?

  • I’m even struggling with choosing the right words here — have I used the right language to refer to race and people in this conversation?

In the middle of leading this conversation I had to remind myself what I’m committed to; I believe that brave, honest conversations are how we solve the problems in the world — together. That through deep, tough conversations we see each other, understand each other and connect so we can find a way forward.

It occurs to me that if this kind of thing is hard to talk about within this group, when they go out into communities they will hear far harder things about the role government has played.

If government wants to walk the path towards reconciliation it takes far more than taking a new approach to consulation with indigenous communities; it will take some really brave, honest conversations inside the organizations that perpetuate the power imbalance and the status quo that created the need for reconciliation.

We can’t do something different without actually being different.

It seems to me that perhaps there is a space between truth and reconciliation where the path might emerge.

We all need to turn our eyes to the truth first to really be able to see it, feel it, witness in order to be different and to choose differently in order to start the long walk to reconciliation. The statement that was said was factual — and it pointed to the system that is unknowingly perpetuating challenges. It is only when we can really see that truth that change might come. It won’t come from talking the talk but walking the easy, comfortable, familiar path that created this system in the first place.

I have the sense that many indigenous communities and nations are ready for these conversations. The people in this room on these couple of days are grappling with what it will take to step into reconciliation. I’m hopeful that this messy, thoughtful, tough conversation was a step on the path to a new relationship. I’m less certain that systems and structures of government are ready for what reconcilitation means and for what needs to change.