I remember that when my film, The Color of Fear, was released in 1995, so many in my audiences (particularly BIPOC) asked, “Why is up to us to spend three whole days to convince one white guy about the injustice and pain of racism?” It was a fair question then, as much as it is now, when someone in one of my recent trainings asked the exact same question. I’m hesitant to respond too quickly sometimes, because the answer is so layered and different for all of us. Trying to convince someone, especially someone who represents a group that is responsible for decades of racism and white privilege is not an easy process, however experienced and skilled you might think you are. The Chinese believe that you cannot fill a cup that is already full. So, where does one begin? How do you find an entrance to work with someone who is so mired in denial, blaming and fear?
For over thirty-five years I have tried to find that ever-elusive entrance. I wish I could say that I’ve discovered the one way that works all the time. But, humans are all so different from each other, each carrying with them their own unique responses to all that life throws at them. So maybe that’s the answer: trying to find out where they’re coming from and what it has taken for them to get to this room and to this moment.
Years ago, when I was finishing up a workshop in Texas for about 400 high school students, a young white student stood up and yelled out, “Do you know why there are no black Presidents? Because there’s no black man in America who’s qualified!” (This was before Barack Obama)
You can imagine the reaction in the room…and here I was with only fifteen minutes left. I had a hunch this was ‘planned.’ Everyone in the room was looking at me, especially the teachers and administrators. What came out of my mouth was actually similar to what happened in the film, Slumdog Millionaire, in which he keeps remembering things in his life that help him win a huge fortune on this television show. Well, it just so happened that months before this as I was interviewing young people for a film I was doing, that a young Latino student asked me: “Do you know the difference between a gang and a hate group?” I didn’t and he shared: “Well, when it comes to a gang, your parents don’t want you to join. But in a hate group, your parents want you to join them.”
And so, as this story came back to me and I asked this young white student, “So, who told you that?” And he replied, “My parents.” And then, I asked him. “Are your parents members of the KKK?” He stepped back shocked that I had surmised this from what he had shared. “Why yes,” he said. The audience was taken aback, partly because of his honesty and directness. It was at that moment, that instead of coming from a place of trying to educate him or shame him, that I tried a different approach. I said to him, “You know, Patrick, if I were born in your family and had never met many blacks, I would probably have felt the same way that you do. But, now that you’re getting to be a young man, this is a great opportunity for you to find out on your own if your parents were right.” He looked at me, and after a moment agreed with me.
And so I asked the audience how many would love to talk with him about what he had shared. Well, as you might have guessed, the number of students who raised their hands was enormous. I then asked Patrick if he’d be willing to go outside and have a conversation with some of these students. He agreed. The only conditions for everyone were that they each share the time and come from a place of curiosity. They all agreed and thus began an unexpected, but incredibly memorable moment for all of them.
You see, as the Buddhists wrote: Curiosity is the gateway to empathy.