The sound of silence

October 14, 2008

I spent Saturday at a conference on Race. As the workshop was sponsored by the White Institute (and a declaration here – I was a guest of the WI on the day) I assumed that the topic would be explored from a psychodynamic perspective. As such the kinds of questions I have an interest in are – what problem does racism answer? What’s unsayable and unspeakable about issues of race? What do we mean when we talk about race? Why do race conversations become so competitive (i.e. who has suffered more?) When are race conversations a cover story for something else?
The workshop leaders invited us to self select into one of three groups – ranging from I’m relatively uncomfortable talking about race through to I’m very comfortable. Not really being clear what ‘race’ means (and wanting to explore some of the fantasies and realities surrounding the term) and finding myself in a ‘foreign’ country transplanted from what is still a fairly mono cultural place (Ireland) I self selected for the first group. It turned out to be a lonely station. I was the only person in the room who declared a degree of discomfort with this discussion. I was immediately identified as ‘brave’ and my ‘honesty’ was remarked upon. I didn’t feel brave and I certainly didn’t feel that I was an isolated voice in the room – the issue of collusion quickly raised its head for me – what on earth wasn’t being said here? Could I possibly be the only person in the room who was questioning their capacity to talk about this topic at a workshop about talking about this topic?
As the day progressed I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the content and process. There was a ‘race’ about race. No scheduled breaks were allowed (apart from 15 minutes to grab a sandwich) and the day was the most over structured learning event I’ve ever been to. By 11.30 I had indigestion and it wasn’t just because of the food. Psychodynamic understandings weren’t allowed in the room and I found myself colluding with the ‘rule’ that we keep going in a structured direction to find a way of talking about race which in my view was a defence against having a conversation about the topic.
But I didn’t say anything out loud. I told myself a number of stories
1. I’m a guest of the White Institute – I had better watch my manners and be grateful for the invitation
2. I’m a guest of the nation (well not literally in chains but you get the drift) and as such I probably have no idea what race means in the American context – who am I to challenge the dominant discourse (what race turned out to mean in the context of the day was black vs. white which is one very particular interpretation of the issue and again, not one that was given space for deconstruction)
3. I shouldn’t challenge the ‘rules’ of engagement here because they are pretty explicit and tight
In summary – I colluded with a particular power structure that kept me disempowered in the room – and I did it all to myself. It seemed to me that my experience – had there been room to share it, and had I created a space to share it, was explicitly linked to questions of power – which is essentially what the race dialogue is all about.
So, the learning?
1. Check out my assumptions about the kind of learning event I’m being invited to attend – my assumption about the link with White and psychodynamics (which I didn’t check out and simply took for granted) led to my disappointment and disaffection on the day.
2. Listen to my emotional self – even when it is risky to do so and learn (again, and again and again) that the inner wisdom is the only one that counts.
3. Learn from being the sole voice in any group – be that the ‘brave’, ‘honest’, grumpy, controversial or whatever person because they have wisdom to share and it’s usually a story that the group isn’t ready to deal with
4. Listen to oppression wherever it is located – be it internally or externally – it’s always information about the system I’m working in.
5. Silence is often a violent act and collusion can often be an act of oppression.
The title for the day was ‘Race: “Can We Talk?” 
What a productive race dialogue looks like and what keeps us from having it’– my answer was ‘not really’ – we can talk about ways of talking but we can’t have the conversation about what’s really going on – perhaps that reflects a societal issue here in the US about race – I don’t know. I hold myself responsible for not talking about what mattered to me but ultimately the loss is greater than mine – sometimes structure is a defence against learning and meaning making – I think Saturday’s workshop said more about the anxiety of the presenters around this issue than that of participants but then again – unless I/we take the risk to talk – how will we ever know?

4 People reacted on this

  1. Interesting stuff Annette. I think in some ways one is ‘not allowed’ to be uncomfortable speaking about race in exactly the same way one is ‘not allowed’ to speak about race. We’re all meant to not talk about it, up to and including not acknowledging that even talking about it makes us uncomfortable.

  2. Yes that’s true Sasha – my disappointment was with the methodology because psychodynamics creates a space for deconstructing the ‘rules’ and that was the piece that was missing for me. But all good learning nonetheless!

  3. I think the anxiety around race in America is strong enough to derail even the most rigorous of methodologies all too often.
    Have you followed the story around the MLK memorial? here is decent link.

  4. Tis good to see you writing here again. I’ve been looking forward to tuning in to your experience in New York. I’m too tired now to take in all you’ve said here but I feel you’ve given me something to think about. Discomfort is often a good place where thoughts bubble up and challenge is fresh, I think.

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