Theresa F. Latini: Practice Nonviolent Communication to identify, confront and transform aspects of racism

Composite Illustration / BigStock / lolloj

Differentiating our observations from evaluations can help us recognize the fallibility of our own interpretive powers and acknowledge the racism in our own hearts and minds, writes the associate dean of diversity and cultural competency at Western Theological Seminary.

Editor’s note: This is Latini’s second essay about Nonviolent Communication and conflict.

In 1943, a young Marshall Rosenberg hid in his apartment for days while race riots -- fueled by job discrimination, housing segregation, police brutality and the KKK -- erupted throughout Detroit.

Two decades later, in the midst of the civil rights movement, Rosenberg left his clinical psychology practice to teach organizations, communities and individual families -- particularly those torn asunder by religious, racial-ethnic and class divides -- how to connect with one another at the level of their common humanity.

Influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Rosenberg developed Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which can be understood as a spiritual practice, a set of communication skills and a model for transforming conflict. In recent decades, the Center for Nonviolent Communication has grown into an international peacemaking organization with certified trainers and practitioners throughout the world. Among its many applications, NVC provides practical pathways for identifying, confronting and transforming aspects of racism.

The insidiousness of racial microaggressions

Racism functions in part through biases, assumptions and stereotypes embedded in people and systems. Biases are our preferences for particular people or groups over against others; assumptions, our assertions accepted without evidence; and stereotypes, our widely held, oversimplified, static assessments of others.

These biases, assumptions and stereotypes often operate at the unconscious level. They are expressed through racial microaggressions -- “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group,” writes Columbia University professor of psychology Derald Wing Sue. Microaggressions communicate to people of color that they are inferior, that they do not belong, or worse yet, that they are pathological. Sue and his colleagues have identified three broad classes of racial microaggressions -- microinsult, microassault and microinvalidation -- which they further classify into nine distinct categories:

  • assumption as alien in one’s own land
  • ascription of particular intelligence
  • assertion of color blindness (denial of color)
  • assumption of criminality/criminal status
  • denial of individual racism
  • myth of meritocracy
  • pathologizing of cultural values/communication styles
  • status as second-class citizen
  • environmental microaggressions

Microaggressions are insidious because they are subtle, easily hidden and ubiquitous. In racist contexts, people of color are inundated by microaggressions. This is akin to death by a thousand little cuts.

CHART: Examples of Microaggressions

I first became aware of the power of microaggressions in my 20s while caring for my friend’s daughters, two black girls who were 10 and 12 at the time. I was like an older sister to them.

I remember how stunned (and then angered) I felt when I took them shopping. I was accustomed to cheerful employees making eye contact with me, speaking pleasantly and offering assistance. When I had the girls with me, however, that warmth and respect turned to coolness and suspicion -- the product of a powerful microaggression, an assumption of criminality on the basis of their race.

Microaggressions, like this one, negate God’s good creation. Negation is the power of nothingness. Its trajectory is annihilation, a reversal of God’s ex nihilo, the creation of life out of nothingness. More simply put, microaggressions convey death. Research confirms this dynamic. The cumulative effects of microaggressions include anxiety, depression, self-doubt, hypervigilance, high blood pressure, fatigue and decreased productivity.

Denying microaggressions exacerbates their damage and keeps racist systems intact. When confronted about committing a microaggression, those of us who identify as white may be tempted to defend ourselves by appealing to our good intentions.

“That’s not at all what I meant,” we might say. “I didn’t say that because you are black.” “I’m not a racist.” The problem with such responses is twofold.

First, we compound the alienation, fragmentation and trauma experienced by people of color. Instead of caring for their marginalization and unjust suffering, we focus on our own guilt and shame. Neglecting to acknowledge the reality of their oppression, we fail to live in love.

Second, such statements deny the fact that we all have racial bias, that we have been socialized in racist systems, and that we participate in and benefit from them (regardless of our intent or conscious desire). This is like saying, “I have not sinned, because I didn’t mean to turn away from God or harm my neighbor.”

Identifying and transforming microaggressions

The basic NVC skill of differentiating observations from evaluations can help us identify and transform microaggressions.

