How a Lack of Dialogue has Built Resentment

I frequently listen to the Ezra Klein Show, and the host, Ezra Klein, has been working through an idea since his show launched in February of 2016. What Klein has recognized, questioned his guests about, and worked to better understand is where white backlash originates in our country and how white perception of race is shaped. Klein argues, and I think correctly, that the conversation around race in some way points to white people as active villains in a way that most white people do not understand. When we call out white people and the racists outcomes of our society, organizations, and our communities, there is a tendency for white people to become defensive and to push back against our observations.

 

This tendency is described well by President Barack Obama in a quote included in Michael Tesler’s book, Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America. President Obama made a speech in Philadelphia in March of 2008 and in his speech he said,

 

“Most working and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. … So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves have never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time. Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company, but they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation.”

 

Klein in his podcast has recognized the way in which middle class white American’s, particularly those without a college degree, have faced more challenges in our society compared to others in recent decades. Their job outlooks do not look as good as they once did, and there is a sense that their values, particularly if they are Christian, are becoming less valuable or even a liability in our country. Combine that with the ideas laid out by President Obama in his speech and you end up with a country and society that is sending a message about white people’s responsibility in racial injustices that does not match what seems to be the reality experienced by many white people. Our push engenders a backlash, which only makes our claims seem more vilifying, creating a dangerous cycle. In a recent interview for the podcast, Conversations with Tyler, Malcom Gladwell explained to Tyler Cowen how much he has seen this backlash shape our American history.

 

I find it vital to better understand the historical racial tensions and relations between white and black people in our country, and I want to share a message that pushes back on the white tendency to minimize racial problems or describe them as simply excuses by those who don’t succeed. At the same time, I worry that pushing a message into the faces of those who are themselves slipping back relative to their parent’s social and economic position, or relative to the social and economic position of groups they once found themselves ahead of, will only increase the backlash which prevents us from moving forward. A true dialogue about race relations and about the vulnerability that all American’s experience can help us overcome these challenges, but we need safe settings and conversations that are more deescalatory than inflamatory.

Discussing Differences In Action

Author Colin Wright provides some useful advice for disagreements within relationships in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. In a section of the book, Wright focuses on our arguments and disagreements with our partners, and how we can have more constructive discussions instead of heated arguments. His advice requires some self-awareness and self-reflection in the moment, and shifts how we approach an argument.

“In practice, this means that instead of accusing or otherwise trying to put your partner on their guard, you ask them what’s going on from their perspective. Don’t interrupt, don’t offer any defense, just allow them to speak. Ask questions when they’re done, and with as little bias in your voice as possible. Request clarifying information and encourage them to provide it by delaying judgement. Speak calmly, clearly, and without talking down to them; condescension has no place in a discussion.”

Wright’s quote has a lot of practical and useful advice that is worth remembering. Many of his points are simple, but are not easy since they push against our typical reactions in any given disagreement. To follow his advice, it is important to be aware of how you are reacting in the moment, and to shift perspective, focus, and goals so that you are not trying to win an argument, but are instead trying to better understand your partner.

By not accusing the other person of some fault, we lower their defenses and allow them to be more relaxed and cognitively engaged in our discussion, as opposed to passionately entrenched against us. By asking for their perspective without interrupting we allow them to explain their thoughts, de-escalate the tension, and learn about their experience which we cannot argue against since their perspective, different from our own, determines the reality they experience. By delaying judgement and speaking honestly and openly, without bitterness or sarcasm, we show the other person that we do care about them, and we have an opportunity to share our point of view and experiences to hopefully create a constructive dialogue.

If we do not try to win an argument, and if we do not see our interactions with others as zero sum, we can have rational discussions and invite more positive conversation into our lives and relationships. It is challenging to change course and direction during an argument, and it is tempting to react emotionally and impulsively, but slowing our brain, remembering Wright’s advice, and acting rationally can be constructive for all involved.