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A National Dialogue on Race Can Be More Than Mere Talk

When President Clinton called on the nation to conduct a national dialogue on race, he challenged us to engage in conversations about our personal views, biases, and how we relate to people different from ourselves. While some have responded positively, others have disparaged the idea as mere talk, devoid of real action.

These critics fail to see that facilitated dialogues on human relations issues - as opposed to daily chats, one-time conversations, or debates - are action. Well-structured town halls and conversations on intergroup relations are important. They are a taking-off point for cross-cultural dialogue.

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But they are not dialogue. True dialogue requires a commitment. Through it, people who hold differing views learn about and come to appreciate the life experiences of others.

America needs dialogue. Most of us live and socialize in isolated communities, notwithstanding statistics indicating that our broader environments are increasingly diverse. It's no surprise that people often view themselves and those who are different through a homogenous lens, perpetuating stereotypes and bias. Structured dialogue can open that lens to reveal our hidden assumptions and suspicions about others. By sitting down and talking this talk, we become able to walk the walk of collaborators and community problem-solvers.

Cross-cultural dialogue is not a new concept, nor is it some obscure scientific endeavor too difficult for the ordinary person. It starts with trained facilitators and people whose group identifications and life experiences differ. The facilitator keeps the exchange focused and helps participants get to the issues.

Most dialogues engage people who are not the same. Sometimes there are differences of faith or color. Sometimes differences of economic strata, gender, sexual orientation, or age. Diverse dialogue is best, however, when we convene people who hold divergent perspectives and opposing political and social ideologies. Only then can we avoid preaching to the choir.

Facilitators start by helping participants identify the challenges of creating a safe environment and choose guidelines to govern their honest interactions. These rules vary depending on the people present, but some regularly appear on the list.

Participants often stress the importance of listening actively - rather than engaging in whispered quips spoken in the ear of the person sitting next to them. Other rules often include honesty - to the extent one is able - and confidentiality. Each set of guidelines is unique but provides the groundwork for the discussions to follow.

From there, the process can vary, depending on the facilitator. Sharing personal experiences can lead to the recognition of bias, to an understanding of how it feels to experience bigoted acts, or to hear racist or sexist statements. Often, participants start with themselves, learning to recognize their unspoken assumptions about others. This can start an exploration of racism and power in America as a whole.

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Such conversations are powerful. They can lead to a changed way of looking at other people and a new openness to working with them. We know this from the young people who attended our residential "Anytown" program in prejudice reduction in Alabama, and subsequently reunited to help rebuild a burned church. And from an African-American professional living in a mostly white community who decided not to move after participating in local dialogues. Instead, she became a community leader and chairwoman of an effort called "Honest Conversations."

The power of dialogue is evident in its continuing impact. In Cincinnati, we conduct "living room dialogues" with government officials, corporate executives, and academics, among others. Often, they take what they've learned with them: One executive returned to his business and implemented dialogue opportunities for employees.

In the end, the success of dialogue is difficult to measure. Statistics don't tell us about improved life experiences, the extent to which prejudiced responses are curbed and human relations enriched. Nor do we have reliable measures for the problems that do not arise because there is a person present who has learned through dialogue how to confront prejudice constructively and create alternative solutions. Yet these results are tangible to those who experience them.

It's time to accept the challenge of improving our intergroup relations by committing, person by person, community by community, to engaging in a human relations dialogue. If we do, we will create change. This is serious work. If we do it well, we will lay the foundation on which to build an America that embraces all of us, not just some of us.

* Sanford Cloud Jr. is president and CEO of The National Conference in New York. The organization works to fight bias, bigotry, and racism in the US.

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