Approaching Critical Conversations

We recognize that many people will, at some point during upcoming breaks, be visiting family of some sort. While family can be an important source of comfort, social justice is a topic that can be very tense, particularly if our family has not examined their privileges. We 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 future conversations you undertake.

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 the discomfort we as allies might feel, while valid, is not comparable to the experiences of marginalized communities. The privilege you have in your identity (and the relationships you have) 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.1 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.2,3 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).4,5,6 Recognizing these defenses is a key step in preparing for social justice conversations, so that you know what to look out for.

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