Talking and Listening

Today my colleague Davianna Green and I facilitated a seminar class on Race and Inclusivity for Graduate Pedagogy led by Professor Susan Van Pelt Petry. Lately we’ve been practicing leading movement and seminar-style classes with feedback discussions afterwards.

For this particular project I was enriched by the readings and research, by the candid dialogues Davianna and I had in preparation for the project, the group’s discussion, and by just doing the thing.

(I was also reminded  of logistics – our two warm up exercises for discussion became our main discussion.  Perhaps that’s how it needed to be though. It’s an interesting balance – choosing to allow space for fruitful conversation, for depth, and choosing to move on to get to content – there was so much rich content we barely touched the surface of and a lot of rich content in the space.)

Learning experiences.


As a white person, (and certainly as any person), starting, entering, or facilitating a dialogue around race can feel really awkward. But having the conversation is everyone’s responsibility. You don’t need to wait for a person of color to open the door for conversation, and it’s rude and irresponsible to do that.  We’re all implicated in broader systems of racial injustice whether it’s easy to see, whether we want to see, or not. And it’s a shared job to talk about it.

Of course I was nervous about the class, and felt that pit of my stomach squrimy feeling, even afterwards.  Maybe you know the feeling: I’ve had really bad experiences in the past, I was worried I’d “Talk About Race Wrong” (as Ijeoma Oluo puts it), afterwards I feel anxious, an ego plunge, worrying that I’ll be seen as stupid or unthoughtful. But the conversation isn’t about “I/me” –  it’s about having the conversation. And having it again. And seeing how we can grow. (See list of tips below).

It’s about normalizing the discomfort around talking about race and engaging with it in community. Be brave enough to be honest and be brave enough to listen.   

And if something makes you uncomfortable, you’re probably doing it right.

Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race provided a set of tips and suggestions for having potentially messy discussions about the “R word,” productively (chapter three if you want to know).

The book is honest (sometimes brutally so), accessible, provocative, and thoughtful.

– highly recommended. For everyone. It’s so good it’s hard to read because you feel so many feelings at once.

From Oluo’s Chapter “What if I Talk About Race Wrong”:  

“Here are some basic tips that will increase your chance of conversation success, or at least decrease your chance of conversation disaster:”

  1. State your intentions.
  2. Remember what your top priority in the conversation is, and don’t let your emotions override that.
  3. Do your research.
  4. Don’t make your anti-racism argument oppressive against other groups.
  5. When you start to feel defensive, stop and ask yourself why?
  6. Do not tone police.
  7. If you are white, watch how many times you say “I” and “me.”
  8. Ask yourself: Am I trying to be right, or am I trying to do better?
  9. Do not force people of color into discussions about race.   

Oluo’s advice for when conversations are not going well:

  1. Stop trying to jump back in when a conversation is beyond saving.
  2. Apologize.
  3. Don’t write your synopsis of this conversation as “the time you got yelled at.”
  4. Don’t insist that people give you credit for your intentions.
  5. Don’t beat yourself up.
  6. Remember that it is worth the risk and commit to trying again.

These concepts are much richer with Oluo’s commentary –  please go find out for yourself. What do you think about them?


(c) Shelton Oakley Hershey

One point brought up during the discussion was the importance of listening well.  Practicing listening in order to hear, absorb, & understand – not listening in order to respond. But, as the conversation also brought up, that act – actual listening – is a challenge.

I wonder about holding ourselves to this challenge of listening in our daily lives. Especially around the topic of race, and heated topics in general. 

When was the last time you really took time to listen to that person from whom you have very divergent views – without planning your retort as they are speaking? 

Yes even if you’re talking about Trump.

Yikes. I certainly struggle with that one.

When was the last time you actually felt heard? Really listened to?

Thorough Listening means taking time to have conversations.

Listening means there probably won’t be a clear “winner.”  

I wonder about prospects for listening in a political era drenched in rhetoric of “WINNERS” and “LOSERS,” short soundbites, and shackled by tweet-length attention spans.

I don’t know.  But what a resonant and relevant challenge to attempt.

Oluo, Ijeoma. 2018. So You Want to Talk About Race. New York: Seal Press.