The Importance of Disruption

If you are like me, you probably have been to at least a few different anti-racism training workshops. And, if you are like me, you probably have had mixed reactions to them. 

Well, on Monday afternoon, here at Wartburg Seminary, I was fortunate enough to have participated in one of the very best I have ever attended, and I wanted to share a little bit about it here. It was led by the Rev. CeCee Mills, who is an Assistant to the Bishop in the North Carolina Synod of the ELCA. I have heard anecdotally from a handful of people who attended, and all of the feedback has been amazing, which was my experience as well. So, I just thought I would share what made it so good, from my perspective. 

First, I really appreciated how she called us into the space. [After having read The Art of the Gathering, I pay so much more attention to this now!] Her introduction was fabulous and she invited us to be fully present, bringing our attention to our bodies and helping us both relax and focus. She gave us permission to leave if needed, to interrupt with questions–basically to just be comfortable in the space, and comfortable with her.  As she went through her presentation, I found Rev. Mills to have a warm, relaxed presence, and a nice sense of humor that never felt forced, but kept us engaged and lifted the mood.

She started by talking about brain science and the way that our brains are hardwired to fill in information, to fill in the blanks. This is helpful, because it makes us adaptive and speeds our learning, and it help keep us safe. But of course, it also causes problems, because any time we fill in information that isn’t there, we are filling it in using our own biases. More about bias in a sec.

For that reason, she emphasized that often we just need to slow down our brain to make sure we aren’t filling in incorrect information. Therefore, her presentation was all about disruption: stopping ourselves in the midst of our processing, and asking, “What do I not know?”

For me, as I was thinking about this, it made me realize that when we are trying to invite people [others and ourselves!] into new ways of thinking, it’s not so much about changing people’s minds, but changing the ways they make up their own minds: inviting them into a different process.

She also spent a bit of time talking about the fact that most of what what we have been taught [about everything, including people] has to do with money. I hadn’t really thought about that before, but more than I have been reflecting on it the more I realize what a significant point it is. When we live in a society where capitalism is our ultimate god, the kind of training that happens at a very young age is meant to fuel consumerism: cultivating ideas that wealth and education are signs of superiority, for example.  [Rev. Mills actually gave a lighthearted but telling example of why tomato is classified as a vegetable; it has to do with trade protections and therefore taxes. You’ll have to Google it if you want to learn more.]

The heart of her presentation, at least in my view, was really about implicit bias. She explained that implicit bias is neither positive or negative–it just is, but it can have positive or negative outcomes.  And, pointedly, some of these negative outcomes are: an “us/them” mentality [immigrants are taking our jobs]; the fabrication of “ill-perceived dangers” [Black men are dangerous]; and the short-changing of possibilities for learning and growth about something/someone that is different or new.

In the final part of her presentation, she gave us some concrete strategies for disrupting our own thinking, and/or disrupting a conversation where someone else is displaying implicit bias with negative consequences–making a sexist or racist remark, for example.  She talked about the importance of inquiry: asking the speaker to tell you more, and asking more questions. She also mentioned “reframing”: trying to restate what is being said in such a way as to make more obvious the negative ramifications of the statement. She emphasized listening, of course, and having the courage to be both wrong and vulnerable–neither of which come easily to most of us. She also reminded us that shaming does not work, and that “right is relative”–there are many more than two sides to any argument, and we learn and grow when we keep ourselves open to different views and different ways of thinking.

Finally, I really appreciated how she connected this anti-racism work to her own deep faith, emphasizing that for her, her faith in Jesus Christ and her commitment to social justice go together: there is no separation, and they both are all-encompassing.

Overall, I came away enthusiastic and optimistic, even though I was also emotionally tired—really engaging these issues is intense and effortful.

She was fabulous, and I would highly recommend her if you are thinking about an anti-racism workshop in your own context. I’m grateful for the time she was with us, and I will continue to think about the wisdom she shared.

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