07/26/2010 01:05 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why We Mess up Managing Race Issues

No further proof is needed that race remains a prickly topic for discussion and that race issues are monstrous to resolve than the evidence put forth by the circus of events that has occurred surrounding USDA employee, Shirley Sherrod's speech at a NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet . There are plenty of opinions about how it could have been handled better by the USDA, the NAACP, the Obama administration and the media, but what is really worth analyzing is why we continually mess up when it comes to managing matters when race is the core issue.

Here are 10 reasons why I believe we make a big mess when it comes to handling race issues:

  1. Our President is Black. This makes us all nervous -- white folks and people of color. We expect Obama to be the race redeemer and lead us to the promised land of a post-racial society.
  2. Bad journalism. It is not the 24/7 news media stream that drives misleading, faulty, subjective information, but rather poor journalism. I have only taken one journalism course way back when I was an undergraduate English major, but I do recall terms like accuracy, attribution, allegedly, rigor, correcting errors and objectivity as part of the lexicon of journalism principles.
  3. We are intellectually lazy. Thoughts and behaviors that were once adaptive in the civil rights era (when we regularly grappled with these issues) are now maladaptive in our increasing multicultural, multiracial, global society. It takes work to build trust and understand differences.
  4. We don't like feeling guilty or bad about ourselves. Managing race relations is a dynamic process. In our global society, there are new forms of racism and ways of discriminating that even with the best of intentions and a breadth of diverse experiences, we still sometimes make mistakes about race. Most people are culturally sensitive -- meaning they respect human differences. However, most people are not culturally competent -- meaning they lack the necessary skills to navigate successfully situations that are racially charged. We don't like making mistakes. It causes us to feel guilty and lowers our self esteem.
  5. Mistakes about race are often not forgiven and rarely forgotten. In my course of facilitating diversity training over the past 28 years I have heard numerous stories detailing remarks someone made or said decades ago. With otherwise rational adults, individuals have been branded racist and given life sentences for memories that date back to elementary school days.
  6. We only have comedians as role models for honest conversations about race. In comedy clubs across the globe, comics of all races make jokes about racial groups. We relate to the truth of their statements AND we laugh. We don't know how to have meaningful conversations about the hard truths of race outside of this context without getting defensive and hiring attorneys.
  7. The U.S. is culturally loaded as White European. Our worldview is often quite provincial and we have historically used the white experience as the standard for evaluating the human experience. What is normal is white. This is a limitation in a global society and renders us like a deer before headlights when it comes to dealing with the complexity of race.
  8. We listen for rebuttal and not understanding. Debate is not a useful communication structure for relationship building.
  9. We are hard wired not to manage differences well. This is how it works. Our brain is wired to manage our emotions in such a way that if we are afraid of something we literally shut down and go into the fight or flight response. We get a visual signal that goes into the thalamus where it is translated into brain language and then it moves on to the visual cortex to be analyzed and interpreted. If the message is interpreted to be emotional then it finds a home in the amygdala -- the emotional center of the brain. What happens when we get a visual signal that ignites fear is that we have an amygdala hijack. The signal bypasses the cortex and goes directly to the amygdala. We are then dealing with emotions and into the fight or flight response. When we experience racial clashes and we lack diversity skills to manage the issue, we have the amygdala hijack.
  10. Many of us (especially those in the 40 and above age range) do not have good friends that cross racial lines. I am not talking about acquaintances or co-workers of a different race that we know, but friends that have actually been to our home for social occasions and who drop by just to visit; friends that we go on vacation with and that we would call at 3 a.m. in the morning if we had a problem or needed support. These kind of friendships across racial lines are the gatekeepers for managing contemporary race relations. In these kinds of friendships, we gain cultural discernment skills that tear down stereotypes and replace them with a collective sense of worth. When we have friends that cross racial lines we can understand the complexity and nuances of racial tensions in America.

Pointing out problems without offering solutions is never productive. So, here are ten simple choices we can make to more effectively manage race issues:

  1. Learn the value of a variety of opinions and thoughts. Experience "the other side of the dollar bill."
  2. Recognize the challenges and learning opportunities that new perspectives bring. Where there is discomfort, there is learning, if we stay with the discomfort long enough.
  3. Base your expectations of others on individual qualities and traits rather than racial group identity.
  4. Seek out ways to personally and professionally develop diversity competencies. Take a class, watch a video, read a book or blog about racial issues.
  5. Encourage and accept openness in others. Do not assume.
  6. When you make a mistake that involves race -- get over it! Become emotionally resilient. Learn from it and move on.
  7. Spend time with a variety of people -- don't avoid situations or events in which you might be the "only one" or one of a few individuals who shares your racial identity.
  8. Make other people feel valued. It will increase your own sense of worth.
  9. Have a clear sense of yourself as a racial being. Understand how race has affected your life and influenced your thinking and behavior. Resist being an expert on what another race thinks or believes.
  10. Talk with and socialize with your friends of different races. Don't be afraid to ask the stupid questions. Don't be afraid to give the honest responses.