Deborah Asante, Leadership and Development Coach, hosted an important workshop helping charity professionals to talk openly about race
It’s no secret that the charity sector needs to be more diverse. We still have a lot of work to do. We need to have more of the difficult and necessary conversations, with productive outcomes, as we question the language we use and how we can change our behaviour in the future. And that starts by talking.
Leadership and Development Coach, Deborah Asante, was there to help. Her incredible workshop, ‘Let’s talk about race…but what do we say?’, started with a question. Using the innovative tool, Mentimeter, Deborah asked the group to write down how they were feeling.
Participants wrote a few things down and a word cloud appeared on screen in bright and beautiful colours. ‘Unsure’, ‘Stressed’, ‘Curious’, ‘Open-minded’, ‘Interested’, and plenty of other terms popped out, many of which implied a sense of discomfort.
Talking about race can be uncomfortable, Deborah explained. But it shouldn’t have to be. Deborah then introduced participants to the ‘Guiding Principles for our Conversations’, which offered them house rules and alleviated some potential tension.
The principles were perhaps not as expected. They did not emphasise caution, but boldness and honesty. They said to be fully present and always respectful. And they told the group to let go of the notion being a good person and allow yourself to become a better person.
It was an introduction that immediately removed any remaining discomfort and forged an immediate sense of openness. The group was ready to talk.
The best way to talk about race, Deborah said, is to actually talk. The session served as a sort of training ground for openness and constructive conversation. Participants were first asked to think about themselves in relation to race, both personally and in the wider social context.
Deborah asked a question: ‘How important do you think the differences are between us?’
The group used Mentimeter to answer. Most people responded ‘Very important’ or ‘Somewhat important’ and a few people answered ‘Not as important as our similarities’.
Deborah asked participants to explain why they answered the way they did, with most participants drawing on either personal experience or experience within the charity sector.
Deborah then asked another question: ‘Why do you think it’s so difficult to talk about race?’
Another word cloud appeared and there was a clear theme. ’Fear of offence’, ’Fear of upsetting’, ’Fear of getting it wrong’. Deborah said we need to overcome that fear and step outside of our comfort zones. We need to talk openly and honestly about race, which is one of the key ways to challenge systemic racism and to become better people.
We separated into groups to discuss when we realised we had a race. After the brief discussion, we reported back to the larger group our findings. There were lots of similarities, largely based on region.
People seemed to have little awareness of race if they grew up in largely racially homogeneous areas. Others who grew up in multi-cultural areas seemed to report an awareness of race, though that awareness seemed to become more evident in later years.
We were asked what we celebrate about our race. For many of the white participants, the answers tended to shift towards price of place rather than race. People seemed to celebrate their identities as Northerners or Londoners or Irish and so on rather than celebrating race.
Deborah spoke about how difficult it is to talk about race in terms of whiteness. White people struggle to talk about being white. But black people have no choice but to talk about being black. These elements can be very challenging, Deborah said, but it is beneficial to talk openly. And, importantly, we always need to remain mindful of other people in these conversations.
We are all story-making machines, Deborah said. Every day we create stories, every act is understood through the prism of narratives. Stories provide meaning to the world.
Since birth, we have been given stories. Some we accepted, some we rejected, some we have created ourselves. The combination of stories offers us a map of the world, defining how we view and understand our surroundings and social environment.
Deborah asked us to think about the stories we heard growing up. What stories were we told? How did those stories define our understanding of different races and different communities?
Deborah mentioned some personal examples before we split off into groups to discuss our own stories. We asked each other some important questions, including:
Each small group reported back to the main group about their discussions. Some mentioned unconscious biases, others talked about prejudices they heard growing up.
Deborah suggested that anyone can have behaviour or language rooted in elements of racism. The important fact is to challenge the root of that behaviour, challenge our pre-existing assumptions, and learn to improve behaviour in the future. The group all agreed that we need to have adequate representation to ensure a sense of fairness in the stories told.
Deborah concluded by reminding the group that we should not be afraid to talk about race. You should be bold, but always respectful of other experiences. People cannot force others along the journey – they have to be patient. People will go at their own pace.
The group concluded by looking at the importance of bringing people into the conversation, rather than excluding them. The group all appreciated the virtues of listening. The group also mentioned the importance of managing their own triggers, staying curious and open-minded, helping other people along the journey, and creating new stories to support that journey.
Deborah concluded by asking the group to take the learnings forward. She asked us to remain curious, open, and bold. The workshop provided vital insight into how charity workers can talk about race, consider the stories that we need to challenge and the stories that we need to tell, ensure adequate representation and champion diversity, help others through the simple act of listening and conversing, and think about behaviours and actions in the future.