Dishing It & Taking It: Emotional Intellect in Hard Conversations
If a white coworker randomly walked up to me with what I thought was light-hearted small talk. She then steered the conversation to police brutality, asking my opinion on a particularly graphic video she saw on Facebook. The cell phone video showed a young black girl getting dragged by a white policeman. Let's just say I was not ready to share my thoughts on this video with a work colleague.
To be honest, at that moment I didn't even have cable and I hadn't for more than three years. In this day and age that doesn't stop me from being informed about what's happening in the world. Once something hits the news (such as a school shooting, an unarmed minority getting shot by the police or a vulgarly expressed and ignorant tweet by a random or presidential celebrity), everyone knows almost instantly, and quickly replies, screenshots and shares the news.
Then subsequently in “real” life we must all deal with the follow-up conversations that take place at home, school, and (for a lot of us in the nonprofit sector) work.
As a black woman in my mid-20’s raised in the South, I have heard and read generations of stories and personal horrific accounts of white supremacy. And like most Americans, I have seen the racial minority demographic featured in the majority of daily “criminal news reels.” Knowing all that, if a white female coworker randomly walks up to me asking my opinion on police violence, she is essentially telling me she does not imagine my personal feelings, mindset, or history... nor is she showing any sensitivity to what I would consider obvious.
If she truly wanted to engage me on this topic, the best way for her to position herself would be to start off by building an honest connection with me on a human level. An example of how that conversation could begin is this: “Instead of just watching videos and moving on with my life, I would like to take more action such as writing letters to government officials and calling them, or otherwise do something when I witness things like this happen through social media. Sitting around isn’t doing anything when I am in the position of privilege to do more.” That would be a good start, because it would show me she is connecting with her own consciousness and others' reality while cultivating an honest desire to act. This type of mindset shows that she is choosing to step out of her cocoon after feeling disturbed by this unnecessary inhumane act. She is disturbed to the point where she wants to act, which is way better than just saying, “that’s horrible”.
From the other side, let’s say that a controversial law just passed in your state-- one that might affect your personal life. A coworker walks up to you and directly asks your opinion on it. You could easily get defensive, try to deflect the question, or even gaslight them by ignoring the question and turning around the question on them. When you feel yourself getting to that point, you must take a breath and (if you desire to) answer them using language you know they will understand (avoiding jargon). Recommend some specific resources they could utilize to learn more about the situation (research done on the topic, documentaries they can watch, autobiographies to read, etc.). Sometimes a misunderstanding and the fear of the unknown can resemble each other. Think of this as a learning experience for this person, especially if you know they have good intentions.
Putting yourself in someone’s shoes is easier said than done, though focusing on the hard facts and even your own relatable experiences is better than nothing at all. Everyone has been put in uncomfortable situations or has stood out during some time in their life. If you can recall that feeling, then you have the capability to connect with others. Harness that capability in conversations that you cannot relate to. If you cannot do that, listen to the hard facts when it comes to other people’s lived experiences and let that be their truth and move on. Focusing on the humanity and humility is key!
It can be difficult to realize that what you feel should/could resonate with your colleagues and peers - might not. How do you cope with that uncomfortable reality while working forward in your non-profit's cause? Everyone’s journey is different. It took me years to become openminded to unique ideas related to lifestyles and ideologies that are different from mine. I've worked hard to be truly accepting of the validity of others' experiences and how we are all tied together... whether we want to accept that or not.
All anyone in the nonprofit movement can do is stay informed, and to always be open to learn, teach. and be honest.
Dominique Hite serves as the Senior Administrative Assistant at the City of Atlanta - Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs. As a current YNPN Atlanta board member, has a deep love and appreciation for the arts and promoting education through volunteering. Her interests vary from technology, arts to environmental and societal issues.