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raceAhead: Surviving Difficult Conversations at the Holidays

December 21, 2017, 6:15 PM UTC

Let’s talk briefly about talking.

We’re well into the season of reunions and get-togethers, sometimes merry, sometimes forced. It can be dicey. Unspoken worries can surface beneath the small talk; turmoil at work, the health of older relatives, the prospects for children, grown yet stalled. For some, it’s a cruel benchmark. This time of year, it can feel like a constant b-roll of your so-called life is running in the background, reminding you of what you don’t have, who you are not. Without loving care, ancient slights can begin to itch.

And that’s in a good year. Things feel particularly fraught these days. Political tensions are high, rhetoric is rough, and families are now coming together with two separate, and often opposing sets of facts.

Two things crossed my path recently that I hope will provide some inspiration as you face your own difficult conversations across the holiday punch bowl.

The first is this touching short video of an extraordinary conversation between NBA legends Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas that aired on NBA TV on Tuesday night. It was an opportunity for the two men to end a long-standing rift, which included Johnson’s successful attempt to bar Thomas from the 1992 U.S. Olympic team.

It was a quiet, elegant, and public exchange that ended with a moment of grace. “You are my brother. Let me apologize if I hurt you, that we haven’t been together and God is good to bring us back together,” said a quavery-voiced Johnson to Thomas, who dissolved into tears.

Once you’ve stopped ugly crying at your desk, then head over to the always excellent BrainPickings for inspiration number two.

In this essay, Maria Popova prepares us for a season of talking past one another with this gentle primer in the elements of effective dialogue – “not the ping-pong of opinions and co-reactivity that passes for dialogue today, but a commitment to mutual contemplation of viewpoints and considered response,” she says. “[T]he dearth of this commitment in our present culture is the reason why we continue to find ourselves sundered by confrontation and paralyzed by the divisiveness of ‘us vs. them’ narratives.”

She elevates several exemplars, Ursula K. Le Guin, along with James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, but settles on physicist David Bohm, whose collected essays, On Dialogue, offer unique insights into what keeps humans from hearing each other. They were written mostly in the 1970s, but feel eerily relevant now:

In spite of this worldwide system of linkages, there is, at this very moment, a general feeling that communication is breaking down everywhere, on an unparalleled scale… What appears [in the media] is generally at best a collection of trivial and almost unrelated fragments, while at worst, it can often be a really harmful source of confusion and misinformation.

What is required, he says, is communication in the service of creating something new, rather than a passionate defense of one’s own, even unexamined, ideas.

For example, consider a dialogue. In such a dialogue, when one person says something, the other person does not in general respond with exactly the same meaning as that seen by the first person. Rather, the meanings are only similar and not identical. Thus, when the second person replies, the first person sees a difference between what he meant to say and what the other person understood. On considering this difference, he may then be able to see something new, which is relevant both to his own views and to those of the other person. And so it can go back and forth, with the continual emergence of a new content that is common to both participants.

Of course, this only works if people feel free to listen to each other, “without prejudice, and without trying to influence each other,” he says, a hard habit to break for many. Dialogue is not always going to be possible – a freeing idea all its own – but if the point of a conversation is not to win, but to create, then better outcomes become more likely. (As always, if you are in a vulnerable place, then you are not under any obligation to have any conversations you’re not ready for.)

But if you can’t be Bohm this season, try to be Magic. Sometimes a humble declaration of truth and love is all you need to restore a relationship gone fallow and move past the b-roll and back into the present. “And just to sit across from you and relive those moments of fun, excellence, working hard, dreaming big,” he said to Thomas. “Who sits up at 19 or 21 dreaming of stuff we wanted to do and now we are here doing it.”


Happy winter solstice. It all gets brighter from here.

On Point

Lawmakers to Microsoft: Ban arbitration on race discrimination cases, tooMicrosoft announced this week that it would no longer force employees to address sexual harassment or gender discrimination cases through private arbitration. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote to Microsoft yesterday extend their policy to other forms of discrimination and harassment, including race, gender expression and identification and religion. "While we commend Microsoft for steps it has taken to prevent workplace discrimination, more can be done," said the letter to CEO Satya Nadella. Critics of arbitration say the lack of transparency in the process shields predators and the company from public scrutiny, providing cover for problematic behaviors. Some 60 million Americans are estimated to address claims in private arbitration.USA Today

