NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, September 6th, 2023

Try these three effective strategies for countering racism and hate in public spaces

The last year has been filled with trav­el across Wash­ing­ton and the nation. As a thir­ty-year vet­er­an edu­ca­tor, I pro­vide train­ing to teach­ers, non­prof­it boards, gov­ern­ment agen­cies, and busi­ness­es on issues relat­ed to racial equi­ty and belong­ing. Dur­ing the past twelve months, I have been called into more schools than ever before to help com­mu­ni­ties find heal­ing after a very pub­lic con­flict or series of con­flicts relat­ed to race, gen­der iden­ti­ty, or sexuality.

These events have not been con­fined to one par­tic­u­lar region — I have been called to sup­port com­mu­ni­ties across the state.

The com­mon ele­ment: the com­mu­ni­ty demo­graph­ics are pre­dom­i­nant­ly white, rur­al or rur­al-adja­cent, and polit­i­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive. Many of the com­mu­ni­ties are see­ing an increase in fam­i­lies of col­or mov­ing from urban cen­ters. They are also respond­ing to mes­sages they have heard on social plat­forms and, at times, in church spaces, that tell them to be afraid of mem­bers of the LGBTQ+ community.

Unprece­dent­ed num­bers of white, cis­gen­der, het­ero­sex­u­al stu­dents (some as young as eight and nine years of age) are ver­bal­ly or phys­i­cal­ly tar­get­ing Black, queer, and trans­gen­der stu­dents in ways I have not expe­ri­enced in all my years of work in K‑12 education.

Every­where I go, peo­ple ask why we are see­ing such an increase in open attacks on par­tic­u­lar iden­ti­ties in our schools. I am not a researcher and I have not com­plet­ed a con­clu­sive study about the rea­sons for these behav­iors in stu­dents, but I have thoughts I want to share, as well as strate­gies for how I believe we as a com­mu­ni­ty can work togeth­er to change the envi­ron­ment that has allowed and even encour­aged these types of behav­iors in school spaces and beyond.

The school clo­sures prompt­ed by the emer­gence and spread of COVID-19 had a range of impli­ca­tions for stu­dents — some aca­d­e­m­ic and oth­ers social.

Most stu­dents were at home, occa­sion­al­ly con­nect­ed to their teach­ers and class­mates via Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but they also had more time to spend on social plat­forms with­out any super­vi­sion or cri­tique. In addi­tion, stu­dents were at home with fam­i­lies as we walked through one of the most con­tentious pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns and elec­tions our nation has seen in recent history.

Stu­dents wit­nessed par­ents watch­ing news and engag­ing on their own social plat­forms. Stu­dents wit­nessed adults (even revered busi­ness and polit­i­cal lead­ers) attack­ing dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ty groups online or speak ill of them.

Pri­or to the pan­dem­ic, many stu­dents would have been chal­lenged by edu­ca­tors to recon­sid­er their words about oth­er groups and would have been dis­ci­plined for using vio­lent or inap­pro­pri­ate lan­guage about their peers.

At home, in the pri­va­cy of bed­rooms, behind the wall of avatars and nick­names on Tik­Tok, Insta­gram, Face­book, Twit­ter, and oth­ers, stu­dents were able to lis­ten to and then prac­tice harass­ing those they did not per­ceive as being like them.

Now let’s add the eco­nom­ic and health con­se­quences of COVID-19, which cre­at­ed incred­i­ble anx­i­ety for fam­i­lies. Stu­dents lost fam­i­lies to ill­ness (COVID-19 and oth­er­wise). Stu­dents watched fam­i­ly mem­bers lose jobs and, there­fore, access to resources. The polit­i­cal cli­mate cre­at­ed greater anx­i­ety and, even, anger, from those who believed Don­ald Trump had his sec­ond term stolen.

Imag­ine being a ten or twelve year-old wit­ness­ing this while also being phys­i­cal­ly iso­lat­ed and walk­ing through the crazi­ness of puberty.

When I am called into a school com­mu­ni­ty to help find solu­tions and sup­port stu­dents and staff through a process of heal­ing, I first do a lot of listening.

I lis­ten to admin­is­tra­tors and staff and their per­cep­tions of what has happened.

I then take time to lis­ten to the stu­dents who have been tar­get­ed (there’s nev­er just one). When there are oppor­tu­ni­ties, I also lis­ten to the par­ents of stu­dents who have been targeted.

I then cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents to engage across their dif­fer­ence, to learn how to talk about their dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties and how they expe­ri­ence those — some­times as mem­bers of the “dom­i­nant group” in the school and some­times as those tar­get­ed. Stu­dents learn how to lis­ten to one another.

What I have come to believe, after the intense work of the past year, is that white, cis­gen­der, het­ero­sex­u­al peo­ple are not any more racist or homo­pho­bic or trans­pho­bic than they were three years ago…or even thir­ty-four years ago, when I returned to the Unit­ed States after a child­hood in Europe.

