Last week, I attended a conference focused on developing a culturally competent workplace. Although all the workshops presented were timely and engaging, it was a group activity that we participated in toward the end of the day that made the greatest impact on me. During the activity, the two presenters asked the participants to stand in the center of the room, and a dividing line was indicated down the middle of the space. Next, the two presenters asked that we “answer” three divisive questions by standing on one side of the room or the other, as indicated.
The first question was, “Do men or women make better leaders?” Those answering “men” were asked to stand on the left side of the room, “women” on the right. The result was that the majority of the participants, including me, cheated, and straddled the line. Like me, they had probably encountered excellent leaders of both genders, and were unwilling to make a broad generalization about a correlation between gender and leadership ability.
The second question was, “Should the United States allow Syrian refugees to enter the country?” Those who answered “no” were asked to stand on the left side of the room, “yes” on the right. I was standing among the “yes” people, and I was surprised (and rather discouraged) to see that the majority of the people were on the “no” side. Still, what struck me most about the “no” side was that I had spent the past several hours discussing issues of race, racism, sexism, and privilege in small groups with quite a few of those people, and had found many of their views to be sensitive and nuanced. These people were not “racists” or “bigots”–they were decent human beings who were responding to their fears about an unknown possible threat to their lives and the lives of the people they loved. As one “no” woman said, “I am standing here because I know that I just don’t know enough to know what is the right thing to do.” Listening to her grappling out loud with her own conscience gave me pause, and reminded me to be vigilant against falling into the trap of characterizing people based solely on their responses to issues about which we might strongly disagree.
The third question was, “Do you support #blacklivesmatter or #alllivesmatter?” Those who supported “#alllivesmatter” were asked to stand on the left side of the room, and “#blacklivesmatter” on the right. The room was divided nearly in half, but with slightly more people on the “#alllivesmatter” side. Without any hesitation, I stood on the side of “#blacklivesmatter” and looked across the room at the other side, trying very hard to withhold my judgement.
Next, the leaders of the workshop asked us to do the following:
- Find a person across the room from you, and stand together.
- Listen to your partner explain why he or she chose to stand on that side of the room.
- Say, “I hear you.”
- Repeat back to the person what he or she said, in your own words.
- Switch roles.
My partner in the exercise was a young white male police officer. I invited him to go first, and he told me that he had a sworn duty to protect and serve everyone, and he felt that #blacklivesmatter was too divisive. I said, “I hear you,” and then told him that I understood him to be saying that he was more comfortable with #alllivesmatter because he felt that it was inclusive in a way that #blacklivesmatter was not.
When it was my turn to speak, I told him that outside of the context of the #blacklivesmatter movement, I would completely agree with the idea that #alllivesmatter. However, within the context of the #blacklivesmatter movement, I felt that the #alllivesmatter response had been used as a way to trivialize or even silence the voices of people who were not saying that black lives should matter MORE than all lives, but that they should matter JUST AS MUCH. The officer said, “I hear you,” and then he repeated what I had said, told me that he had never considered it in quite that way before, and said that he understood why considering the context could be so important.
Although our minds might never be changed by the simple act of listening carefully, saying “I hear you,” and echoing the words of the “other” back to them, our attitudes toward our fellow human beings certainly can be, and that’s always a good place to start.