CONFRONTING RACIAL, ETHNIC, AND GENDER CONFLICTS MORE CONSTRUCTIVELY


CONFLICT RESEARCH CONSORTIUM

By Garnett Tatum

Working Paper 93-4, July 20, 1993(1)

Director, Human Resources

University of Colorado - Boulder


(1) This paper is an edited transcript of a talk given by Garnett Tatum for the Intractable Conflict/Constructive Confrontation Project on March 15, 1993. Funding for this Project was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the University of Colorado. All ideas presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Consortium, the University, or Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e-mail: crc@cubldr.colorado.edu.


© 1993. Conflict Resolution Consortium. Do not reprint without permission.


I'm going to talk about law as a formal means, and not necessarily the most effective means, of dealing with racial, ethnic and gender conflicts. It may be difficult to discern if law and ordinances are an appropriate means of dealing with conflict when legal or civil rights have clearly been violated. Police officers I have spoken with say they have difficulty recognizing what ordinances or laws they may be enforcing. The police also have to deal with questions of how to enforce civil rights laws and ordinances. Such issues are not always clear.

The Supreme Court decision has placed considerable limitation on the effectiveness of creating and enforcing laws dealing with First Amendment issues. These considerations raise questions of how to protect First Amendment rights under the law, how to recognize when the law has been violated, or when actions should be protected under the First Amendment. It is an issue that obfuscates many things when attempting to resolve conflict and in creating an environment where conflict can be resolved.

We have policies which seek to prohibit face-to-face confrontations. Laws that the courts have upheld prohibit confrontations in which racist, ethnic, gender or homophobic slurs, or other incendiary behavior is exhibited. Such laws do accomplish some things, but they are like putting out a brushfire. If you don't extinguish all of the fire, something else--potentially something much larger--will flare-up later on. These policies are not a resolution to racial, gender and ethnic conflict.

Other formal methods we use, such as grievance processes, work much like the above-mentioned issues. They merely end up talking about individual issues. This is not to say that individual issues should not be confronted, but we must recognize this does not create an environment that is conducive to dealing with racial, ethnic and gender conflicts over a longer period of time.

We need to do more to deal with such issues, using more practical methods. One of these methods involves bringing people together to facilitate understanding. Often we don't know who we are and we don't know what we're about. This happens most often in cases where groups are trying to assimilate. I am pointing toward minorities more than any other group when I speak of assimilation, but I'm not excluding majority groups.

This type of understanding involves a self-awareness which goes beyond rhetoric and good intentions. It is not constructive when people are forced to behave or speak in a certain way. That type of assimilation constructs a "me/them" dichotomy. No conflict is resolved in that way, although the University and other communities believe that they can resolve conflict in this manner. These attempts more often resemble an assimilation situation than an understanding situation. To come to an understanding, one must move beyond simple awareness. That is something that is not very easy to do.

I hear people talk about their level of awareness, but this assimilation approach to awareness can be insulting to minorities when they attempt to behave like someone they are not. Yet, they are merely trying to be aware. This technique is often offensive and creates conflict. Frequently, this type of conflict involves a minority who is trying not to engage in conflict, but they tend to internalize the conflict. Eventually, the internalized anger escalates and something has to be done about it. This usually creates more conflict. Then they may turn on the person who is trying to be very nice, very aware, and very sensitive. The individual who is trying to be aware doesn't understand, "Why are you turning on me, brother?" The other side may respond with, "I'm not your brother, man. We don't speak the same language."

