How to Speak Up Boldly to Racism

Bullhorn clipart via    Pixabay.

Bullhorn clipart via Pixabay.

The latest episode of the Dialogue Lab Podcast is out! Listen here, or keep reading for 3 powerful takeaways you can apply to your work for social impact. 

Lee Mun Wah has been talking real about race in America for 30 years. He’s the founder of Stirfry Seminars, and the director of the documentary, “The Color of Fear.”

And when he began leading his workshops in corporate America, he started doing something pretty radical at the time: he put down the Powerpoint slides, and got people actually talking about race.

(All that was enough to get Oprah’s attention, who did an hour-long special on his work.) 

But if you don't have time to listen to the full interview -- not to worry! Here are three takeaways to help you show up even bolder in your work for social impact.

TAKEAWAY 1: Speak up, even when you don’t know exactly what to say. 

Mun Wah spoke poignantly about this: 

“Sometimes you don’t know the words until you start getting mad. And if you think too long, you’ll never say something. But it’ll come to you. No matter what you say, it’ll come out right because you care.”

So often we don’t speak up because we don’t know what to say. Someone says something in a meeting that just feels… off. Or we watch as a colleague is subtly ignored and dismissed. Or we find ourselves feeling small and alone, as WE are subtly ignored and dismissed.

We wrestle with ourselves in silence because the situation feels weirdly ambiguous. Or because we are afraid of making a mountain out of a molehill, or creating more trouble. We stay silent because the situation feels fraught, and we don’t think we have the skills to navigate it.

I’ve been there. And what I’ve found again and again is that the process of speaking up begins at the beginning. Not when I know every point I need to make, in neat and logical order. Instead, it starts when I feel that I must speak.

And often I start by naming that feeling. It might sound like this:

+ “I’m feeling uncomfortable with something, but I’m not sure yet what feels off.”

+ “I don’t feel ready to make this decision.”

+ “I’m feeling concerned because it seems like people might not be hearing what Sarah is trying to say.”

+ “I’m feeling annoyed because this I’ve been trying to speak and I keep getting interrupted.”

And then, as Mun Wah says, the rest “will come to you.”

TAKEAWAY 2: Treat Speaking Up as a practice.

Speaking up is like a muscle that can be worked and strengthened. In the interview, Mun Wah talks about an exercise he sometimes takes audiences through, where they practice finding the words to address an instance of racism. And the reason he does this is because once you discover that you actually DO have the words, you start to trust yourself a bit more. And you get bolder.

And that trust accumulates over time. If you never say what’s on your mind, you never get to build this trust in yourself. So you stay silent in self-doubt.

When you do practice using your voice, you start to find out a few things.

For one, you find out that it is possible to make mistakes, and not have the world end. It’s possible to say I’m sorry for saying it wrong, and then you learn what it means to make it right.

And two, you also start to find out that while it’s not easy, it’s often fairly simple. And it so often starts by just saying, “something is going on here that doesn’t feel right.”

TAKEAWAY 3: Speaking up is solidarity. Silence is lonely.   

Mun Wah said, “My greatest fear isn’t so much that I won’t stand up. My greatest sadness in this country is to be alone when I do that. To feel alone.” When we practice speaking up against an injustice, that is an act of solidarity. The alternative is often to leave people alone with their own oppression.

So that's just some of what I'm sitting with after this conversation. I'd love to hear what you think of these takeaways -- and if you have a chance to listen -- I'd love to hear your response to the interview too. There’s a new episode every other Tuesday! Subscribe in iTunesStitcher, or Google Play, or your favorite podcatcher.

P.S. I was recently invited to be interviewed about my work to build dialogue for social impact. Here's a link to that.