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Mindful : June 2016
staffer, recalls a conversation about the upris- ing that followed the killing of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police officers. “I found myself siding initially with the police,” she says—wondering why protesters would damage property in their own city and trusting that the courts would fairly sort out the blame. When an African-American member talked about her pride that a black woman was pros- ecuting the Baltimore officers, something clicked for Paine. “I realized that being white has afforded me the ability to think, ‘Let’s let the courts handle it,’” she says. “I realized the courts aren’t always fair; there is racism within the judicial system. I had been so naïve.” She confessed this to the group afterward. Paine was also having a deeper reckoning with her own biases. Early on, she had pigeon- holed some members because of their appear- ances, and those first impressions turned out utterly off-base. “I was really disappointed in myself,” she says. “I think of myself as upstand- ing. I go to church. When you have to reevaluate who you are, it’s a little scary.” Race-relations experts say these structured conversations have a special resonance in the 21st century, when social intimacy is becoming harder to find. “Everybody’s on a device now, so we’re less connected than we ever were,” says psychologist Nelson Hewitt, an Ohio-based diversity consultant. “ But these groups are about sitting down face-to-face.” In a sense they become surrogate communities, which people crave and want to improve. “ When you have a group that has some commitment to each other, the group becomes aware of so much in our cul- ture that needs to be worked on. It’s like, ‘I was blind to all of this and now I see it.’ It compels people to action.” There’s no single way to structure these conversations. The Winter Institute often uses “story circles,” in which one person speaks at a time and everyone else focuses on listening rather than responding. By contrast, Lee Mun Wah, a California diversity trainer best known for his film The Color of Fear, favors a more interactive approach. “ When a gentleman in the circle rages about what racism has done to him, it is not enough to simply have people sit around the room crying,” he says. “That’s not authentic. You have got to do something with the story he shared.” Asking a white person to respond hon- estly to a person of a color’s narrative potentially invites confrontation. Addressing that conflict, he says, brings people closer. The Winter Institute’s Grayson agrees that confrontation can be productive. “It’s just that we start, in the earliest meetings, with challeng- ing the paradigm of debate and creating a struc- ture so that people are asked to deeply listen,” she says. “Our approach tends toward creating safety where there hasn’t been safety.” Grayson adds that whites (herself included) can react strongly when they start grasping the realities of racism, including their own complicity. “It’s not the person of color’s responsibility to deal with your emotions,” she says. Whatever the approach, this is work best done over time. “It’s not like speed dating,” says Tatum, the former Spelman president. Rush it, and things could backfire. In 2014 New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced that his office would launch its own Welcome Table, the first in a large metropolitan area. There was no question the city was overdue for a conversation: Hurricane Katrina, nine years earlier, had laid bare longstanding racial inequi- ties. Black New Orleanians are more than twice Steven Kennedy, a real-estate agent and advisor in New Orleans, was incarcerated for four years for selling narcotics. His call to “drill deep and get to the core” animated his Welcome Table group in New Orleans’ St. Roch neighborhood. He has talked to the group about growing up surrounded by violence, and even told them when his sister had just been murdered. Other times, Kennedy would talk about how city infrastructure contributes to racial injustice and inequality. 62 mindful June 2016