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As Racial Tensions Simmer, Finding Compassion

December 22, 2016, 8:14 PM UTC

As we come to the end of the year, I’m reminded of one of the first interviews I had when raceAhead launched last spring. It was with David Kyuman Kim, an author and professor of religious and American studies at Connecticut College. Lately, he has been spending his time contributing to something called the Love-Driven Politics Collective. It is, as you’d expect, an attempt to shift political conversations away from anger and division toward a more inclusive way of interacting that emphasizes compassion, forgiveness, and generosity. Since it’s an interfaith movement, mercy and grace are also at the table. It’s hard work. It’s high-minded. I’m a fan. Recalling our conversation seemed right for the season.

Kim was also the inaugural director of Connecticut College’s Center for the Comparative Study of Race & Ethnicity, so he knows some things about starting a diversity-related organization from scratch. That was initially why I called. “This work is rarely successful if it’s just a set of procedures,” he says. “It has to be a rigorous investigation of culture.”

We were talking about diversity in the corporate world, and he suggested that leaders should think about it in terms of priorities. “What are the priorities of your company, and what do you want to be known for?” he says. Inclusion is the right priority, but a difficult one. “What keeps folks from engaging around race is fear of judgment,” he says. “Being seen as not thoughtful. Being seen as ignorant.” Living in a white normative, often white supremacist culture, people are raised to see racialized culture as exceptional. Says Kim: “It takes work to name, analyze and live with the anxieties these conversations surface.”

His advice, as it always does, tracks back to love.

The relationships between the people who work with and for you are the building blocks of inclusive culture. Start there. “What does it mean to be in solidarity? It means I’m standing with you because I care about you in abstraction. I care about your well-being, including the threats to your humanity,” he says. The specifics will take some time—remember that we are all, in some way, ignorant. “Talking about race reveals all sorts of deficits in our character,” he says. To punish or exclude is always an easy impulse. “How do you forgive someone for being ‘ignorant’?” he asks. “Start with the language of love and mercy,” he says. “That’s where you’ll find courage.”

Hey, nobody said this was going to be easy.


Heartfelt thanks to all of you. I’m hoping you have plenty of time to relax, revive and renew over the holiday.

RaceAhead will be on hiatus starting tomorrow and will return on Jan. 3.

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Anybody can become angry—that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.