I was called the n‑word to my face on a month­ly basis as a col­lege stu­dent in Philadel­phia. There was still a sign at the local social club in my col­lege town that read “No col­oreds or Jews allowed here”. It remained there for many years beyond my grad­u­a­tion from college.

I believe there are sev­er­al fac­tors at play right now:

  1. As a nation, we have nev­er prop­er­ly devel­oped the col­lec­tive skills nec­es­sary to talk with one anoth­er, across dif­fer­ence, about race, gen­der, and sex­u­al­i­ty, so we’re real­ly bad at it.
  2. Social plat­forms have allowed peo­ple unfet­tered access to con­ver­sa­tions that are often hate­ful and bul­ly­ing (and, at times, inac­cu­rate) with­out any guardrails or men­tor­ship about how to respond or when to disengage.
  3. Peo­ple who are feel­ing afraid and unsure about the future are eas­i­ly con­vinced to seek out a vis­i­ble “ene­my”. What hap­pens often, par­tic­u­lar­ly in small, rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, is that those who are vis­i­bly “dif­fer­ent” can eas­i­ly become the scapegoats.

What can you do to be part of the solution?

There are three strate­gies I use and then teach wher­ev­er I go, whether I am work­ing with ele­men­tary stu­dents or state exec­u­tives. I call them “The Three Pos­tures”: grat­i­tude, brave spaces, and pause.

First, I begin every con­ver­sa­tion encour­ag­ing par­tic­i­pants to prac­tice grat­i­tude. Grat­i­tude wash­es our bod­ies with dopamine, which makes us feel good. More impor­tant­ly, when we prac­tice being grate­ful on a dai­ly basis, the prac­tice changes our brain chem­istry and cre­ates a pos­i­tive neur­al net­work, which helps us to see hope, instead of cat­a­stro­phe. The beau­ty of this prac­tice is that all of these things will take place, whether we have “big” grat­i­tude or “lit­tle” gratitude.

In light of what is hap­pen­ing for stu­dents on school cam­pus­es but (as I know from my friend cir­cle) also for adults in work­spaces and reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties, grat­i­tude is crit­i­cal, because it helps us expe­ri­ence the uncer­tain and frus­trat­ing through dif­fer­ent lens­es. It helps to not get caught up in attack­ing oth­ers but in find­ing pos­i­tive ways to nav­i­gate the dif­fi­cul­ties of the moment.

Sec­ond, I engage peo­ple in con­ver­sa­tions about cre­at­ing “brave spaces”. As a for­mer class­room teacher, I want to help peo­ple cre­ate spaces that are safe enough for peo­ple to be brave. In the con­text of dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions, I estab­lish some non-nego­tiable expectations:

  1. I lead with my own vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. I don’t believe I can ask for peo­ple to share hard things, if I’m not will­ing to lead by example.
  2. I ask peo­ple to embrace dis­com­fort. Hard con­ver­sa­tions will be uncom­fort­able. Our human nature push­es us to run away from hard things, but I encour­age peo­ple to press in.
  3. I do not employ shame, blame, or guilt as tech­niques. They are not use­ful tools to lead us to changed thinking.
  4. I invite peo­ple to apol­o­gize when they cause harm. Authen­tic apol­o­gy can pro­vide incred­i­ble heal­ing, both for the per­pe­tra­tor and the one targeted.
  5. I insist on get­ting curi­ous and invite peo­ple to ask ques­tions of those who are dif­fer­ent from them.

There is no expec­ta­tion that peo­ple should agree with one anoth­er, but choos­ing to learn why a per­son believes what they do can help peo­ple from very dif­fer­ent back­grounds find oppor­tu­ni­ties for connection.

Third, I encour­age peo­ple to pause and take time to breathe or move when they are frus­trat­ed or angry or tired. As a cul­ture, too many of us respond in the moment in ways that are not thought­ful or help­ful in mov­ing con­ver­sa­tions for­ward. If we could just pause for a few sec­onds to col­lect our thoughts and get ful­ly present in the moment, exchanges will be more fruit­ful. In train­ing, we prac­tice tak­ing twen­ty sec­onds to do a deep breath­ing activ­i­ty. I also encour­age peo­ple, in their worst moments, to stop and count back­wards from ten in a lan­guage oth­er than Eng­lish. This prac­tice helps your emo­tion­al sys­tem reset.

At this moment in time, as our nation is phys­i­cal­ly burn­ing with wild­fires, and “burn­ing” sociopo­lit­i­cal­ly with racial and social con­flicts that are play­ing out in school board meet­ings and in leg­is­la­tures and on social media, I urge all who come across this post to be mind­ful and considerate.

Do not allow your­self to become par­a­lyzed. You can take action.

Your words matter.

How you engage those in your com­mu­ni­ty — those “like” you and those who are very dif­fer­ent from you — mat­ters. Speak and act with care.

Vote. Vote for school direc­tors. Vote for coun­ty com­mis­sion­ers and city coun­cil mem­bers. Vote for every item on the tick­et. Get edu­cat­ed about issues that are affect­ing the most mar­gin­al­ized in your community.

We all can do and be better.

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