Fostering a Deeper Dialogue About Race and Identity

Excerpt from “Nobody Wants to Talk About It: Race, Identity and the Difficulties in Forging Meaningful Conversations” by Michael Sidney Fosberg.

What makes me an expert to hold forth opinion and proffer dialogue on sensitive topics such as race, identity, and the difficulties in forging meaningful conversations? What makes anyone an expert? I don’t profess to know all there is to know, hold all the answers to the questions I’m asking, or portray myself as some kind of biracial spokesperson. I am a guy who grew up thinking he was White and who discovered later in life that I am much more than I seem. Over and over, I have witnessed my story resonating with many people in a way that is universal and allows them to open up to discuss matters of identity in a safe and personal way. I have a great passion for what I do and feel blessed to be able to conduct such probing conversations through the use of theater arts. As a biracial individual I—along with many others—have a unique opportunity to be a bridge. I can help folks forge a bridge, a connection across race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other perceived differences. During all this talk of building walls, we—biracial people—can build bridges.

The topic of race and identity is not mathematics or science. There isn’t a formula that adds up each time to the same conclusion. It’s not a + b = c, or what have you. Race and identity are emotional issues, and although there are many who have vast resources of education and knowledge, these issues don’t have an exact method. Like most things emotional, there are individual differences dictated by one’s experience in life. Each of us approaches the issues from our own unique perspective. Therefore, I believe there are no experts in this field, simply people who continue to do the deep work day in and day out. Some may have a little more knowledge and a little less experience. Some may have a little less knowledge and a little more experience. All are committed to the work of trying to build bridges, creating environments that are more diverse and inclusive.

The conversation about race and identity in mixed company is fraught with problems and a general sense of uncomfortableness. White people approach the conversation from a place of caution. Some more than others are hesitant to say anything that might make them sound racist at worst, or at least insensitive. They also have rarely had conversations about race growing up since race is not something most White people have to deal with on a daily basis. Many people of color are ready to pounce on anyone or anything that sounds remotely racist. They feel anger and resentment, having tried for years to forge this conversation only to be rebuffed (“now’s not the time”), belittled (“we talk about it too much”), and disrespected (“slavery happened a long time ago, get over it!”). As a result we are polarized and rarely talk about the issues in mixed company. And although race is the major strain of this book, identity in general is something many people grapple with in negative ways. Gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, religion, and nationality all can be factors in the way people accept or reject us. Talking about these traits can incite avoidance, silence, and even inappropriate or offensive responses.

After literally hundreds of presentations and in-depth dialogues, including many awkward conversations, I assembled a set of tools or takeaways, if you will, which I believe will be useful in navigating these uncomfortable conversations:

1. Tell your story. Open up and listen. By sharing our personal stories, we discover commonalities.

2. Don’t judge the differences. Flip the script; instead of allowing the differences to create a wall between us, start by finding a mutual interest, then embrace the differences. (After all, if we were all the same, we’d be bored!) It’s the differences that make us stand out as people, and it’s the differences that make us unique in the marketplace.

3. Recognize that there isn’t any one way to have a conversation about identity and race. We all have different experiences and, therefore, bring different points of view to the table—this is actually the strength of our collective spirit, our diversity.

4. We can disagree, so long as we’re not disagreeable. Take responsibility for the language we use—freedom of speech carries responsibilities.

5. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

6. Understand that there are realities outside your own experience. Just because we may not have experienced racism, sexism, homophobia, age discrimination, disability indifference, or other forms of discriminatory treatment doesn’t mean those are not realities for other people. Listen with empathy.

7. Practice forgiveness. It has been described as the hardest work you will ever do but the most rewarding.

Thus, my goal with this book is to share stories from across a wide range of venues and clients, while offering the tools I learned from these experiences, which we can all use in our efforts to become more united, find common ground, and talk across barriers that currently separate us. Each chapter is titled after a tool and includes the stories with which I discovered that particular takeaway. These are by no means an exhaustive list of things we can do or use to have a more productive and civil conversation about race and identity. These are merely starting points. There are many dedicated people out there trying to forge difficult conversations using myriad methods and tools. My hope is that these tools, this book, will add to the arsenal of valuable methods in use today.

Excerpt from “Nobody Wants to Talk About It: Race, Identity and the Difficulties in Forging Meaningful Conversations” by Michael Sidney Fosberg.

Chicago native Michael Sidney Fosberg is founder and president of Incognito, Inc.

He has spoken at nearly a thousand high schools, colleges, government agencies, corporations, law firms and not-for-profits since 2005, utilizing his award-winning autobiographical story, told in the form of a one-man play as an entry point for meaningful dialogues on race and identity. He has collaborated with a number of professional diversity practitioners on programs to foster deeper dialogue in corporate settings and at educational institutions. His work with groups such as The Boeing Company, United Way Worldwide, Holland & Hart LLP, PNC Financial Services, Proctor & Gamble, The U.S. Dept. of the Treasury, and The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency is reshaping the way organizations talk about race, identity, and diversity. His latest book, “Nobody Wants to Talk About It: Race, Identity and the Difficulties in Forging Meaningful Conversations, relates his experiences presenting in institutions across America. For more information, visit: www.incognitotheplay.com and michael@incognitotheplay.com

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