Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families

12Jun/120

Ground Rules – Part 3: Experience discomfort!

The third guideline or ground rule from the Knowing Who You Are work, and another that I think is useful for our work and discussions in this space, is “experience discomfort”.  This is actually the dynamic that accounts for many people checking out, or disengaging from race and culture-related work in child welfare (or in so many other settings).

I’m frequently asked about approaches to talking about race in these professional settings that won’t turn people off, or scare people away.  Indeed, there are some strategies and approaches that are more effective than others in terms of: a) keeping more people involved in the discussion (as opposed to leaving and refusing to participate – often out of fear and discomfort), and b) getting more people to more genuinely appreciate the history and reality of race in this country.  It’s not a one-time discussion.  It’s a process of sharing information, reflecting, making sense of it, eventually personalizing it, and then continuing with that process.  And it’s a real process.

The point, though, is that this is not easy work.  It’s very personal, and it evokes all of the emotions created by the long and tragic history of racism and cultural oppression in this country.  It challenges the myth of white supremacy, and many of the principles this nation upholds as central to its founding.

One of the workshops designed to familiarize people with the concept of racism in this country is the Undoing Racism Workshop, developed by the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB).  I’ve participated in the workshop several times.  At several strategically timed points in the workshop, the facilitators pose a question to the group, and then go around the room to get people’s thoughts and ideas.  Everyone is expected to participate.  Without fail, there are people – typically white – in the room who want to pass, preferring not to comment and wanting the facilitator to move on to the next person.  The facilitators typically “encourage” them to participate, and point out the corresponding reality that non-white folks in this country don’t have the choice of opting out of the injustice of racism – i.e. the real life "discomfort" that comes from the material consequences (borrowing john a. powell's term) and limited opportunities that are the hallmark of American racism.

That’s a point I want to highlight here – in this case with respect to the child welfare and juvenile justice systems in this country.  Many child welfare professionals I’ve encountered – again typically white (although not exclusively) – initially want to avoid conversations about race, ethnicity and culture, and the impact it has on child welfare policy and practice.  No surprise there.  Most times we can get past this initial reaction, but it’s a common initial reaction nonetheless.  After we’ve gotten into the discussion, and people start to open up and relax more, I try to remind them of what I just mentioned above.

As uncomfortable as this discussion might be for some, it pales in comparison to the discomfort and sheer horror of having your child or children removed from your home and from your custody – frequently by social workers and/or law enforcement officers that don’t look like you and can’t relate to your experience.  The horror is frequently even more profound for the child or children.  Parents and children don’t have a choice in the matter.  They can’t opt out of the experience because they’re not comfortable with the approach social workers use when they show up at the door.  They can’t ask the police officer to come back another time and make the removal or arrest more comfortable.

I always intend to be respectful on here, and will encourage others to do the same.  That’s a non-negotiable.  I’m willing to hear you challenge me or someone else if you think that’s not happening.  But I can’t promise that everything I say or that other people say will always make you feel comfortable.  Discomfort is a natural part of our human learning and growth process, especially in a society with such a history and continuing reality of racial and cultural injustice.  I’m less concerned about yours or my comfort than I am making sure all of our children and families experience more justice and the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential.

So please, allow yourself to experience whatever you naturally feel, and continue to push through it.  The reality is that we’re all in this society together.  And for those of us working with children and families, we’ve got to continue to work through these fundamental challenges together.

It’s hard work indeed, but it’s all of ours to do!

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