Oakland cops are more racist when tired, stressed, or hungry
A new study by researcher and Masters degree candidate Meghan Hunt found that at times when police officers are likely stressed, they’re more likely to stop, search, and handcuff black people at higher rates than they do other races. “Working to Close the Gap: How Stress and Fatigue Impact Racial Disparities in Traffic Stops by Oakland Police,” reviews 10,624 traffic stops in Oakland, from January-October 2016, and was (laudably) published by Oakland Police Department (OPD) Office of the Inspector General. To be fair, the OPD begin their ten-hour shifts disproportionately targeting black people. By the end of the first hour of their shifts, 52% of traffic stops are black people, who comprise just 28% of the Oakland population. But if they skip their 30-minute mid-shift break, by hour six, the number of stops jump to 66%.
The Bold Italic

Companies are using Facebook to filter out older workers from seeing employment ads
And it may very well be illegal. A new investigation from ProPublica and The New York Times has found that companies including Amazon, Verizon, Target, Goldman Sachs, and others have been placing job recruitment ads limited to particular age groups, a practice which may be in violation of federal discrimination law. They’re not the only ones. ProPublica bought age-specific ads on Google and LinkedIn, though LinkedIn changed its system after being contacted by the reporters. Others have made changes as well. “We recently audited our recruiting ads on Facebook and discovered some had targeting that was inconsistent with our approach of searching for any candidate over the age of 18,” said an Amazon spokesperson. “We have corrected those ads.” But it remains a gray area for some.

China opens an epic library that is a monument to reading
The interior atrium is extraordinary, complete with a central mirrored glowing orb that functions as focal point and auditorium, and terraced bookshelves that have the undulating beauty of a topographic map. The Tianjin Binhai Library is a 33,700 square meter book-lover’s dream, and based on this film, everyone in it is brilliant, attractive, and engaged. The three-year project was a collaboration between Dutch architectural firm MVRDV and the Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute. Though many of the books are housed in other buildings – in fact, some of the upper shelves have printed aluminum panes that only appear to be books, the building attracts some 15,000 visitors per weekend.

The Woke Leader

The two Romare Beardens
The artist Romare Bearden is famous and beloved for his sweeping works depicting black life, particularly his oils and collage. But what many don’t know that his emergence as a force in black art was by design. Bearden was a founding member of Spiral, a self-proclaimed “group of Negro artists,” who had formed a New York-based alliance to create a platform for artmaking within the context of the Civil Rights Movement. It was 1963. This alliance marks two distinct periods in Bearden’s work, which are captured in two separate exhibits. “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” recently at the Tate Modern, and currently on tour. But his earlier work, created in painterly isolation, reflected broader themes of the 1950s, including abstraction and color theory. The Neuberger Museum in Purchase, NY curated an exhibit of this work, called “Romare Bearden: Abstraction.” While it closes tomorrow (sorry) the work is beautifully explained in this terrific review.
The Nation

More On West and Coates
Ismail Muhammed has the best take to date on the dust-up between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and one that is worth considering seriously. It begins with a fundamental truth. “It’s not an overstatement to say that, if you are a young writer who interrogates American race relations and white supremacy, Cornel West is the foundation upon which you stand.” This is true for anyone who is new to the conversation, by the way. But age will not spare you the sting of being attacked by the elder statesman whose work “is part of the canon that teaches younger writers how to think and write about race.” It's part of what makes West's critique, which was either a misunderstanding of Coates’ latest work or a “willful misreading” of it, so upsetting. Muhammed's analysis also offers an excellent foundation in the thinking of both writers, if you’re late to the game.

For women of color who want to be the boss
Forbes contributor and ColorComm founder Lauren Wesley Wilson has five pieces of advice for women of color determined to move up the corporate ladder. She’s had some practice. ColorComm was formed to advance women of color in marketing, advertising, and communications, a sector where white men are overwhelmingly found in executive positions. All are terrific, but two got my attention. First, don’t wait for someone else to nominate you for industry awards, and second, mentor down, not up. “Finding younger mentors enables fresh thinking, new ideas and gives insight into the type of people you’ll likely manage in the future,” she says. Brilliant. It also changes the mentor-mentee dynamic from one of status to one of expertise. Everyone has a contribution to make.


The police in this country make no distinction between a Black Panther or a black lawyer or my brother or me. The cops aren’t going to ask me my name before they pull the trigger. I’m part of this society and I’m in exactly the same situation as anybody else — any other black person — in it. If I don’t know that, then I’m fairly self-deluded… What I’m trying to get at is the question of responsibility. I didn’t drop the bomb (that killed four black school girls in Birmingham). And I never lynched anybody. Yet I am responsible not for what has happened but for what can happen.
James Baldwin