Having Uncomfortable Conversations

By Kristin Beck and Cristien Storm

Original post on North Atlantic Books Authors Blog August 17, 2018 Reposted here with revisions

Power matters.

Whether or not we have it, can access it, how we use (or choose not to use) it, the impacts and collateral effects of power are of tremendous importance. Unfortunately, when someone has power, it is often invisible to them. Having power, or agent membership, as Dr. Leticia Nieto identifies in her book, Beyond Empowerment, Beyond Inclusion: A Developmental Strategy to Liberate Everyone, means you don’t have to recognize or acknowledge your positionality, your power or your privilege. You don’t have to wonder how your power and privilege manifest in the world-at-large. You can refuse to see it. Which also means you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. You have the privilege of opting out of uncomfortable or challenging conversations. Cis-gender folks don’t have to talk about gender (outside of normative, binary-gender socialization); upper- and middle-class people don’t have to deal directly with class privilege, or even recognize the existence of class hierarchies; able-bodied folks don’t have to concern themselves with the navigation of obstructive and at times inhospitable physical and emotional environments; men can choose to ignore the day-to-day reality of sexism and misogyny; and white people don’t have to talk about race and racism. We understand, of course, that many folx carry multiple identities and move between positionalities of power, privilege, oppression, and target membership (another nod to the important work of Dr. Letcia Nieto, please check it out!)

Challenging conversations require curiosity and vulnerability, and involve being able to tolerate uncomfortable emotions. So much is lost when we are closed to different perspectives, when we turn away from the fierce and vulnerable dialogues of friends, family, coworkers, comrades, community members, elected officials, bosses, therapists, faith leaders, and others in our lives. The inability, for example, of most white people to talk about racism and anti-blackness means that white people are less able to work in solidarity and deep coalition. It also means people of color must continue to shoulder the burden of identifying and interrupting racism and white supremacy, which is, at the core, not a BIPOC problem, but a white problem.

I (cristien) remember being at a domestic violence conference the first year that people of color decided to create a BIPOC caucus. A couple of white women felt excluded and refused to leave the conference room where BIPOC folks were meeting. They cried and said that anything that the BIPOC people wanted to talk about they could talk about in front of them. They expressed feeling hurt, threatened, left out, and angry that people of color wanted, for two hours, a space to meet and talk about things alone. Fortunately, there were other white women who intervened, directing concerns and conversations about discomfort and feeling left out to other white people who understood and supported the need for a BIPOC caucus at the conference (and the need for BIPOC only spaces more broadly as a coping strategy for surviving white supremacy). Had the few white women not stepped in, the caucus, and the important work the women of color were doing, would have been disrupted in order to deal with the feelings of two (out of over a hundred) conference participants. In other words, the discomfort of two white women and the inability to tolerate challenging conversations created additional emotional burdens for the people of color who were meeting, in part, because of the burdens placed on BIPOC living in white supremacist culture.

The reality is that in order to effectively identify oppression, begin the work of addressing the damage of white supremacy, and start working towards collective liberation, people need the skill and capacity to engage in uncomfortable conversations. Those who have the privilege and choice to be able to opt out need to develop the tools to choose to opt in. Again, and again, and again—because these challenging conversations are not one off talks, but ongoing explorations.

Being called out (or in) is never a comfortable experience, but it can be empowering. Being able to have hard conversations means deeply acknowledging that power, privilege, oppression, colonialism, and white supremacy all exist and impact all of us in every way imaginable. To be sure, we are impacted differently depending on our positionalities, but no one is unaffected.

As a parent of two white kids, I (Kristin) have had to walk a tightrope between affirming my children’s personhood, all that is beautiful about being them in this world, and the reality and responsibility of how they are situated as privileged people. For example, when my teenaged son got in trouble for shoplifting from the market near our house, he was deeply shaken, humiliated and contrite. He had been cuffed by the security guard on duty, taken to the office, and written up. It was a long 20 minutes for him as he waited for me to pick him up. He burst into tears the moment he stepped outside of the store. It was upsetting for him, an important lesson, but more than that, it was an opportunity to wonder aloud how the situation would have gone down if he hadn’t been white and privileged. “How do you think this would have turned out if you weren’t white?” He looked down, his eyes widened and he shook his head. “It would’ve been much worse for me.” Understanding privilege and speaking to it, especially in moments when there is an obvious corollary at play, is how we as parents can practice engaging in difficult conversations.

Developing conversational competencies across differences means interrupting the status quo, agitating for equity and justice, challenging microaggressions, “jokes” or “off-color” comments, and most importantly, it means listening to and believing those who are brave enough to share their experiences and stories.

Most people with privilege could become more skillful at having challenging conversations. This involves stepping into these kinds of discussions from an open, curious and vulnerable place. It means not getting defensive, not taking on the role of an expert or “privilegesplaining”, and not getting mired in defensiveness, guilt, and shame. This in turn involves having support so we can better understand when this is happening and tolerate reflections about it.

Chances are good that those of us with privilege haven’t had much experience in knowing how to be vulnerable and listen in this way, not only because it can be uncomfortable so we avoid it, but because there is always the privilege of opting out. In fact, we may not even be aware at first of how we actually have to work to step towards these kinds of conversations (and take responsibility to co-create the contexts and conditions in which they are possible). It is always possible to choose (and keep choosing) to develop the skills to opt into challenging conversations, to remain curious in the face of conflict and distress, and to move into vulnerability. This kind of commitment is not always easy, in fact at times it can be overwhelming, but it is deeply enriching, empowering, and ultimately a critical part of a life worth living for each and every one of us.


Kristin Beck is a white anti-racist psychotherapist specializing in teenagers and their families in Seattle.

Cristien Storm is a white anti-racist healer and co-founder of If You Don’t They Will