In NVC, observations are statements about what we are seeing, hearing, tasting or touching at a given moment. In contrast, evaluations are interpretations or judgments (negative or positive) of that which we are identifying with our senses. Too often, we not only fail to distinguish between observations and evaluations, but we also conflate the two, assuming that we are observing when in fact we are judging. Microaggressions embody this conflation.

A committee on preparation for ministry in a predominantly white mainline denomination met to discuss a number of students under its care. The committee consisted of eight church leaders representing different congregations. During one meeting, three of these leaders commented that the African-American and Latino students had higher levels of debt than the white students, that these students should receive special stewardship education, and that their church scholarships ought to be limited if they failed to develop adequate financial sustainability plans.

Three other committee members challenged these assumptions. In the lengthy debate that ensued, a black pastor (the only person of color on the committee) suggested that racial biases were influencing the deliberations. After the meeting, a white pastor commented angrily to a group of his peers: “She has no right accusing me of being racist. Who does she think she is? She needs to calm down or be removed from the committee.”

From the perspective of NVC, the white pastor’s statements were evaluations rather than observations -- and, in context, microaggressions. They were spoken in a predominantly white, Midwestern ecclesial community that values reserved, measured speech and prides itself on “niceness.” The white pastor pathologized the black pastor’s different style of communication, suggesting that she ought to conform (or be forced to submit) to the dominant pattern.

Practicing NVC would have enabled the white pastor to translate his evaluations into observations (even before he spoke them) by clearly communicating what specifically the black pastor had said that disturbed him.

“She has no right accusing me of being racist” would have become a simple restatement of her challenge: “She said that she thought racism was embedded in our discussion.” “Who does she think she is” would not have been spoken at all. And “She needs to calm down or be removed from the committee” would have become an acknowledgment of his own inner experience: “I feel uncomfortable when people raise their voices and I need greater understanding of them in those moments.”

This changed speech, accompanied by a changed heart and mind, could have opened up the possibility for dialogue, collaboration and justice in the committee’s work. It is the kind of change that is possible when we commit to learning NVC -- reading self-study resources, joining local practice groups, enrolling in intensive workshops.

Overcoming white silence with NVC honesty

When we practice NVC over time, our ears become attuned to evaluations, including microaggressions. Our consciousness shifts as we recognize the fallibility of our interpretive powers, acknowledge the racism in our own hearts and minds, and work to transform it.

Of course, dismantling racism in ourselves is one thing; doing so in systems is another. At the very least, the latter necessitates an overcoming of white silence.

Ignoring microaggressions is consent to racism. Racial bias distorts systemic policies and practices as long as those who benefit from them (at the expense of others) remain silent.

Not long ago, I found myself participating in an environmental microaggression, specifically, a pattern of overlooking, or rendering invisible, one of my colleagues of color. In a series of meetings, a supervisor turned solely to me for reports on the organization’s diversity initiatives, even though both my black colleague and I had official roles and responsibilities for carrying out this work.

When called upon, I simply answered as thoroughly as possible -- until one day, while doing so, I looked across the table and saw my colleague’s crestfallen face. In that moment, I realized that the system was ignoring him, failing to treat him with equal respect. The system sought out my voice, not his. And I benefited from it (regardless of my intentions).

The skill set of NVC honesty enabled me to overcome white silence, first by communicating my remorse to him directly, and second by confronting this systemic microaggression compassionately, without dehumanizing my supervisor or wallowing in my own guilt and shame.

In speaking to my colleague, I named this pattern and my participation in it. I expressed my sorrow, acknowledged his profoundly unmet need for respect, and shared my desire that he would be valued, seen and heard by others.

In a separate conversation with my supervisor, I named the core human needs, such as justice and inclusion, being undermined by this pattern, and I requested that future reports be solicited from both my colleague and myself -- and that he be invited to speak first.

Nonviolent Communication is forthright, assertive and, when necessary, doggedly persistent. When we overcome racial microaggressions with NVC, we join God in saying no to negation and yes to peace-seeking life in God’s good creation.