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Having Difficult Conversations About Race in a Predominately White Work Environment

By Suzanne Estrella, Staff Attorney at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape

I have been a member of a predominately white work environment for twenty five years. Currently I work for an organization that considers ending all forms of oppression a key element of its mission and while we are at least having conversations about race; the conversations are awkward, tense and often incomplete. This blog is a personal reflection on the contributing factors that make the conversation difficult and a glimpse into the prospect that makes the journey of a difficult conversation worth the effort.

I come to the table with baggage that I hardly recognize I carry. “You have to work twice as hard to fit in.” “You are paving the way for others.” “Pick your battles.”  Early on I learned how to be acceptable or at least tolerated and I mastered the art of ignoring insulting and hurtful comments. Over time I have morphed into two almost uniquely different personalities; there’s the work me and the real me. The work me can sit through an entire conversation on the needs of the Black community and remain silent as we are described as some type of separate human entity that responds differently to trauma and rape based upon the color of our skin. While the real me has an extremely passionate discussion inside my head . . . “I can’t believe she just said that . . . She must have meant something else. I should give her the benefit of the doubt.” And one me, I’m not sure which one, rationalizes – “Is this a battle worth fighting?”

To engage in difficult conversations, I must replace my baggage with a willingness to be misunderstood, and perhaps unaccepted. Maybe if I’m honest, a door may open for authentic conversation. Clearly, no one benefits from the passionate discussion that transpires inside my head.

Similarly, pre-conceived notions derived from personal experiences can be subtle conversation blockers. For example, as a law school graduate searching for my first job interviewers often commented, “Wow, you are very articulate!” This always left me wondering, exactly what was the expectation and why? Why are there so many assumptions tied to skin color?

My goals have changed since I started this journey. When I was young I was much more hopeful that if played by the rules, worked harder, ignored hurtful comments, made sure it was the work me that showed up every work day, people would see that Black people are people and skin color isn’t as distinguishing as it seems. But now I understand that will not work. And honestly, I’m tired of playing that game.

I am convinced that prospects for change are embedded in truth. I can’t force anyone to acknowledge or embrace their truth, however, I can choose to acknowledge and embrace my own truth. I am hopeful that unpacking my baggage and coming to terms with my own pre-conceived notions will make the journey through each difficult conversation about race, a conversation worthy of my engagement.