I have heard many definitions of awareness and many ways to deal with this issue of gender and racial conflict. I think understanding must happen on a much smaller, community basis. For example, it must develop in the University community. A young black man came to see me about his problem. He wanted to transfer off this campus because of a disturbing classroom incident. The student was attending a sociology class where the professor had been discussing life in an urban area. The young man, one of the very few minorities in the class, raised his hand (he had to raise it several times before being recognized). The professor finally acknowledged him by saying, "Yeah, what do you want? I'm trying to teach you something about an urban area." He then dismissed the young man's comments. The young man raised his hand again, and again was received with, "Yeah, yeah, what do you want?" The student responded with, "Well, it's not like that. It's like this." The instructor felt the student was being disruptive. The young man said, "I've lived in the exact area you are talking about for nineteen years." But the professor still continued to discount that individual's actual experience in favor of four or five years of research. The professor failed to recognize this individual's experiences as an enrichment factor in his classroom. The professor could have used this enrichment factor as a learning process, employing the experiences of different people from different areas to teach the class many things. That professor deprived the other students of a very valuable lesson at that point. More importantly, the professor took away the young man's self-esteem, for the student had come to me saying, "You know, I can't stand it here." I got the student's permission to talk with the professor, but the professor really didn't understand what had happened. Eventually the professor apologized, and the young man stayed on campus. They got to know one another a lot better. This illustrates that this type of awareness cannot happen through laws. It is something that cannot be legislated.

One method that I have used to facilitate understanding of difference grew out of a class I designed called "Living in a Diverse Community." This class, which I have taught in the dorms, focuses on unself-conscious discussions. We talk about everything, from baseball to rape. I challenge students (very few are minorities) in the class to find a minority, a person different from them, and have an unself-conscious discussion about race with them. This is a difficult and frightening thing for some to do. Usually, there is a great deal of understanding, camaraderie, and many long-lasting relationships that grow out of this exercise.

It is always problematic to have others make decisions for a group. I have seen this happen at various levels. At the University, we were dealing with the subject of students--not any particular class of students, but just students. As the meeting continued, I found it disturbing that we were about to make some decisions for students, but there were no students present at the meeting. The others at the meeting felt that they knew what was best for the students, but I insisted upon student representation. Their solution to this was to invite one student. I questioned this solution: "Which student? How are you going to go about that?" They were getting one student to make a decision for all students.

There is also a problem with bringing one individual to speak in a particular situation and represent a group of people. That individual gives a certain perception that they can speak for a community of people. It is important that when people want to find resolutions to conflict, that they recognize their own limitations. If they do not recognize their limitations, there is the danger that the conflict will escalate. The same thing happens when one is asked to represent the interests of all women or all minorities, or all blacks, for instance.

This same thing happens when we form groups in cities to deal with conflict. The Task Force formed by Linda Jourgensen and Jim Corbridge grew from a conversation that Linda and I had concerning a particular conflict. I had met with Linda a number of times; I then turned to Stuart Takeuchi, who is the University liaison with the City. Stuart then turned the problem over to Jim Corbridge. Corbridge and Jourgensen then formed the Task Force in order to resolve problems of race, ethnicity, and gender. But, I question this action. Don't we first have to define what our problems are? There are numerous problems in Boulder in the arena of race, ethnicity, and gender. People, here, tend to intellectualize these issues. This doesn't work. These issues must be dealt with on a grassroots level. It is awfully easy to be a "good" person if you have never had to confront issues. It is very easy not to discriminate if there is nobody to discriminate against. That is what happens in Boulder. I don't mean to be negative, but I want to reinforce the idea that learning what the issues are is essential.

This aspect of the Boulder community is emphasized in meetings I attend. Boulder is a very well-meaning place. I am often invited to listen to groups who want to talk about policy building around race and gender conflicts. These discussions often revolve around discussions that sound like this: "Here are the things we ought to do. There are a limited number of ethnic minorities in the area, so we will get so and so from the area. Then we will know how these minority groups think. Therefore, we will build policies and know how to deal with a conflict in this area. We will listen to what they say and then behave the way we think we ought to behave. We will then go do what we think they need done for them." This intellectualizing of the subject and generalization of the issues does not solve any problems. In fact, it creates more problems when such decisions are made about people or classes of people.

