After a “surprising to some” election, breakdowns in political discourse, and an onslaught of fake news– well-intentioned institutions have begun investing a lot of resources into this concept of “Difficult Conversations.” As more and more people implement them (they are showing up in beer advertisements for goodness sake!), I’ve begun to wonder what exactly makes a ‘difficult conversation’ difficult. As an equity and diversity practitioner, that wonder has turned to concern as I come across more and more rhetoric that seems to suggest that all of our collective problems can be solved over a theoretical beer. It is why Obama’s ‘beer summit’ was ripped to shreds years ago. An issue like racial profiling in policing really can’t be unpacked over a beer. It is not as simple as two people with a difference of opinion discussing why chocolate ice cream is better than butter pecan. Further, there are often times when institutions and systems and experiences and statistics are attached to ideas that make them more than just opinions.
As institutions are tasked more heavily with ensuring that they produce global citizens and graduates who are critical thinkers, it is surprising to me that the focus on difficult conversations so often pits historically oppressed identities against ideologies in direct opposition to those identities. For example, as the Heineken commercial seems to imply: Man does not understand gender nonconformity and does not ‘agree with’ or affirm transgender identities. Woman is trans. You put them in a room together so he can talk to her and be assured that she is worthy of a modicum of respect? Is that really a difficult conversation? Alarming numbers of trans women are murdered year after year- not over money disputes or in accidental misfires- but because of their identities. Murdered for being trans. Fired for being trans. Thrown out of their home for being trans. Which begs the question, difficult conversations are difficult for whom? I wonder very much if absent cameras and a cute modular bar a similarly situated trans woman would have left that conversation alive. This is a very tangible experience for many trans folk and non-binary folk. If your version of difficult conversations comes at the safety or well being of some of our most vulnerable populations, then it’s not so much a difficult conversation as it is a harmful one.
Are we giving credence to bad ideas under the guise of difficult conversations? Who sets the parameters of them? When students are asked to complete research assignments they should be interrogating different points of view and becoming better informed about a subject with quality resources. How are students asked to ‘show up’ to difficult conversations? Truly difficult conversations force people to interrogate and test their ideas in ways that don’t make other people’s identities negotiable. As an advocate for women who experience sexual and relationship violence, who also recognizes the failures of the criminal justice system, my most difficult conversation right now is interrogating my beliefs about incarceration. I believe wholeheartedly that the criminal justice system is damaged and absolutely targets Black and Brown bodies. I also believe that incarceration as it exists is not rehabilitative. However, when I hear the story of Ashanti Hunter, 32, shot to death last week in Houston as she tried to get her children and run away from her boyfriend– I know fully that I want that man confined. That justice as I understand it is to lock him under the jail. And I do not care what happened to him as a child or that he is a Black body because of the harm he caused to Ashanti and her children. What do we make of that? I also ‘hope’ that officers like the one who shot and murdered Jordan Edwards are prosecuted and convicted. When they aren’t I am upset that they theoretically haven’t ‘faced justice’ but also that they are not in jail. I also know a conviction in either case won’t bring back the very real and human folks we lost as a result of this senseless violence. So why does the idea of incarceration defined as justice seem so appealing to me? How do I imagine a world that abolishes it’s system of mass incarceration but also want confinement for a very specific group of people?
A difficult conversation for me would be how to consider prison abolition as a victim of violent crime. As a victim of a crime committed by a juvenile- who also knows kids at that age don’t have fully formed brains- who ALSO knows that black male teenagers murdered by police or vigilantes are very much boys- I also wanted the juvenile perpetrator in my personal experience tried as an adult. I was happy to see him imprisoned. These things make total sense but they also present some very real conflicts. In this conflict however, I never doubt that juveniles who commit crimes are human beings deserving of love and compassion and due process. I don’t enter this discussion and get to say: “I don’t agree with criminals” and then tap out. I don’t get to go to confined people and force them to explain to me why the system sucks. I DO have to grapple with the fact that what I have been taught is justice and how I am learning to re-imagine justice may be in conflict with each other and in conflict with what I actually believe.
A difficult conversation cannot be: I believe you should not exist, convince me to treat you as if you should. A difficult conversation might be interrogating the belief in states’ rights and localized government that also advocates for the revocation of those rights through legislation that bars municipalities from creating their own nondiscrimination ordinances. A difficult conversation is not: I’m tired of Black and Brown kids protesting all the time. A difficult conversation might be: what makes my peers do things like tie nooses around bananas or A difficult conversation might be debating the merits of a career police officer being taught to racially profile (and being told that it is legal) to now being told to unlearn all of that in a 1 hour implicit bias training session. A difficult conversation is not saying police are blameless in all encounters due to the nature of their work. A difficult conversation might be asking academicians to reconcile their responses to regulations of free speech to their responses (or lack thereof) to students’ lived experiences. A difficult conversation may be asking administrators why they affirm free speech protections in the aftermath of racist, sexist or other hateful rhetoric, but also ostracize, push out, or otherwise punish students or staff members who critique the institution vociferously? Why do we say that diversity is valuable and then silence students who hold us accountable to what we said we prioritize? A difficult conversation is an institution having to grapple with the idea that they say diversity is fundamentally good, and that they want to create a space that values every human being— and also that they vigorously defend behaviors in direct contradiction to those principles in the name of service to all students. Both instances may indeed be true– but we are going to have to do more modeling of how to have truly difficult conversations that present legal, moral and ethical challenges. We can not expect students to engage in behavior they have never seen. These are difficult conversations that encourage courageous inquiry and critical thinking. They tend to start from a baseline of research and analysis that too often we dismiss in order to allow people to enter spaces with long held beliefs masqueraded as basis of evidence… especially when it comes to someone’s identity and fundamental right to exist. Difficult conversations can’t be a code word for forcing people who have experienced harm to chit chat with people who have caused it. We should expect better of our students and ourselves.
I implore anyone beginning to have these conversations to do more than sit opposing parties in a room expecting resolution. We must commit to modeling behaviors we want to see. We owe it to ourselves and to our most vulnerable students.