Follow, Learn, and Donate:
“When They See Us” by Ava DuVernay
Intro: This is words that move me, the podcast where movers and shakers, like you get the information and inspiration. You need to navigate your creative career with clarity and confidence. I am your host master mover, Dana Wilson. And if you’re someone that loves to learn, laugh and is looking to rewrite the starving artist story, then sit tight. But don’t stop moving because you’re in the right place.
Dana: Hello? Hello everybody. Okay. How are you feeling out there today? I am feeling okay. And that is okay today. My win is that I have been learning from some really uncomfortable conversations lately, and I am proud of that. This episode is all about how to navigate those uncomfortable conversations that you may be having as well. But before we dig into that, I do want to give you a chance to tell me about your wins. I think it is very important to celebrate them, especially the small ones,
Go for it. What’s going well in your world. Congratulations. And I am so glad that you are winning. All right, in this episode, I’m going to be dishing out my lesson plan for how to have difficult or rather uncomfortable conversations. I’m getting a lot of opportunities to practice this lesson plan right now. And you probably are too, by the way, right now is the first week of June in 2020, a couple of facts about today or this week, I suppose, is that the global death toll from COVID-19 is over 374,000. Few more numbers for you. Over 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the beginning of the pandemic. The real jobless rate in America is 23.9% today. Also on May 25th, George Floyd was murdered by policemen on camera. Since then people have been protesting. Some have been burning buildings, some burn cop cars, many are taking to social media in response. Now there is a lot of opportunity to practice having uncomfortable conversations. So let’s get better at it. Before I get any further. I’d like to say that conversations are great. This is an excellent starting point, but if you are inspired to learn more and if you are able to take action, please do so. If you don’t know how please see the show notes of this episode for links to resources and ways that you can help make a change. Some of my favorites include the NAACP ACLU Campaign Zero Color of Change The Equal Justice Initiative and Fair Fight , but there are many, many more. Please see the show notes for this episode or visit theDanawilson.com/podcast And look for episode 23. All right, let’s dig in now to this uncomfortable topic.
I was appalled when I watched the video of George Floyd being murdered. I felt that way because I got caught in a cycle of very confused thoughts. I don’t understand how this could happen. How could this possibly be happening? How could somebody do that? I don’t understand. I don’t know what to say. That’s a sample of some of the thoughts going through my mind, my mind at that time and that, you know, confusion spiral resulted in inaction. The more I thought, the confused thoughts, the more I didn’t act. That’s the funny thing about confusion. It is self perpetuating. It leads to more and more of itself, more confusion, which leads to more inaction. And without action, there is no change. You see where this is going. You stay confused. Now. I was confused for days. I’ll be very honest as the unrest escalated. So did my confusion. And that’s where I was when I got a text from a dear friend, Ava Bernstein, Mitchell, Ava is a world class dancer. She is also a journalist and a choreographer. She’s better known as Ava Flav to many, but she is best known to me as my better half from the first world tour I ever danced on. People called us Ebony and Ivory. We called us Ebony and Ivory. Today I don’t think that we would, but back in 2007, we were absolutely inseparable. Have you ever had a friend that, um, you’re so close with? You’re so tight with that. Hugging is actually uncomfortable because you so rarely say hello or goodbye. There’s rarely a cause for you to, to be a part or to part. So you don’t actually have the embrace that is so commonly associated with Hellos and goodbyes. That was, that was us. It was uncomfortable for us to hug because we were almost always together. Anyways, the years have brought some distance. Although anything relative to being on tour together is distance. But I am always excited to see her name pop up on my phone and we’re still quite close. That day she texted me a little flashback tour memory and I LOLed to myself. And then I quipped back and I quote, “these days are pretty tough, but I’m glad those days are behind us.” She replied “just a little levity in these times, [smiley face.]” And then my heart sink. I had downplayed our current circumstances without thinking of how she and I are experiencing those circumstances very, very differently. My heart hit the pit of my stomach, and I immediately asked her if we could talk on the phone, we set a call. And as that time approached, I actually got lost driving to my curbside produce pickup. That I go to once a week, every single week, same location I got lost because I was thinking of all the things I wanted to say and ask and apologize for. I physically got lost because I was mentally swimming in confused thoughts. I was swimming in that confusion pool with all my confused thoughts. Good news is I didn’t stay lost for very long. Thanks hugely to our conversation. Ava helped me manage my mind that day. This is true. And then she helped me to make this episode and I am so, so grateful for that. We talked about what we were seeing on Instagram, what people were saying. We talked about what I learned from reading the book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo. And we talked about the importance of talking. If you listen, you will walk away from this episode with an idea of how to navigate difficult conversations.
