How have you responded to critical conversations in the past?

We recognize that many people will, at some point during the upcoming break, be visiting family of some sort. While family can be an important source of comfort (particularly during the pandemic), we know that social justice is a conversation with loved ones that can be very tense, particularly if our family has not taken the time to examine their privileges. For the last set of Ally Tips of the semester, we want to encourage you to reflect on how you’ve approached these conversations, what we know about how/why they happen, and ways that you can prepare for any potential conversations you might encounter. Allyship (’s 2021 word of the year ) is a practice that needs to happen in all parts of our lives, requiring the intentionality to show up and educate our peers/communities with privileged identities about sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other systems of oppression that shape our world.

Reflect: How have you responded to critical conversations in the past?

How do you normally respond to conversations that become tense? What about when you’re talking about social justice and equity? We call these equity-focused conversations “critical conversations” (rather than “difficult conversations”) because we must remember that the discomfort we as allies might feel, while valid, is not comparable to the experiences of marginalized communities. The combined privilege that you have from the identity/identities you hold (and the existing relationships you have with your immediate circle) position you as one of the most important influences for encouraging others to become allies. You may be the first person talking to a loved one about a particular issue or may be the first to talk to them from “the other side” so intentionality can go a long way in at least opening them up to other understandings of the world. If we avoid these conversations because of anticipated discomfort, we are putting our own comfort ahead of those to whom we say we are allies. It is our duty to lean on the privileges and trust we have in our communities to challenge others with privilege by engaging in these meaningful, critical conversations.

Learn: Why do critical conversations about social justice become tense?

A fundamental aspect of any conversation about social justice is a recognition of systems of oppression and privilege, including how you benefit from your position within those intersecting systems. Being faced with the reality of social hierarchy and marginalization can create immense cognitive dissonance for those who have not previously unpacked their privilege, including making them feel as though their position in life was not earned (Knowles et al., 2014). When people with privileged identities are faced with the cognitive dissonance associated with uncovering their position(s) of privilege, it is not uncommon for them to engage in behaviors like denial, deflection, rationalization of privilege, intellectualization of privilege, defense based on one’s “principles,” false envy, benevolence about privilege, and minimization of the reality of privilege (Watt, 2007; Watt et al., 2021). How these defenses are deployed can also be examples of how people (sub)consciously use their privilege to protect themselves from scrutiny (e.g., white women who weaponize their tears for sympathy while being called out for racism; Accapadi, 2007; Armstrong, 2021; Phipps, 2021). Recognizing these defenses is a key step in preparing for social justice conversations, so that you know what to look out for when you are trying to help others understand inequity and privilege in our society.

Change: Preparing for critical social justice conversations

  • Consider what’s holding you back from having these conversations: There are numerous reasons, besides the potential for a negative response from the other person, that prevent allies from even considering whether to broach a social justice topic with their friends and families. Before attempting to have a conversation about inequity, ask yourself how knowledgeable you feel about the topic, how strong your relationship is with the other person, and how you might address conflict should it arise. This guide from the Southern Poverty Law Project provides wonderful self-assessment tools to identify what might be holding you back from having critical conversations and can be translated to a variety of spheres of your personal and professional life. Being upfront with yourself about your comfort with topics of diversity, equity, and social justice will better prepare you to actually engage in critical conversations and should be a regular practice of self-reflection that reveals areas for growth on your own allyship journey.
  • Use the ABCs of critical conversations: Much like how educators are intentional in how they structure their course content, we can all become more intentional about how we approach others in conversations about privilege, inequity, and social justice. The ABC model of Crucial Conversations – Agree, Build, Compare – can provide guidance on how to more effectively have these conversations by promoting empathic listening. AGREE points to identifying commonalities between your position and that of the other person, making them feel that they have been heard (even if you don’t agree with them); these often relate to core values, such as “equality,” that you both may hold. BUILD translates to building on this commonality by pointing out missing pieces of information. For example, perhaps the other person is missing key understandings about the experience of a marginalized community and you introduce these experiences into the conversation as additional layers to the issue. COMPARE emphasizes taking a non-accusatorial look at how your positions differ (including as a result of upbringing) and encouraging empathetic perspective-taking; if, for example, you both hold the value of equality, you might talk with the other person about how their view of equality differs from your own, particularly in light of the perspectives you shared during the Build stage. Consider how you might incorporate the ABCs when addressing the 8 defenses of privileged identity we mentioned earlier (Watt, 2007; this handout has helpful tips!).
  • Not every conversation will end with complete agreement: If you expect every critical conversation to turn out with the other person completely on your side, you will often come up feeling like you accomplished nothing. Just like it was for you, allyship is a journey of building awareness around issues and unpacking your previous way of thinking about the world. While you should never placate someone’s attempts to erase privilege, research has shown that critical conversations are most effective when the discomfort one feels turns into internal reflection and when the conversation is accompanied by support to make sense of dissonance (Taylor & Baker, 2019). If you have a critical conversation about social justice with someone, check in or follow up with them some time later. Share resources (particularly those from the voices of those most affected by these issues) to learn more about that issue, ask them what they’ve been thinking about that issue, invite them to share their reflections. Consistently supporting the allyship journey of those around you will be a more effective pathway to change.