The necessity for more research is needed in order to define the problems. After that one must learn how to talk with people about solutions. I believe that it is very dangerous to worry about these problems and to believe one is very sensitive and well-informed without this background of grassroots involvement. Addressing individual issues is not sufficient; the cause of the conflict must be addressed. Publicity on commitment to a cause is important, but more must be done than making a positive public statement. It is necessary that feelings, as well as behavior, around issues of race and gender be examined. If we contemplate issues based merely on the way an individual acts, and we accept that as a truth, we are dealing with only surface-level issues. We need to find out how that person feels, and that person needs to find out how he or she feels. We can leave a situation very proud of ourselves because the reactions we received were positive. But do we question how we really feel about the things that we are talking about? Do we question whether or not we actually treated another person as an equal? In race and gender conflicts people need to be taught to learn to examine their actions, thoughts, and motives much more closely.

A very brief story illustrates this point. I was involved in a sensitivity training session once where the participants were sequestered in a room for 72 hours. The room was an open room like World War II army barracks. The toilets were the same as in a barrack, so everybody was exposed. The beds were right next to one another, therefore, everybody could hear your conversation, and everyone ate together. There was little or no privacy in this situation. On one night we had what was called a "primitive dinner" where we had no knives or forks--we had to eat with our hands. Also, there were no drinking glasses, just large bottles of pop were brought around, as well as whole chickens, whole loaves of bread, whole tomatoes, etc. So, in order to eat we had to tear these things apart. There was this one white individual who perceived himself as extremely liberal. But, his internal feelings were exposed in this "primitive dinner." On each side of him was a black man. The man on one side of him drank from the community bottle of soda, passed it to the liberal, but the white man, who perceived himself as extraordinarily open-minded, could not drink from the bottle. He learned a lot about himself. He sat there and he cried, saying, "I can't do it. I just cannot drink behind you, knowing you drank from that bottle."

I suggest that this man is not an isolated case. There are a lot of us that do not know enough about ourselves, especially when dealing with conflict. We are very quick to give opinions, to say that we would not act in a particular way and judge the way others act. Examine yourselves. I am talking about all of us. Everyone dealing with conflicts needs to examine themselves. One way of doing that is to put ourselves in that situation, which is not as easy as it might initially seem. I used to teach a race-relations class. In these classes I would say, "We are going to pull out your intestines here, and lay them out on the floor and examine them. Nobody is going to trample on them. Once we examine you totally, we are going to put them back inside of you, if they'll fit."

Along these lines the element of climate must be examined closely in conflict resolution. We constantly hear how important this is. But, what does that really mean? It says that we ought to be good, we ought to think about everybody being good, we ought to criticize those people who don't say the things that we think ought to be said. We try to think of an environment where things are just so clean and pure that everybody can operate in it. But, this is only rhetoric. We return to our own homes, to domestic conflicts, and individual conflicts that contradict what we state publicly. The actuality of everyday life demonstrates that there are many, many subtle kinds of things that can impact on another individual. Thus, we must examine what we do versus what we say.

Recently I read an article regarding what was called a "chilling climate" for women. The article struck me not only relevant to women but also to issues regarding ethnicity and culture. I believe these things cannot be separated. The article stated that a person concerned about equity may treat women (and I add, minorities) in ways that convey a powerful subtle message. It is the subtlety of the situations that create conflict--we don't know that we are doing certain things. If people don't know it, they have a hard time coming to awareness. I'm not talking about everybody having to walk on eggshells; that would be very inappropriate. But everybody ought to understand what they are talking about before they start to talk about it.

A particular incident that illustrates this point occurred when I was living outside of the United States. I was on a bus in Turkey. A white male got up from his seat when a Turk had sat down beside him. The white male was from the United States and was offended by people on the bus who did not practice the same hygiene practiced in the United States. This man, hearing me speak, came over and asked to sit with me. I said, "No, you can't." He said, "Why not?" I said, "If we were in the U.S., I'd be that guy back there." My point is that we don't examine ourselves and look at what we really are in any given climate.

The examples I have used to illustrate my points are not the type of conflicts that can be appropriately addressed through laws. These conflicts cannot be appropriately addressed through city ordinances, nor can they be appropriately addressed through policy. It takes an extraordinary amount of education. People must be willing to come to a certain level of understanding and educate themselves to who they are, not who the other person is.