6 Norms for Discussing Race and Social Justice

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As the year comes to a close, you might find yourself having more conversations about social justice at your district or school, especially when thinking about how to be inclusive of marginalized, religious groups around the holidays.  You may also be planning activities revolving around social justice for the new year… a sort of New Year’s resolution for your district.  These activities may involve book clubs on books such as White Fragility by by Robin DiAngelo or How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.  They may involve anti-racist workshops.  Regardless, if you are planning on getting together with others to talk about social justice, equity, inclusivity, race, or any such topic, the topic may easily become heated.  The topic of race and social justice have been taboo in our society for so many years that most of us don’t know how to have these conversations. Additionally, patience has justifiably run out for those who are seeking change.  On the other hand, in recent years, it has become more and more socially acceptable to bark racist opinions.  And in the middle of these two groups are those who consider themselves “not racist,” and therefore, refuse to analyze their own behavior or accept that the world around them is changing.  Therefore, it is vital to the success of any conversation related to social justice that we use research based norms to help guide the group.

The following are the norms that I use when conducting my own social justice workshops.  These are based on the works of Glenn Singleton, Tyrone Howard, and Race Forward. When I share these norms, I make sure to note that they are research-based. I also fully explain what these norms mean.  (I have given the explanations that I share for each below as well.) Feel free to use these norms or to adapt them to your circumstances as you see fit.  

  1. It is up to each of us to make this session successful.  I always explain to participants that I, alone, cannot make our workshops, conversations, etc. successful.  While I will do my best to present and share information, everyone has to take part in ensuring respectful and engaging discussions.  This means that we cannot raise our voices when we disagree, use disparaging words, or spend time looking at our phones.  We have to be all in.
  2. Move up.  Move up. This norm is adapted directly from Race Forward’s work and refers to the idea that some of us, by nature, are talkers, and some of us, by nature, are listeners.  Those of us who are talkers need to give enough wait time for those who are listeners to speak, and when they do speak, we need to make sure that we are exercising our listening skills instead of thinking about what we want to say.  And those of us who are listeners should try to use the wait time being given to contribute to the conversations.  After all, each of us is an experts in our own experiences, and it’s only through conversations about these experiences that we can grow.
  3. Use “I” statements.  Speaking of being experts in our own experiences, that’s all we are experts of.  We cannot guess what someone else “meant” when they said something.  We also cannot label someone else’s experiences or ideas as “ridiculous” or “stupid.”  Instead, we can say, “I felt ____ when I heard this.”  “I heard ______.  Did I interpret what was said correctly?”  “I disagree because _____________.”
  4. Confidentiality For a successful conversation, everyone needs to feel that they are in a safe space.  Therefore, there should not be the threat that what someone says will be discussed in the break room afterwards.  (If discussions are happening over Zoom and are being recorded, make sure that there is ample time in breakout rooms for honest conversations.)
  5. Be Solutions Minded It’s easy to get caught up admiring the problem or feeling like these problems can never be solved.  Let’s focus on growth and how we can help keep things moving in the right direction.
  6. Accept Inconclusiveness At the same time, we aren’t going to solve all the problems related to social justice at one sitting.  I once read that the opportunity gap started in 1492. We are certainly not going to solve a 500-year-old problem in one hour. We have to accept that we may be having the same discussions again, only growing a little more with each discussion.  We may leave with new questions or new ideas that we still need to explore.  Social Justice and Anti-Racist workshops are not one shot deals.  They are lifelong commitments to growth in becoming and bettering our roles as anti-racists and social justice warriors  

In the comments below, let me know if you find these norms useful, or if you adapted them for your group.

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