Talking about race in the wake of tragedy

Diane Musho Hamilton

Diane Musho Hamilton

How do we open up a conversation about race in the wake of tragedy like the one that took place in Charleston, South Carolina?

Every painful conversation is unique, and every context may require a different approach from the facilitator. Whether you’re holding a town meeting or community dialogue or an informal conversation around the dinner table, in my experience, the best place to begin any truly challenging discussion is with our immediate, felt experience. In our conversations about race this last week, I would begin with the emotional impact of the news of the shooting in South Carolina.

I would pose a simple question like, “How is everyone feeling right now?” and then allow perspectives to pour forth. The expression that I would first want to support is an emotional one, that of pain and loss in the room—the pain of the murder of innocent people and the loss of the nine beautiful souls who died at the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church.

It may seem obvious, but people will often rush over emotions to problem solving or political strategizing or discussing facts—but it isn’t satisfying. Presencing the sorrow and grief is fundamental to our human experience and it is unifying to a group. It binds us in the heart, reminding us of the vulnerability we share and of our capacity to care. Sorrow is softening, humanizing, and humbling. So we need to open space for the pain to pour forward, and for the emotions of grief, of loss, of sadness to actually come into the room.

The gut wrenching pain of the murder of innocent people is conveyed by sorrow, grief and loss. The gut wrenching pain of the murder of innocent BLACK people AGAIN comes in a wave of anger, torment, and outrage.

Sometimes, the anger may insist on being presenced first; the sense of injustice won’t wait, and the facilitator must find a way to weave these two powerful emotional textures at the same time. (It is obvious, yet not always acknowledged, that conversations are sequential and the sequencing within these kinds of conversation is delicate and important.)

Expressions of anger and outrage demand that we address the horrible legacy of racism and violence against people of color in this country, but we have to be careful that we don’t allow it to move us too quickly into trying to fix things.

Anger is a very challenging emotion for people to be present with—their own and that of others. Especially if you have an audience of people who are not very well schooled in listening and in staying present to strong sensations in the body. So the facilitator must model relaxation and good listening skills in the face of anger, validating the impulse to act, but staying with expression of feelings longer.

Other emotions that arise when we discuss the history of racism in our culture are difficult to work with as well; feelings of resistance, of guilt, of shame, or reverse injustice. Even empathy can be tricky because there is a fine line between genuine empathy and the slide towards a kind of patronizing pity. This is the reason that Integral Facilitators need to be well trained in facilitating emotion, so that the room can have confidence in his or her ability to navigate the strong feelings states in a way that isn’t destructive to the cohesion of the whole.

When we’re dealing with expressions of outrage about racism, the facilitator has to take a stand and carve out the space for people of color to be heard, asking others to simply listen to the experience of what it has been like to be subjected to persistent and life-long race bias.

From an Integral perspective, we want to acknowledge the sustained negative impact of bigotry in all four quadrants, including the internalized degradation to self esteem, and the impact of being subjected to racial slurs, bigoted attitudes, unfair treatment and hate crimes.

Institutionalized racism plagues our minority communities in the form of unfair policies and discriminatory practices that disadvantages people of color and advantages white people. For example, when school systems concentrate people of color in over-crowded classrooms and assign less qualified teachers, resulting in higher drop-out rates and greater disciplinary action as compared to that of white students.

Structural racism involves the compounding effects of societal factors that systematically privilege white people and disadvantage people of color. For example, Fox News immediately labeling the white shooter of the AME church as mentally ill, while being quick to label blacks and other people of color as thugs or gangsters when accused of committing crimes. (For more information on these important distinctions please go here:

An Integral Facilitator must move from being a neutral in these circumstances to being an advocate for the minority experience and asking those in the majority, or in positions of power or privilege, to simply listen. This is a very different kind of conversation than one in which the facilitator is presencing all perspectives equally. Doing so requires privileging a perspective: advocating for the majority of the people in the room to learn to listen, and to be willing to address our deep cultural conditioning and how our cultural privilege blinds us to the struggle of minorities in our communities.

As an Integralist, I am profoundly interested in shaping the conversation in support of our shared evolution, our shared growth — growth which I believe only comes from engaging conversations about race. This is a very different stance than that of a facilitator who sees their role as making room for all viewpoints equally.

Because of that, I will weigh perspectives differently, deciding when to privilege certain perspectives and perhaps to even to disallow some points of view, at least for the time being. For instance, if a participant in the dialogue wants to express compassion for the shooter, I might support that; in fact, personally I would appreciate a conversation that includes the inherent, obvious pain of a deranged, racist killer—but only at the right time, in the right place, and in the right amount. I see that as part of my job; keeping in mind these choices depends on the group—it’s make-up, intention, and context.   

It is important that conversations about race always include the views, experience, and expressions of white people—again, in the proper sequence. When we, as whites, learn how to receive, listen, and are willing to be influenced by what we have heard, then we are in the perfect position to be heard and to have our lived experiences received.

And, as a facilitator, it is key to situate the processing of white experience within the context of becoming better allies. In other words, this is not about absolving our guilt and moving on, it is about creating deeper understanding and commitment to liberating people of color from the legacy of racism.

To be true partners, we as whites must learn to stay engaged, be willing to take risks, to make mistakes, to falter, to feel confused or stupid, but trust that we can get better at talking about race and learn to use our power and our privilege to engage in the transformation of culture and the politics of our communities for the liberation of people of color and, therefore, the liberation of all of us.  

As we move on in a conversation like this, more perspectives—more secondary and tertiary ones—start to show up. For example, this week, perspectives on the problem with the confederate flag, our inability to create gun legislation, and even the miseducation of young boys in our country, were points of view that wanted to arise after the shooting in SC. Some people wanted to frame the tragedy as an act of terrorism; others wanted to presence the attack on religious freedom.

There is a time and place for all of these points of view to surface, including ones that are action-oriented. Good facilitators are able to sense when the most important perspectives have been expressed, and observe when a group is ready to include more perspectives or to move into action-oriented conversation, answering the persistent question of what we are going to do about these kinds of tragedies?

There is a lot for facilitators to pay attention to in conversations about race.  But an understanding of some of the supporting structures, the sequencing of minority and majority perspectives, the skillful use of emotion, can and will to lead to greater awareness, more shared understanding, and the liberation of all of us from the tyranny of racism.

Diane Musho Hamilton with special thanks to Gabriel Wilson for his collaboration.
Co-Founder and Lead Teacher, Integral Facilitator®
Author, Everything is Workable, a Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution.

Join the live conversation to follow:

Perspectives that Unite, Perspectives that Divide: A Facilitated Discussion on Race and Charleston
Thursday, July 2, 2015
9:00 a.m. PT / 10:00 a.m. MT / 12:00 p.m. ET
Register for the call (at no charge) HERE

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