All right. Part one, define difficult, define uncomfortable. What makes a conversation difficult? What makes anything difficult? Is your thoughts about it? Because difficulty is relative. For example, fifth position was very, very difficult to my three year old self. Another dance example, 32 fouettés would be very difficult for me today, but probably not very difficult for Misty Copeland or my friend Tiler Peck running a six minute mile would be very difficult for me. I don’t even think I could run a 10 minute mile today, I think a 10 minute mile would legit be for me right now. But I know there are people that can run six minute miles that have trained themselves away from that being a difficult thing. How about dating in a way? I know a lot of people that say that’s very difficult. I date my husband all the time. We live in Los Angeles.I think that’s pretty okay. Now how about this one? Having a conversation about race. Difficult, right? Especially right now, right? Wrong. Having a conversation about race is very easy for the author of white fragility, Robin de Angelo. She literally wrote the book on it. It’s also her job to have those conversations. She does it all the time. So let’s switch a roo here. Let’s not use the word difficult. Let’s use the word uncomfortable. A conversation about race is not difficult. It is uncomfortable. Now uncomfortable, just like with difficulty, comfort and discomfort are still subjective, right? Everyone has their own sliding scale of what is comfortable and what is uncomfortable. Now I want to talk about the range on that sliding scale, right after comfortable and just before distressed or fearful for your life. Now, if I were to ask you to put discomfort on the spectrum of human emotion, right? Negative or positive, it’s probably one of those things that would land on the negative side, but it’s also one of those things that if you work through, there’s a pot of gold on the other side. In fact, I am hard pressed to name you an accomplishment that I am proud of that did not come about through a period of discomfort or on the other side of a period of discomfort. Take, for example, learning how to walk, right? I’m super proud. Every day. That was definitely uncomfortable. Little rug burns on my little baby knee caps. A lot of crying, a lot of falling. How about learning how to read? I remember trying to make out sounds trying to spell out the word, THE, shout out dumb and dumber T to hae to her that was uncomfortable. Learning anything, especially dancing on pointe super uncomfortable. How about relationships, that awkward get to know you phase or the super awkward breakup phase, uncomfortable. Starting a business, uncomfortable. Getting into anything you don’t know a lot about can be uncomfortable. Now here’s the thing. If we stopped doing all those things, the moment that we got uncomfortable, we would all be adults crawling on the floor, not having babies, not having businesses, which is kind of an interesting version of a very dystopian future. That there is not a movie about yet. I call dibs. Anyways to me, not learning to address racism and other difficult subjects because it makes you uncomfortable is kind of like not learning how to walk because you fall a lot in the process.
Okay. So how do we do it? How do we have uncomfortable conversations? Not just about race, but about anything asking for a raise, parenting, tough patches in romantic relationships or friendships. All of the things. Here we go. I’m going to talk you through my five best practices for having uncomfortable conversations.
Step one, take a look at the thoughts that make you uncomfortable. A few examples of thoughts that would make a conversation uncomfortable are ‘nothing’s going to change’. ‘I don’t know what to say or do ‘’I’m afraid I’ll mess up or make it worse.’ ‘I don’t respect the person I’m talking to.’ ‘I don’t agree with the person I’m talking to.’ Right? All of those are examples of thoughts that would make a conversation uncomfortable. Okay.
So now that I’ve identified the thoughts that might be making me uncomfortable, I challenge those thoughts. That is step two. My favorite way of challenging. My thoughts is by asking “how’s that working out for you” or simply asking how does thinking that thought line up with your values? For example, if I’m a person that wants to create things and repair things is thinking ‘nothing’s going to change’ helpful to me. No. If I’m a person that wants to be knowledgeable is thinking, ‘I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. I don’t understand. Is that helpful?’ No. We already talked about confusion. That is a cycle that ends in inaction. If I’m a person that values inaction, I’m going to want to choose something other than confusion. Now, if I’m a person that values equality is thinking, ‘I don’t respect that person’ in alignment with my values. No, if I’m a person that values understanding does checking out with thoughts. Like ‘I don’t agree.’ Stop the listening and stop the understanding? Yes, it does. It stops the listening. It stops the understanding.
So now that I’ve identified the thoughts and challenged them here comes the good stuff I trade in confusion for curiosity, I get informed. I trade in the thought I don’t understand with I’m willing to understand. I trade in. I don’t know with I’m learning and all of a sudden that confusion cycle that lends itself very well to inaction has opened me up to taking actions that will make me more informed.
