How to Stay Together at the Table to Talk about Race

By Susan R. Adams, Indiana

In the past year, thanks to technology’s capacity to send viral video into our collective consciousness, Americans are struggling to come to grips with the reality that a shocking, disproportionate number of Black and Brown people continue to be the victims of senseless shootings at the hands of police. If there is any kind of silver lining to this terrible dark cloud surrounding us, it is that I am hearing more people venturing into discussions of race than I normally do. In their despair, fear, and frustration, my white friends are coming to greater awareness that Black and Brown Americans simply do not experience day to day life in the same ways white people mostly do: largely oblivious of white privilege and unaware of the daily grinding impact of systemic racism on Black and Brown people.

These conversations pop up with strangers in airports, with colleagues at school, and even in my church congregations Sunday night discussion group as we wondered together how to mourn and to respond to yet another shooting. The difficulty is not in starting the conversation; the challenge is finding the will, skill and capacity to sustain this painful conversation so that it leads us into clarity, into deeper understandings, and into informed, highly conscious advocacy, rather than simply fizzling out when we get overwhelmed or fear, anger and grief will overtake us.

Like many educators, I have benefitted greatly from the important and highly accessible work of Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton (2006) in Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Education. In particular, I appreciate the wisdom embedded in the Four Agreements:

  1. Stay engaged.
  2. Experience discomfort.
  3. Speak your truth.
  4. Expect and accept non-closure (p. 58).

These agreements are strikingly simple, but each contains a necessary condition for distributing power equitably across the group members and for ensuring we don’t end up shutting or shouting one another down in the end. Holding myself and others to these stated agreements helps me remember I can only speak my own truth (and not yours) and that we must commit to engaging in this hard work for the long haul with what our SRI friend and colleague, Gene Thomson-Grove (2005) has called “patient urgency.”

Holding to these agreements is not easy, but trying to talk in a meaningful way about something as deep and painful as the racial divide in America seems impossible to me without them. In the midst of too many conversations I am struck by the destructive power of unnamed assumptions of the participants and the often unconscious, always damaging, display of white power when people talk about race across difference without stated agreements or norms.

A group of teachers I was lucky enough to work with a few years ago taught me a lot about how to maintain and sustain difficult race conversations over several years. The group first formed following the conclusion of a Teaching for Educational Equity (TFEE) seminar. All four women, two white and two Black, taught in the same metropolitan area, but in different schools, different disciplines, and were at different stages in the careers. They committed to meeting regularly on their own time as part of their action plans created during the TFEE and astonishingly they kept that promise for two years afterward.

The group members participated in a follow-up study I conducted. They emphasized repeatedly to me that it is essential to create conditions in which each member knows she is safe and well cared for emotionally, physically, and socially. They learned that paying careful, consistent attention to safety is the first condition for building the sort of trust necessary for speaking one’s truth across race. The group reached back to the SRI protocols they experienced during the TFEE seminar to provide a trustworthy structure and to ensure equitable participation in their gatherings.

These educators shared student and teacher work with confidence in each other to provide robust, challenging, and racially conscious feedback and perspectives. Attention to shared facilitation and to a co-negotiated agenda ensured our meetings were productive and that power was distributed across the group. Using SRI protocols like Peeling the Onion, the Consultancy, and the ATLAS with fidelity allowed them to make themselves and their teaching practices vulnerable.

Over time the group found the courage to talk about inequitable practices in their schools and to notice their own racial biases’ impact on Black and Brown students. The group developed shared language and began talking about “going out onto a skinny branch” and about “getting real” with one another. Together they sought courage and strength to interrupt and to eliminate previously unexamined practices which disproportionately impacted students of color. They found great comfort in knowing each of the others were “out there” working hard, too.

Each member told me that while membership and participation in this group was sometimes exhausting and very challenging, each member inevitably left our meetings feeling recharged, recommitted, and refocused on their shared commitments. Startlingly, they also agreed that this was the first time in their lives they had ever been allowed to talk about race and schooling across racial differences. One member, a Jamaican American woman, said it was the first time in more than 20 years of living in the US that she felt this sort of belonging and compared it to being back home in Jamaica with her family.

The group identified several paradoxes they believe were at work among them, the most significant of which was “We are the same, but we are different.” In their experience the tension of this truth created a productive, yet palpable tension. This useful tension is the result of the group’s agreements, their shared practices, and patient relationship development over time. I believe these conditions created the paradox Parker Palmer (2007) describes as a learning environment which is both “hospitable, yet charged” which allowed them to delve deeply into complex and painful histories and bring them redemptively into the light of scrutiny.  These are the very conditions we need to create in schools and classrooms if we hope to maintain and sustain meaningful conversations about race and schooling for the long haul.

NOTE: To learn more about this remarkable group, you can read all about them in Race and Pedagogy: Creating collaborative spaces for teacher transformations available through Amazon.

Works Cited

Adams, S. R., & Buffington-Adams, J. (2016). Race and Pedagogy: Creating collaborative spaces for teacher transformations. Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.

Palmer, P. J. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Singleton, G., & Linton II, C. (2006). Courageous conversations about race: A field guide for achieving equity in education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Sage Publications.

Thompson-Grove, G. (January 2005). A call to action. Keynote Address (abridged) The 9th Annual NSRF Winter Meeting. Cambridge, MA.


If you have any questions or feedback for Susan, she can be reached at Feel free to discuss this and other topics in our Facebook group.

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