I have participated in dozens of NVC events around the world. If the gathering is in the United States or in a European country, one fact is apparent: I am often the only visible person of color present. In the US, white people have approached me several times to ask, “How can we get more people of color in the room?” Sadly, people of color also have approached me to tell me why they are not coming back to NVC settings. This essay is to share with the folks – especially white people – who want to increase diversity in the room some of the things they can do to make NVC settings more welcoming to people of color in the US.
An important first step is to get informed. Are you truly aware of the experiences of people of color in America? Have you looked at the statistics on racial disparities in income, achievement, imprisonment, housing and employment discrimination? Have you considered what these statistics mean for the day-to-day experience of many people of color?
There have been several instances at NVC gatherings, when the subject of race arises, that I have heard someone minimize the experiences of people of color. This can happen in explicit statements or in subtle ways. For instance, after a Latino man shared how cops beat his brother simply for asking why he was pulled over (the genesis of the speaker’s subsequent distrust of the police), a white woman expressed shock that anyone could believe the cops were not helpful. When this happened, many of the people of color became silent in the group. How do they even begin to connect when direct lived experiences are challenged? How was it possible that statistics on police violence against people of color were not only unknown, but also challenged?
Are you doing your own work outside of these settings, or are you asking these questions of people of color who come to your workshop to learn and share NVC? Get support outside of these events to understand the issues of discrimination and the disparities that result.
At a recent workshop, an African American woman described, with a lot of pain, her utter weariness at her white friends asking that she alert them when they said something racially insensitive. She described being exhausted with trying to cope internally with these issues, as they came up. She was flabbergasted that she was invited to tidily put away any reaction she might have in order to calmly educate the very person who had triggered her. Notice the impact that your requests for education and support can have on others whose experience goes unacknowledged. Choose to do your workin ways that are not so costly to the people of color in the room!
If you already have begun your work and learned the issues, you can do a lot to support NVC communities when these diversity issues arise. One consequence of the privilege that many white people enjoy is that they, despite the best of intentions, may be completely unaware of the experiences of people of color, or why experiencing certain behaviors would be challenging for a person of color.
I have seen an issue of racial sensitivity arise in a diverse setting, and watched everyone turn to another person of color to intervene. If you are a white person and you’re aware of the issue, step in. You can help the community understand and demonstrate that this is not a person of color issue, but a challenge for everyone in the community. You can remove the burden described earlier where, if something triggers me, as a person of color, I need to put aside my trigger and speak up. If you have the knowledge and awareness to facilitate, then step in. Help educate those who have yet to step in to address discrimination and system disparities.
A third step is to distinguish between intention and impact, and attend to impact. Most people coming to NVC circles have in their hearts an intention to connect and support. Despite your best intentions, sometimes your efforts to connect have an impact different than you intend. What you do when this happens, especially around issues of diversity, affects how welcoming NVC circles are. When you trigger someone, even when it wasn’t your intention, you generally know what to do. Many teachings in NVC address this – connection before correction; empathy first. But, what I have seen happen repeatedly when it comes to diversity is the opposite. People become so horrified at the thought of possibly being perceived as racist that they focus on being understood for their intention, often insisting that the person of color who expressed pain at the white person’s actions stop expressing pain and acknowledge the white person’s intention.
For example, at a recent workshop an African-American woman – who had just explained how painful it was to share her experiences of discrimination – exploded with deep pain and rage when someone’s response was to let her know they wished to know her better and asked the African-American woman to share her experiences of discrimination. The requestor kept interrupting the African-American woman, protesting, “This is not what I meant.”
A young Asian-American woman explained how these kinds of experiences led her to distance herself from NVC circles. She shared that when she tried to address things that happened in NVC settings that she found painful, others insisted that she focus on observations, feelings and needs. Her experience was that, as people attempted to get her to focus only on the current moment and the current speaker’s intention, the pain stimulated in her by the historical context in which these interactions fell, whether or not the speaker intended it, was minimized and dismissed.
As one woman described, “if I walk in the store, and you come from behind the counter to follow me, you may have done so completely by chance. That does not change the impact on me as I experience the pain that arises when this event reminds me of the number of times shopkeepers have followed me, stopped me and asked me to open my purse to prove I wasn’t shoplifting. I don’t know your intention, and the pain stimulated in me is real,” she explained. “Hearing your intention doesn’t diminish the pain that this is my experience, and that it has happened frequently enough to be a pattern that your actions fit.”
In this case, use NVC fully. Either offer empathy to the person in such pain, or go get empathy yourself from another person. Asking a person of color to stop and take care of your pain falls right into another trap that people of color find too familiar: We’re not supposed to “make” white people uncomfortable. So, our pain needs to be private and only shared among ourselves. How can we want to be part of a circle that prides itself on authenticity, when our authenticity is constrained only to what feels comfortable for you?
Continue to do your work. Notice when your pain about how you might be perceived, or about the impact of your actions arises and get support. But, don’t let getting support or working through your pain get in the way of acknowledging the impact of your actions on people of color. Don’t let it prevent you from empathizing with the pain we’ve experienced hearing your words.
Related to these points is the question of what’s okay to talk about in NVC circles. I’ve been part of many NVC groups where we discuss intense topics. People will share stories of heartbreaking personal trauma and groups will stop to express care and hold space for them. But, over and over, I’ve seen people of color express pain about racism. Folks get quiet. We change the topic. We begin a debate about the validity of the speaker’s experience or ask the speaker to prove her observation.
America is still so conflicted about racism, so uncertain about how to acknowledge it and talk about it, that even in NVC circles, we don’t know how to talk about it and are afraid to acknowledge it. It’s a subject of such pain – and in some cases, huge risk – engendering such fear for both white people and people of color, that both sides tend to avoid it.
The next step is to accept that you’ll make mistakes and that you will stimulate pain for someone. This doesn’t mean avoid the subject. Talk about it. Address it. Name your fears. If you stimulate someone, then use your NVC skills and deal with it. Empathize! If you can’t, self-empathize, and help the other person get empathy.
If you stimulate someone and you don’t get why, go ask a white friend or someone more knowledgeable (and not triggered) to help you understand. Engage! Don’t shy away and ignore the elephant in the room. If you’re white, you can pretend it’s not there and that it will walk out when the person of color leaves. But if you’re a person of color, that elephant has its trunk wrapped around your heart, waiting to follow you to the next gathering. Recognize that this is not an issue just for the people of color. We all lose something precious – authentic community – when we don’t discuss diversity issues, especially when it results in people leaving and not coming back.
This essay also highlights an aspect of leadership that is especially important when dealing with issues like inclusion, group dynamics and group functioning. You don’t have to be the designated leader in a group to take these actions. As the leader, you will have some structural power that will make it easier for your actions to have an impact on others in the group. But, great change can happen when people lead from below, when we take acts of leadership from positions of less structural power.
Regardless of your position in the group, how you respond when faced with these issues can impact how the group functions, and how welcoming the group environment is for everyone. As a white person witnessing some of the painful dynamics described earlier in the article, you can choose to use the privilege you have as a white person to change the often unconscious patterns that plague well-meaning groups, whether or not you have the structural power that comes with being named the leader. It is a great opportunity to truly live in alignment with your values, to create a more inclusive climate, and to lead by example.