Friday, November 13, 2020
Some time ago, one of my students reached out to me about strategies for improving race relations at our law school. After some discussion, we arrived at the idea of starting an informal brown-bag lunch group that would discourse on race. The student invited 10 students, taking care that the group would be diverse as to race. He explained that the goals of the group would be to:
(1) Gain some new appreciation of racial diversity;
(2) Gain some new understanding of people with a different racial identity;
(3) Learn about ways of using diversity to the advantage of your legal practice/business/personal life/community;
(4) Change negative assumptions about race to positive assumptions; and
(5) Motivate every participant to leave his/her comfort zone and take some positive step towards change and reconciliation.
We developed a simple exercise for the first meeting. We put together a questionnaire (in Microsoft Word) and emailed it to all the participants in advance of the meeting. We asked them to complete the questionnaire in the word document (so no identifying handwriting), print it out, and bring it to the lunch. We explained that the questionnaires were to be anonymous, and we asked students to take care not to leave any names or other identifying information on their printed answers. When the students arrived for lunch, we asked them to drop them in a box at the entrance. Once everyone had arrived, we (a) shuffled up the papers in the box, (b) pulled them out, (c) picked one question, (d) read ALL the answers back to back, and then (e) discussed.
We thought we would get through all or most of the questions at the first lunch. We ended up only getting through two! The discussion was so rich, honest, and enlightening. I left feeling like I had just experienced something very special—like the scales had fallen from my eyes. The anonymity offered an opportunity for every participant to really let loose! They had no fear of offending others, or of being judged. It was a free space—and there was real, authentic discourse—not debate or argument. We ended up meeting every other week for the rest of the year. We never did finished all the questions on the questionnaire, but we sure grew closer and gained a better understanding of one another.
Here are some sample questions we included on the questionnaire:
- Use one word to describe the current state of race relations in the U.S. today.
- Use one word to describe the current state of race relations here at the law school/at this firm/at this company.
- What is most likely to frustrate/anger you when conversation turns to race?
- How do you explain race?
- What does “diversity” mean to you?
- What does “inclusion” mean to you?
- List one positive impact someone of another race has had in your life.
- List one misconception you think people of other races have about members of your race.
- When are you most uncomfortable talking about race? (With family? With friends? Among members of another race? With strangers?)
- How could those around you make it easier to talk about race?
- What generalizations/stereotypes about your race upset you most?
- Are there any generalizations/stereotypes about your own race that you think have validity?
- What is a question you have always wanted to ask someone of another race, but would be afraid or embarrassed to ask?
- What is your most optimistic vision for race relations in the future?
The exercise developed out of a lunch group, but it can be employed in the classroom as well. It can also be an effective instrument for improving race relations in law firms and businesses.