As Seeds of Peace facilitators, Greg Barker and Eliza O’Neil are well-versed in the art of navigating conflict. In this installment of #DialogueIRL, we take a question from a student wondering whether two of her teachers were right to react to the rest of the faculty’s casual racism by losing their temper.
Q: Last year, two teachers at my school who are both black women made a huge impact on our mostly white faculty by losing their temper after months of microaggressions. They went on an angry, teary, unrestrained rant during a meeting, and I think the white faculty members needed to experience that in order to realize the impact of their actions. But was this the right way for them to react?
Greg: In our last Dialogue IRL, we answered the question of whether it’s ever appropriate to “pop off” on someone in the way that it sounds like these teachers did. But what that question didn’t include was any context—and this is one example where popping off seems like an appropriate response. These teachers were being harmed and were defending themselves.
Any time there’s an educational moment like this, where one party is learning something at another’s expense, it’s worth asking who gets to learn and who is being harmed. In this case, white people are learning and black women are being harmed. We police and punish people of color for expressing anger, particularly women of color, so this was a huge risk on their part to call out the rest of the faculty over the way they were being treated.
It’s also important to point out that something should have been done beforehand. The onus of that was on the rest of the faculty, particularly those who are unaffected; in this case, likely white faculty. The responsibility is on everyone, but not evenly.
When we see people being harmed in our community, it’s our responsibility to name it, to ask the offenders to change their behavior, and to check in on the people being harmed to see how we can care for them and show up for them.
Eliza: All that is especially true if we’re in a position of power. In a situation like this, there’s privilege in being able to be silent. It’s likely that members of this majority-white faculty had noticed these microaggressions and chose not to speak out about them. They didn’t have to engage it; they had the luxury of being able to be silent and go about their lives, which these black women couldn’t because it is their lives.
One thing I’ll add is that if you’re being put into a place when you can only react by shouting, as these women did, don’t be ashamed. The person who asked this question noted that the two teacher’s reactions really resonated with the rest of the faculty, and that these other teachers needed to hear it. The “angry, teary, unrestrained rant” conveyed to the rest of the faculty how meaningful this was for them, and how important it was to address the underlying issues at their school.
I’d also say that, if there is catharsis in the honest and real reaction for that person, in addition to helping those experiences and stories be heard by others, then that’s great. However, this becomes a problem when white people can only learn about microaggressions through the telling of those stories—something that becomes extremely taxing for the story-tellers and can have real, material consequences. As Greg said, it begins with collective responsibility in a workplace (or any community) to notice and call out those incidents.
While a lot of the facilitation techniques we teach can help prevent conflicts from building up this way, it’s worth noting that there’s absolutely a place in the dialogue process for reactions like the one these two women had. At Camp, sometimes conflict comes out in ways that are explosive and messy, in ways that make it hard to be in the space. But the conflict was always there, so it’s important that it came out—and much better than for it to continue being avoided.
Have a question for our facilitators? Send it to dialogueIRL@seedsofpeace.org.