Difficult Conversations of Multiculturalism

Discussion about multiculturalism can have a polarizing effect on people and it often slides into train wreck conversations or initiates a war of words. People tend to pick sides based on affiliation and then drown out the opposition. You’ve probably seen this happen on any number of news discussion shows. I recently witnessed such an encounter: two white men in a small group listened to a talk about social privilege during an organization’s diversity training class, and an argument ensued afterwards as the men refused to acknowledge the impact of social privilege on others and its benefit to them.

I volunteer in an international men’s organization that has gone through some growing pains since it’s inception in the early 90’s. You can probably research and discover the group to which I refer, but I’ll avoid using their name since I’m an active member. Back in the organization’s founding days, gay men were not welcome as members, and then after it came to light they were already present, they were invited to participate but not share their sexuality. Since that time, the organization has struggled to adapt and to educate and train its predominantly heterosexual, white male volunteers about multiculturalism, diversity, and “isms” (sexism, racism, ableism).

Those men that have been members since the 90’s have contributed years of valuable service, but some are now a liability because of their outdated social attitudes and ignorance; and a tension exists within the organization as a result: how to retain these valuable men but not alienate them with what may be perceived as a bitter pill of multicultural trainings. You know, it’s easy to stop and check new members at the door, but what do you do about the men already in the room?

When I first learned about the history of my organization’s founders, I had to shake my head. In a nutshell: three straight, white men brainstormed a way to reinvent male initiation for contemporary culture. It sounds like a great idea, but in my experience, whenever a dominant culture invites a subordinate culture to an organization and tries to welcome or include them, they often trigger old wounds with ignorance and carelessness. Even when they have good intentions at the outset, they end up asking inevitable questions like, “Why can’t we attract more people of color?” and “How do we keep diverse people in our organization?” Yes, those are really good questions.

As for me, I became a paid member and volunteered in my men’s group precisely because of the LGBTQ inclusivity that I found touted in its mission statement; but a mission statement, while it sounds lofty with its eloquent text, doesn’t actually define the people that show up to volunteer. This past summer, I participated in an administrative meeting where the regional council voted down a proposal that would have added a council representative from each of several minority communities: African Americans, Latinos, and GBTQ members.

On one side, it looked to some men like a power grab by minorities. On the other, it was a demonstration that minority voices needed more recognition. The official reason for the denial of expanding council seats was that the proposal, as it appeared before the council, failed on a technicality. But tempers flared, and in outside conversations, people accused white council members of being racist and bigoted — a war or words. I’ve observed how those two words “racist and bigoted”, with their weight of shame and social castigation, deflate any hope of productive talk and drive white people away. And I get it. Nobody wants to be a bad person. Nobody wants to hear that they’re racist.

lighted display of Ferguson solidarity message on highway overpass
Solidarity Message by Joe Brusky. CC license.

However, the council eventually adopted the proposal for new community representatives and restored some of my faith, and I enjoyed a few, quiet months of recovery from the contentious meeting. Then this past week, a new incident brought tempers back to a boil. Once again, I was participating in an online video meeting with council members when it happened: after an hour and a half of productive meeting time, somebody used the meeting’s chat feature to broadcast a racially motivated accusation about another council member. The message read “…he wants special treatment because of the color of his skin.” I was stunned. Other men were stunned, too. On its face, the accusation opposed the organization’s diversity mission. Then a man asked to stop the meeting. There was confusion since some men hadn’t read the chat message, and it took a few moments for everybody to catch on. But soon enough, angry comments filled the audio stream. “That’s f***ing racist.” “Why would you say that?”

As for me, I was certain that the man who posted the inflammatory message did so by accident; the chat feature in the video meeting has a simple toggle to either send a message to an individual or to send it to the whole list of participants, and I’m sure he had intended only one person to receive his comment. During the rest of the video conference, I sat at home and watched the image of that man in a video thumbnail on my laptop screen. He wiped his face in misery and floundered silently for an answer to the questions and accusations. So many outcomes hinged on what he would say next.

It ended as well as I could have reasonably hoped.

After a round of clarifying questions and answers, the offending party spoke a solemn apology, and the aggrieved man remarked that in the heat of emotion, a person can speak hurtfully. It is to be expected.

However, in spite of conciliatory talk and some amazing leadership, the council meeting concluded with men shaking their heads and expressing sadness and fear, so there is work yet to be done. In my judgment, this is exactly the kind of painful and difficult conversation necessary for growth. Multicultural education doesn’t nullify racism or internal bias. I mean, as much as I’d like to host a conversation about heterosexism in my non-profit organization, I acknowledge that straight men are unlikely to show up and participate. What’s in it for them? But there will always be train wreck conversations that arise organically, and I’ve seen how men can calmly navigate through fear and hostility to reach a resolution.

A handshake at the end of a battle doesn’t heal wounds, mend injuries or end the war, but it’s a ritual necessary to honor the courage of both sides. When it happens, I feel my heart is in my throat. I like to remind people that we all did a good job — each in our own way. Yes, the conversation in that council meeting was scary and even triggering, but it was going to happen eventually. I honor the strength of the men that stayed and hashed it out. Even if future incidents motivate me to step away from my men’s group, at least this once I’ve had the good fortune to witness a group of adults settle their differences with integrity and grace. It’s an experience I will always remember.

–by Spriggan Radfae

Featured image: Argument by Holly (PoppetCloset on Flickr). CC license.

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