The next step of that, of course is being responsible. I replace, ‘I don’t know what to say’ with, I am responsible for what I say. And I’d also like to remind you you’re responsible for what you do. And that brings us to step four, choose compassion, for yourself and for others, choose compassion for yourself because you will mess up. You will fall, you will fail and you will likely offend someone no matter how hard you try not to, no matter how hard you try to do the right thing, it will probably be the wrong thing to someone. And if you want to be able to get back up and dust it off and really, truly make a best effort at change, you’ll need to try again and compassion will get you up faster and move you further than guilt, shame or the desire to please. So get compassionate with yourself because this is about the long game. Now it’s also important of course, to choose compassion for others, your fellows, right? Your friends, people that are on your side, and this one actually comes quite naturally. But when you’re in the confusion spiral, it can be really easy to miss. Try trading, “How do I show that I care with, Hey, my friend, I’m thinking about you. I care about you. I am here for you. I will be here for you.” That is a great place to start. All right. That brings us to the not so easy kind of compassion, compassion for the other side, I would like to offer you this. You can love people you disagree with, and you can disagree with people that you love. Take your family. For example, also, you don’t need to love someone to be compassionate or curious about their point of view. I like to trade in the thought ‘I don’t like this person’ for, ‘I am capable of loving and all people are lovable. They are able to be loved.’ That brings us to the most important step.
Step five, simply listen, compassion and curiosity, both lend very well to listening. Listening is probably the most important part of having a useful, uncomfortable conversation. And it is almost certainly the most underestimated part of using your voice to me. The most important step of using your voice is listening to other voices. Let’s talk really quickly about listening. Listening does not mean that you agree. Listening doesn’t weaken your position. Listening does not strip you of your power. If anything, listening could give you an understanding that also gives you power. Listening could give you an understanding that helps strengthen your position. All right? So those are my five steps. Identify the thoughts that are making you feel uncomfortable, inspect and challenge those thoughts. Choose curiosity, choose compassion and listen.
Now I want to share a couple real life scenarios, real life conversations, real life, real uncomfortable conversations that I’ve had recently, because I think it will be helpful now without talking for hours and hours to give you all of the context there’s room for you to put yourself in the shoes of either side of these conversations. And yes, there is also room for you to judge me and that’s okay. I’m going to start with a conversation that I recently had with one of my mentors. Just a few days ago, I wrote a note to my mentor, an African American man that I admire and respect tremendously. The note included among many things, an apology for not using my voice to interrupt racial injustices in our dance community and in our society at large, he called me immediately and the heated uncomfortable conversation ensued. He started by saying, “why are you doing that?” I said ‘what?’ He said, “why are you apologizing to me? Dammit. I don’t want your apology. I am tired of all these apologies.” I thought, Oh God, I thought it was supposed to apologize. He’s going to hate me forever. I don’t know what to say. The only thing I want to say is I’m sorry. And we already covered that. He really doesn’t want me to say, I’m sorry. Loud and clear. I get it. Okay. Those were my thoughts. Then I challenged my thoughts. I thought to myself. Okay. Who said you had to apologize? Someone on social media. Could they have been wrong? Yes, absolutely. Do you like your reason for apologizing? Yes. Okay. Moving on. How about this one? He’s going to hate me forever. Well, he’s taking time to have a conversation with me now. Does he hate me now? I don’t think he hates me now. Okay. Let’s focus on now. Shift the focus to now, but even outside of now, would I be okay if he hated me? Yes, I would be okay. I would be sad. I would be hurt, but I would be okay. How about, how about my thought? I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say. There’s no time to ask Google. How about, do you need to say anything? No. He’s talking. SHHH. Listen. Then I asked questions. I got curious. I asked him to tell me everything you wanted to say. He talked about protests that I wasn’t even alive for. He talked about the values that he raises his kids with. He talked about things that his grandmother saw in her lifetime. He talked about why he’s annoyed. And I listened. Then I chose compassion for myself and I dusted myself off. After a pretty shaky start. I cared for myself and the person that I want to become. And I stuck with that discomfort. Then I cared about him. I thanked him, but mostly I listened to him and our conversation ended passionately and compassionately with me listening and with him being heard.
