Excerpted From: Kristen Blankley and Ashley M. Votruba, Discussing Race in Rural and Other Non-diverse Communities, 38 Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution 371 (2023) (210 Footnotes) (Full Document)


BlankleyVoturba.jpegIn America, issues of race are ever-present, yet rarely discussed. The "color blind" movement, prominent between the 1950s through the 1990s, attempted to teach that individuals should be viewed as if they have no race. As a result of this messaging, many people--particularly white people--claim they "don't see color" when they interact with others. The "color blind" movement, however, has backfired and is argued to have caused more harm than good over the long run.

One of the drawbacks of the color blind movement is that it becomes an excuse to not talk about race. As the argument goes, if people "do not see color," then they cannot discriminate, so discussions about race are unnecessary. Perhaps more extreme, some who believe in this perspective find discussions of race to be an element of division, rather than a road to healing. Ultimately, this perspective can lead to the denial of racial inequalities and discourse that has racism-legitimizing outcomes.

Because issues of race have never gone away, but were simply swept under a rug since the Civil Rights Movement, they could have been predicted to resurface. And resurface they did. The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the mid-2010s and the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 led to greater support for a variety of social justice issues surrounding the issue of race. Relevant to this Article, the murder of George Floyd has led to a greater willingness to have productive conversations and education on issues involving race and equity. Yet significant resistance still exists. Robin DeAngelo summarized this phenomenon as "white fragility"--or the difficulty of white people to examine their own lives as a product of systematic advantage and a general unwillingness to even discuss the topic.

When these conversations about race take place, they can manifest in a variety of forms. In some places, conversations about race are part of a sponsored program by federal, state, or local governments to encourage understanding, healing, or better community relations. In other instances, these conversations are part of a broader governmental initiative around reform in areas such as policing, social safety net (i.e., welfare) programs, and educational curricula, to name a few. In other instances, these conversations occur within workplaces, schools, and places of worship. These conversations may be structured as book clubs, listening sessions, roundtable discussions, working groups, advisory groups, and any number of other formats. In this Article, we provide examples and suggestions that can be implemented across all of these situations and conversation formats. In our discussion, we focus on discussions about race that occur in rural and other non-diverse communities.

Prior to proceeding, we, the Authors, would like to disclose our own backgrounds and perspectives in writing on this topic. We are white women who currently reside in the Midwest who work full-time in academia. Although we have lived in cities with greater diversity, we draw on our personal experiences living and working in Nebraska, a state with the following racial composition: 79% white; 5% Black; 11% Hispanic; 2.6% Asian; 1% American Indian; 2.3% of one or more races. We have experience leading dialogues within the public sphere, including dialogues about race and police reform. We have facilitation experience working with state and local governments, as well as universities. One of the Authors has experience teaching and leading conversations among students about racism, prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping. Perhaps most relevant, one of the Authors facilitated small-group discussions within a university to discuss issues of race with groups of professors and with mixed groups of professors and students.

This Article takes an interdisciplinary approach to the issue of discussing race in primarily white and otherwise non-diverse populations. It draws on research from the substantive disciplines of psychology and antiracism and combine them with the literature and practice of facilitation, dispute system design (DSD), and mediation. This Article focuses on discussing race in large groups; it does not cover the equally difficult issues of discussing race in mediated cases, such as discrimination cases, or in restorative justice conversations.

This Article proceeds as follows. Section II considers why it is important to discuss race in rural and non-diverse communities. Section III provides information on common hurdles that might exist in a facilitated discussion about race when the majority (or even vast majority) of the participants are white. In identifying these hurdles, we particularly draw from anti-racism literature. Section IV begins a discussion on designing a process to optimize success, focusing not only on facilitation and DSD literature, but also on social and cognitive psychology. Sections V and VI provide advice on dealing with difficult participants and difficult situations, respectively. Again, these sections draw from the ADR literatures and psychology. This Article aims to outline obstacles to good discussions on race, as well as methods and means to overcome them.

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The Authors hope in this Article to have provided a blend of theory and practice for facilitators working in the challenging arena of facilitations about race. While these considerations have applications to any large group conversation about race (or any large group conversation at all), the hope is to have addressed concerns that are more prevalent in rural and other predominantly white areas. Drawing not only from ADR literature but also anti-racism literature and social science research, this Article seeks to add to an important conversation in a newly emerging interdisciplinary context.

The Authors applaud all of the facilitators currently doing this work in the public and private spheres, and we look forward to the continued development of norms and best practices for difficult conversations on race.

Kristen Blankley , Henry M. Grether, Jr. Professor of Law, University of Nebraska.

Ashley M. Votruba, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Law-Psychology Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.