Here’s another example. This one’s a conversation that I had with a peer. Now, a tiny bit of backstory. I started reading the book, white fragility, why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. That’s the full title. I read that book back in April of 2019, because I had taken a job as part of the choreography team for the feature film adaptation of, In the Heights. That’s Lin, Manuel Miranda is Broadway hit. In case you don’t know anything about in the Heights, strongly encourage you do a little digging there. I’ll give you a little tiny brief summary, no spoilers. The story takes place in Washington Heights, a Latino community in New York city. And it follows a very tight knit group of characters over the course of three days. Now, if you zoom in, you get a lot of beautiful story, but if you zoom out, the story is really about human flow. What makes us leave one place to go to another? And what makes us stay? If you zoom way, way out. It’s about dreams. One little dream in particular, but the big, big dreams of so many in this country. Now I was hesitant to take the position. I had insecurities about being a white person, taking on a creative role in telling the stories of Latino and Latina people. But I also knew that this story and its audience is global. The people watching and the people learning from it and the people loving it will not be exclusively any one race. And I had big plans to learn about a culture other than my own. I thought I will use my role to share and inspire more stories, not claim authorship of them. I thought I will make copies and share all the keys to all the Gates I’ve ever entered. I won’t guard them. And I liked my reasons for saying yes and I love my In the Heights family that so warmly welcomed me. So back to where I left off, I started reading the book, white fragility in search of new information and thoughts and awareness. And honestly, in search of the words that might help me have the uncomfortable conversations that I was sure would take place during that five month production. At the time, me simply carrying the book, brought on some of those uncomfortable conversations, conversations that started like this. ‘Isn’t the title itself racist?’ ‘Do you think you need to read that book to understand racism?’, people would ask, or ‘If you believe race exists, if you see in black and white, then that’s part of the problem.’ I try to explain what I was learning. The difference between being a racist or a person who discriminates based on skin color and the systemic racism that’s so deeply woven into our society in very complex and very nuanced ways. I tried to explain, my conversations about the book were often met with defensive arguments and proclamations like ‘I don’t see race as a problem because I don’t see color.’ Or ‘I grew up in the hood’ or ‘I was the minority where I grew up.’ ‘All I see as equals I’m not prejudiced.’ I had so many uncomfortable conversations like this, but one stood out among the rest. And I want to tell you about it.
I overheard somebody talking about me one day. This is what I heard them telling the other party, this white B word rhymes with itch thinks that she can learn it from a book. I listened long enough to be sure that the white B word rhymes with itch in question was me. I heard my name. I heard my accent being mocked. I listened as I was made out to be a clueless white person. My skin got hot. I started to sweat. I thought I might cry. These were some of my thoughts. No, no, no, no, no. They’ve got it all wrong. I’m not a white B word rhymes with itch. I’m not clueless. I know it’s pollo, not polo. I felt tremendously misrepresented. And that was a feeling I don’t feel often. So then I challenged my thought, am I the only person feeling misrepresented right now? No, definitely not. So then I got curious and I got compassionate. This person probably feels misrepresented every single day. I’m standing here sweating and angry and about to cry for maybe the first time in my life, in this exact way. And he might feel this way every single day. What can I learn from this? What can I learn from him? I said, when I spoke to him after a moment to cool down and process, I said, “it’s okay. If you don’t like me, it’s okay. If you think I’m a white, B word, rhymes with itch, we don’t need to be friends, but we do need to work together on this project. And on this problem, I want to understand why you feel that way. I want to be a part of this conversation instead of listening to the conversation happen about me.” And then it was off a perfectly uncomfortable conversation that resulted in more compassion and more understanding than either of us had at the beginning of it.
I’ve learned a lot from having uncomfortable conversations and I will continue to have them. And I plan to continue being uncomfortable. And I continue to continue to bring the fruits of those uncomfortable conversations here to share with you. I hope that this conversation with myself, this monologue in front of a microphone has helped to give you tools and an understanding and a desire to navigate uncomfortable conversations of your own. I hope that some of these tools and all of these conversations get you further from confusion and closer to change. And I hope because I must hope and I learned because I must learn and I change because we must change. So please see the show notes to this episode for links to several incredible resources about how you can get informed and how you can make change. Thank you so much for listening. Now. Go be a good listener to somebody else. And of course, keep it funky
Thought you were done? No. Now I’m here to remind you that all of the important people, places and things mentioned in this episode can be found on my website. TheDanaWilson.com/podcast Finally, and most importantly, now you have a way to become a words that move me member. So kickball changeover to patreon.com/WTMMpodcast to learn more and join. All right, everybody. Now I’m really done. Thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk to you soon.